19th Century Actor Autobiographies
By George Iles, Editor
Public Domain Books
[Mr. William Winter’s “Life and Art of Edwin Booth” is indispensable to a student of the American stage. Here are two paragraphs chosen from many as illuminating:
“The salient attributes of Booth’s art were imagination, insight, grace, intense emotion, and melancholy refinement. In Hamlet, Richelieu, Othello, Iago, Lear, Bertuccio, and Lucius Brutus they were conspicuously manifest. But the controlling attribute,–that which imparted individual character, colour and fascination to his acting,–was the thoughtful introspective habit of a stately mind, abstracted from passion and suffused with mournful dreaminess of temperament. The moment that charm began to work, his victory was complete. It was that which made him the true image of Shakespeare’s thought, in the glittering halls of Elsinore, on its midnight battlements, and in its lonely, wind-beaten place of graves.
“Under the discipline of sorrow, and through years that bring the philosophic mind, Booth drifted further and further away from things dark and terrible, whether in the possibilities of human life or in the world of imagination. That is the direction of true growth. In all characters that evoked his essential spirit–in characters which rested on spiritualised intellect, or on sensibility to fragile loveliness, the joy that is unattainable, the glory that fades, and the beauty that perishes–he was peerless. Hamlet, Richelieu, Faust, Manfred, Jacques, Esmond, Sydney Carton, and Sir Edward Mortimer are all, in different ways, suggestive of the personality that Booth was fitted to illustrate. It is the loftiest type that human nature affords, because it is the embodied supremacy of the soul, and because therein it denotes the only possible escape from the cares and vanities of a transitory world.”
The letters which follow are from “Edwin Booth: Recollections by his daughter, Edwina Booth Grossman, and Letters to Her and to His Friends.” Copyright, 1894, Century Company, New York.–ED.]
TO HIS DAUGHTER
NEW YORK, November 15, 1871.
MY OWN DEAR DAUGHTER:
I arrived here last night, and found your pretty gift awaiting me. Your letter pleased me very, very much in every respect, and your little souvenir gave me far more delight than if it were of real gold. When you are older you will understand how precious little things, seemingly of no value in themselves, can be loved and prized above all price when they convey the love and thoughtfulness of a good heart. This little token of your desire to please me, my darling, is therefore very dear to me, and I will cherish it as long as I live. If God grants me so many years, I will show it you when you are a woman, and then you will appreciate my preference for so little a thing, made by you, to anything money might have bought. God bless you, my darling! ...
God bless you again and again! Your loving father.
TO HIS DAUGHTER
CHICAGO, March 2, 1873.
MY DEAR BIG DAUGHTER:
Your last letter was very jolly, and made me almost happy. Pip (the dog) is yelping to write to you, and so is your little brother, St. Valentine, the bird; but I greatly fear they will have to wait another week, for, you know, I have to hold the pen for them, and I have written so many letters, and to-day my hand is tired.
Don’t you think it jollier to receive silly letters sometimes than to get a repetition of sermons on good behaviour? It is because I desire to encourage in you a vein of pleasantry, which is most desirable in one’s correspondence, as well as in conversation, that I put aside the stern old father, and play papa now and then.
When I was learning to act tragedy, I had frequently to perform comic parts, in order to acquire a certain ease of manner that my serious parts might not appear too stilted; so you must endeavour in your letters, in your conversation, and your general deportment, to be easy and natural, graceful and dignified. But remember that dignity does not consist of over-becoming pride and haughtiness; self-respect, politeness and gentleness in all things and to all persons will give you sufficient dignity. Well, I declare, I’ve dropped into a sermon, after all, haven’t I? I’m afraid I’11 have to let Pip and the bird have a chance, or else I’11 go on preaching till the end of my letter. You must tell me what you are reading now, and how you progress in your studies, and how good you are trying to be. Of that I have no fear. I doubt if I shall get to Philadelphia in June; so do not expect me until school breaks up and then–"hey for Cos Cob” and the fish-poles! When I was last there the snow was high above our knees; but still I liked it better than the city ....
Love and kisses from your grim old father.
TO HIS DAUGHTER
April 23, 1876.
MY DARLING DAUGHTER,
... When I was at Eton (I don’t refer now to the dinner-table) my Greek and Latin were of such a superior quality that had it not been for an unforeseen accident I would have carried off all the honours. The accident lay in this: I never went to school there except in dreams. How often, ah! how often have I imagined the delights of a collegiate education! What a world of never-ending interest lies open to the master of languages!
