The Love Song of Tracy Patch Cheever, Part 2

This is a continuation of my previous post on Tracy Patch Cheever and Anna Cora Mowatt, the actress whom he adored.

ACM Pic
Anna Cora Mowatt’s picture in her autobiography. Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Tracy Patch Cheever didn’t stop going to the theatre when Anna Cora Mowatt wasn’t around. He first saw her perform in February of 1853, and shortly thereafter he went to see a performance by Marian Russell, better known as Mrs. Farren. He didn’t like it.

Farren had “perhaps more tragic power,” he admitted, but “Mrs. F. has not the beauty of Mrs. M. and as to her character, I am ignorant.” I’ve already mentioned how Cheever’s emphasis on Mowatt’s appearance and character were significant indicators of how his kind of fandom for her was different from the more traditional sort of aesthetic appraisal. Mrs. Farren just didn’t do it for him, and so he remained mostly indifferent to her, even if she just might actually be better in some roles.

And so it seems that, when Cheever went to the theatre over the next few years, it was almost exclusively to see Mowatt perform. He saw her play Desdemona in May, 1853, and although he admitted that “she was not in her best voice,” he still thought that “She looked more beautiful, if possible, than … ever before.” But as happy as he was to see her again, there was a cloud looming over him: Mowatt was going to remarry.

Anna Cora Mowatt had been born Anna Cora Ogden before running away with a considerably older man. It was about the naughtiest thing that this self-consciously very proper woman had done in her career. Her husband died, but in 1853 she announced that she would marry William Ritchie, who was the son of a prominent journalist. That meant that she would retire from the stage and adopt the conventional role of a respectable wife. “When she is gone,” Cheever lamented, “how much of its life will be taken away, for surely there will be none to supply her place in variety of accomplishments.”

He tried to take the news in stride, although he veered into the sentimental pretty quickly.  Mowatt, he imagined, would “make his [her husband’s] house in Richmond a Paradise, probably, although in the slang phrase of the day, ‘you can’t always tell.’  I think I would risk my happiness in such a feminine keeping, were it ten years younger*  Where Mrs. Mowatt goes, my peace, happiness and content go with her. (*i.e. were I disposed to trust my happiness to anything feminine – a trust often perilous).”

Cheever didn’t have a chance to see Mowatt perform for nearly a year after this bad news, and you might assume that this was a bar to his engaging with her in any meaningful way in the interim. Nowadays we have constant updates on our favorite celebrities, courtesy of the internet, television, and, if we want to be old-school about it, glossy magazines. Cheever didn’t have any of that.

What he did have was a somewhat newfangled concept: the autobiography. Scholars like Thomas N. Baker have noted that autobiographies took off in the 1850s and started selling like hotcakes. Just as with theatre, many people still harbored suspicions: what decent person would write an entire book about themselves? Besides, there was much more of an expectation of privacy at this time (Mowatt was never Instagramming her latest meal from a swanky restaurant), and one might reasonably fear that spilling one’s guts about their personal life would ruin that sense of privacy. But more and more, writers, performers, and other notable people were writing books that chronicled their lives and careers in a way that framed their experiences so that they offered moral lessons for their readers without becoming too invasive.

Mowatt was no exception to this trend. At the beginning of 1854, her Autobiography of an Actress arrived in bookstores. It didn’t take long for Cheever to snap up a copy.

The book tells the story of Mowatt’s life up through 1853. It’s not exactly the most thrilling read, but it’s especially interesting for the way that Mowatt is constantly insisting on the dignity of her profession. It seems that the gist of virtually every other paragraph is: “Hey, we actors aren’t such bad people!” The same message comes up in quite a lot of the fiction that she published in later years, when she wrote sentimental tales of life on the stage. I don’t think it’s excessively cynical to say that her writing provided an excellent PR platform, allowing her to stick up for her profession and her continue to build up her own reputation.

It certainly worked with Tracy Patch Cheever. He already thought the world of her, and her autobiography somehow raised that opinion even higher. He conceded that, “Under ordinary circumstances, the fair authoress would have subjected herself to much criticism, for the publishment of her life.  It would have been deemed, the offspring of vanity & conceit.” But he totally bought Mowatt’s excuse that she was writing it as a final duty to her deceased first husband. After reading through her account of her struggles and triumphs, he pronounced that “The authoress is doubtless one of the first of her sex, in culture & force of mind, and in the moral beauty of her life.” A balanced, considered view, if there ever was one.

The autobiography was another indicator of the rise of celebrity in the milieu of nineteenth-century America. As I’ve said, celebrity requires a distance between fan and star, since otherwise they would just be social acquaintances. The distance is bridged by images of the celebrity, as well as glimpses into her private life. The autobiography did both of those things, as we can see from the image of Mowatt facing the title page. The book allowed Mowatt to relate to her many fans, no matter where they lived; as long as they could read and had a little disposable income to buy her book, they could learn everything they’d ever wanted to know about what her life was like offstage.

After eagerly devouring her autobiography, Cheever had just a few more chances to see Mowatt onstage before she retired once and for all. His brief and very one-sided romance with the famous actress was about to come to a close, but not before he had a few experiences that showed him the downsides of being an ardent fan in an age of industrial-scale celebrity.

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