The best translations cannot convey to us the strength and exquisite delicacy of thought in its native garb, and he to whom such books are shut flounders about in outer darkness. I have suffered so much from the lack of that which my father could easily have given me in youth, and which he himself possessed, that I am all the more anxious you shall escape my punishment in that respect; that you may not, like me, dream of those advantages which others enjoy through any lack of opportunity or neglect of mine. Therefore, learn to love your Latin, your French, and your English grammar; standing firmly and securely on them, you have a solid foothold in the field of literature....
Think how interesting it will be hereafter to refer to your journal, and see the rapid development, not only of your mind, but of your moral growth; only do not fail to record all your shortcomings; they will not stand as reproaches, but as mere snags in the tortuous river of your life, to be avoided in succeeding trips farther down the stream. They beset us all along the route, from the cradle to the grave, and if we can only see them we can avoid many rough bumps.
God bless my darling!
TO HIS DAUGHTER
CHICAGO, October 9, 1886
... I am glad to know that baby has begun to crawl; don’t put her on her feet too soon; consider her legs a la bow.... I closed my first week here with two enormous houses. A hard week’s work has greatly tired me.... Jefferson called and left with me the manuscript of his reminiscences, which he has been writing. So far as he has written it, it is intensely interesting and amusing, and well written in a free and chatty style; it will be the best autobiography of any actor yet published if he continues it in its present form. I sent you some book notices from Lawrence Hutton’s clippings for me.... In the article I send to-day you will see that I am gently touched up on the point of the “old school"; my reference was not to the old style of acting, but the old stock theatre as a school–where a beginner had the advantage of a great variety of experience in farces, as well as tragedies and comedies, and a frequent change of programme. There is no “school” now; there is a more natural style of acting, perhaps, but the novice can learn nothing from long runs of a single play ...
TO HIS DAUGHTER
NEW YORK, January 5, 1888,
... As for God’s reward for what I have done, I can hardly appreciate it; it is more like punishment for misdeeds (of which I’ve done many) than grace for good ones (if I’ve done any). Homelessness is the actor’s fate; physical incapacity to attain what is most required and desired by such a spirit as I am a slave to. If there be rewards, I am certainly well paid, but hard schooling in life’s thankless lessons has made we somewhat of a philosopher, and I’ve learned to take the buffets and rewards of fortune with equal thanks, and in suffering all to suffer–I won’t say nothing, but comparatively little. Dick Stoddard wrote a poem called “The King’s Bell,” which fits my case exactly (you may have read it) . He dedicated it to Lorimer Graham, who never knew an unhappy day in his brief life, instead of to me, who never knew a really happy one. You mustn’t suppose from this that I’m ill in mind or body: on the contrary, I am well enough in both; nor am I a pessimist. I merely wanted you to know that the sugar of my life is bitter-sweet; perhaps not more so than every man’s whose experience has been above and below the surface.... Business has continued large, and increases a little every night; the play will run two weeks longer. Sunday, at four o’clock, I start for Baltimore, arriving there at ten o’clock....
To-morrow, a meeting of actors, managers, and artists at breakfast, to discuss and organise, if possible, a theatrical club like the Garrick of London....
TO HIS DAUGHTER
DETROIT, April 04, 1890.
... Yes; it is indeed most gratifying to feel that age has not rendered my work stale and tiresome, as is usually the case with actors (especially tragedians) at my time. Your dear mother’s fear was that I would culminate too early, as I seemed then to be advancing so rapidly. Somehow I can’t rid myself of the belief that both she and my father helped me. But as for the compensation? Nothing of fame or fortune can compensate for the spiritual suffering that one possessing such qualities has to endure. To pass life in a sort of dream, where “nothing is but what is not"–a loneliness in the very midst of a constant crowd, as it were–is not a desirable condition of existence, especially when the body also has to share the “penalty of greatness,” as it is termed. Bosh! I’d sooner be an obscure farmer, a hayseed from Wayback, or a cabinetmaker, as my father advised, than the most distinguished man on earth. But Nature cast me for the part she found me best fitted for, and I have had to play it, and must play it till the curtain falls. But you must not think me sad about it. No; I am used to it, and am contented.
I continue well, and act with a vigour which sometimes surprises myself, and all the company notice it, and comment upon it. I’m glad the babes had a jolly birthday. Bless ’em! Love for all.
TO HIS DAUGHTER
THE PLAYERS, NEW YORK, March 22, 1891.
I’m in no mood for letter-writing to-day. The shock (of Mr. Lawrence Barrett’s death) so sudden and so distressing, and the gloomy, depressing weather, entirely unfit me for the least exertion–even to think. Hosts of friends, all eager to assist poor Mrs. Barrett, seem helpless in confusion, and all the details of the sad business seem to be huddled on her ...
General Sherman’s son, “Father Tom,” as he is affectionately called by all the family and the friends of the dear old General, will attend. He was summoned from Europe recently to his father’s deathbed, and he happens to be in time to perform services for his father’s friend, poor Lawrence. After the services to-morrow, the remains and a few friends will go direct to Cohasset for the burial–Tuesday–where Barrett had only two weeks ago placed his mother, removed from her New York grave to a family lot which he had recently purchased at Cohasset. He had also enlarged his house there, where he intended to pass his old age in privacy. Doctor Smith was correct in his assertion that the glandular disease was incurable, and the surgical operation would prolong life only a year or so; the severe cold produced pneumonia; which Barrett’s physicians say might have been overcome but for the glandular disease still in the blood. Mrs. Barrett knew from the first operation that he had at most a year or so to live, and yet by the doctor’s advice kept it secret, and did everything to cheer and humour him. She’s a remarkable woman. She has been expecting to be suddenly called to him for more than a year past, yet the blow came with terrible force. Milly, Mr. Barrett’s youngest daughter, and her husband, came last night.... When I saw Lawrence on Thursday he was in a burning fever and asked me to keep away for fear his breath might affect me, and it pained him to talk. He pulled through three acts of “De Mauprat” the night before, and sent for his wife that night. His death was very peaceful, with no sign of pain. A couple of weeks ago he and I were to meet General Sherman at dinner: death came instead. To-night Barrett had invited about twenty distinguished men to meet me at Delmonico’s, and again the grim guest attends....
My room is like an office of some state official; letters, telegrams, and callers come every moment, some on business, many in sympathy. Three hours have elapsed since I finished the last sentence, and I expect a call from Bromley before I retire. A world of business matters have been disturbed by this sudden break of contracts with actors and managers, and everything pertaining to next season, as well as much concerning the balance of the present one, must be rearranged or cancelled. I, of course, am free; but for the sake of the company I shall fulfil my time, to pay their salaries, this week here; and next week in Brooklyn, as they were engaged by Barrett for my engagement. After which they will be out of employment for the balance of the season...
TO MISS EMMA F. CARY
SAINT VALENTINE’S DAY, 1864.
MY DEAR FRIEND:
A little lull in the whirl of excitement in which my brain has nearly lost its balance affords me an opportunity to write to you. It would be difficult to explain the many little annoyances I have been subjected to in the production of “Richelieu,” but when I tell you that it far surpasses “Hamlet,” and exceeds all my expectations, you may suppose that I have not been very idle all this while. I wish you could see it.
Professor Peirce has been here, and he will tell you of it. It really seems that the dreams of my past life–so far as my profession is concerned–are being realised. What Mary and I used to plan for my future, what Richard and I used laughingly to promise ourselves in “our model theatre,” seems to be realised–in these two plays, at least. As history says of the great cardinal, I am “too fortunate a man not to be superstitious,” and as I find my hopes being fulfilled, I cannot help but believe that there is a sufficient importance in my art to interest them still; that to a higher influence than the world believes I am moved by I owe the success I have achieved. Assured that all I do in this advance carries, even beyond the range of my little world (the theatre), an elevating and refining influence, while in it the effect is good, I begin to feel really happy in my once uneasy sphere of action. I dare say I shall soon be contented with my lot. I will tell you this much: I have been offered the means to a speedy and an ample fortune, from all parts of the country, but prefer the limit I have set, wherein I have the power to carry out my wishes, though “on half pay,” as it were....
Ever your friend,
TO MISS EMMA F. CARY
[Three weeks after the assassination by his brother, John Wilkes Booth, of President Lincoln.]
Saturday, May 6, 1865.
MY DEAR FRIEND:
I’ve just received your letter. I have been in one sense unable to write, but you know, of course, what my condition is, and need no excuses.
I have been, by the advice of my friends, “cooped up” since I arrived here, going out only occasionally in the evening. My health is good, but I suffer from the want of fresh air and exercise.
Poor mother is in Philadelphia, about crushed by her sorrows, and my sister, Mrs. Clarke, is ill, and without the least knowledge of her husband, who was taken from her several days ago, with Junius.
My position is such a delicate one that I am obliged to use the utmost caution. Hosts of friends are staunch and true to me. Here and in Boston I feel safe. What I am in Philadelphia and elsewhere I know not. All I do [know] of the above named city is that there is one great heart firm and faster bound to me than ever.
Sent in answer to dear Mary’s [his wife’s] prayers–I faithfully believe it. She will do what Mary struggled, suffered, and died in doing. My baby, too, is there. Now that the greatest excitement is over, and a lull is in the storm, I feel the need of that dear angel; but during the heat of it I was glad she was not here.
When Junius and Mr. Clarke are at liberty, mother will come here and bring Edwina [his daughter] to me. I wish I could see with others’ eyes; all my friends assure me that my name shall be free, and that in a little while I may be where I was and what I was; but, alas! it looks dark to me.
God bless you all for your great assistance in my behalf; even dear Dick aided me in my extremity, did he not?
Give my love to all and kisses to George.
... I do not think the feeling is so strong in my favour in Philadelphia as it is here and in Boston. I am not known there. Ever yours.
TO MR. NAHUM CAPEN
[In response to an inquiry regarding his brother, John Wilkes Booth.]
WINDSOR HOTEL, NEW YORK,
July 28, 1881.
I can give you very little information regarding my brother John. I seldom saw him since his early boyhood in Baltimore. He was a rattle-pated fellow, filled with quixotic notions.
While at the farm in Maryland he would charge on horseback through the woods, “spouting” heroic speeches with a lance in his hand–a relic of the Mexican war–given to father by some soldier who had served under Taylor. We regarded him as a good-hearted, harmless, though wild-brained, boy, and used to laugh at his patriotic froth whenever secession was discussed. That he was insane on that one point no one who knew him well can doubt. When I told him that I had voted for Lincoln’s reelection he expressed deep regret, and declared his belief that Lincoln would be made king of America; and this I believe, drove him beyond the limits of reason. I asked him once why he did not join the Confederate army. To which he replied, “I promised mother I would keep out of the quarrel, if possible, and I am sorry that I said so." Knowing my sentiments, he avoided me, rarely visiting my house, except to see his mother, when political topics were not touched upon–at least in my presence. He was of a gentle, loving disposition, very boyish and full of fun–his mother’s darling–and his deed and death crushed her spirit. He possessed rare dramatic talent, and would have made a brilliant mark in the theatrical world. This is positively all that I know about him, having left him a mere school-boy, when I went with my father to California in 1852. On my return in 1856 we were separated by professional engagements, which kept him mostly in the South while I was employed in the Eastern and Northern states.
I do not believe any of the wild, romantic stories published in the papers concerning him; but of course he may have been engaged in political matters of which I know nothing. All his theatrical friends speak of him as a poor crazy boy, and such his family think of him. I am sorry I can afford you no further light on the subject. Very truly yours,
ADVICE TO A YOUNG ACTOR
[TO WALTER THOMAS]
NEW YORK, August 28, 1889.
MY DEAR MR. THOMAS:
I was surprised to learn that your engagement with Mr. Barrett is terminated, and am sorry for the cause, although I believe the result will be to your advantage. Your chances for promotion will be better in a company that is not confined to so limited a repertoire as mine, in which so few opportunities occur for the proper exercise of youthful talent. A frequent change of role, and of the lighter sort–especially such as one does not like forcing one’s self to use the very utmost of his ability in the performance of–is the training requisite for a mastery of the actor’s art.
I had seven years’ apprenticeship at it, during which most of my labour was in the field of comedy–"walking gentleman,” burlesque, and low comedy parts–the while my soul was yearning for high tragedy. I did my best with all that I was cast for, however, and the unpleasant experience did me a world of good. Had I followed my own bent, I would have been, long ago, a “crushed tragedian.”
I will, as you request, give you a line to Mr. Palmer, and I hope you may obtain a position that will afford you the necessary practice. With best wishes. Truly yours,