The Love Song of Tracy Patch Cheever, Part 3

Playbill for May 23, 1854 performance of Anna Cora Mowatt at the Howard Athenaeum, during her farewell tour. Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Playbill for May 23, 1854 performance of Anna Cora Mowatt at the Howard Athenaeum, during her farewell tour. Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

“The beautiful spring at last is here,” wrote Tracy Patch Cheever on May 23, 1854, “and has wreathed earth with her smiles.” “And,” he added, “as a Queen of May, Mrs. Mowatt, my friend of preceding pages, and Boston’s dramatic pet, appeared last night at the Athenaeum.” Anna Cora Mowatt’s ardent fan from Boston (whom I’ve previously written about here and here) had been to the theatre the night before to see his beloved star take her final bows on the stage before retiring.

However, the experience wasn’t quite what Cheever had been hoping for. The fact that this was a farewell tour meant that tickets were at a premium, and the management was happy to pack in as many people as possible, a “jam of humans,” in Cheever’s words. Although “The audience were enthusiastic,” he had to admit that “my pleasure was lost in the heat and stifling air of the theatre.”

Amidst all the hoopla surrounding his favorite star’s adieu to the stage, Tracy Patch Cheever was forced to confront a hard truth. As much as he felt that he had gotten to know Mowatt as a private person, whether through watching her perform or reading her autobiography, he was really just another fan in a whole crowd of them, people who felt just as he did and imagined themselves to have the same emotionally intimate, understanding relationship with her.

Part of this had to do with the changed nature of theatre in the nineteenth century. Not long ago, it had been an amusement primarily for the elite – there were only two main theatres in Charles II’s London that had been allowed to operate until the early eighteenth century, which meant that the supply was kept artificially low and that the theatre was therefore inaccessible to many people. On Cheever’s side of the Atlantic, only a certain subset of American society was both willing to pay for theatre tickets and to risk the moral hazards posed by such a supposedly profane pastime. A wealthy, elite theatre audience meant that many of the people in that audience could expect to function more as patrons than as fans. That gave them personal access to the actors, sometimes even to their dressing rooms or other private areas of their lives. The conditions required for celebrity, at least as I’ve been defining the term in these posts, simply didn’t exist. Cheever may or may not have been aware of how the patron-actor relationship used to function, but he certainly seems to have wished that he could fulfill the role of patron to Mowatt, and he does appear to have been more than a little jarred by the experience of being crammed like a sardine in a theatre filled with other people, whose very presence reminded him that his wasn’t really a unique, special experience.

Still, Cheever kept going to see Mowatt as often as he could while she was in Boston. On June 3, 1854, he recorded his last visit to the theatre to watch her. He went that night, he said, because he was “resolved from my interest in and admiration for her which has been excited by her romantic and almost heroic life, and the virtues of her character, to be present and hear the last words pronounced by her from the stage.” She might never read or hear it, but he felt compelled to give her a final blessing before she exited his life: “May happiness peace and prosperity, which have been well earned by her in the struggles & trials of her life, attend her amid the more quiet scenes of her new matrimonial life.”

The “matrimonial life” to which Cheever referred began just a few days later, on June 7, 1854. On that day, Mowatt became Mrs. William Ritchie, in a ceremony attended by many prominent political and cultural figures of the day. President Franklin Pierce was the most high-profile of these guests, and a certain Senator Douglas, who not long from now would be debating a lawyer named Abraham Lincoln in Illinois, was also there.

The newspapers covered the wedding in ways that might seem very familiar to us now. Some of the coverage was gushing and uncritical, such as the declaration by the Boston Evening Transcript that Mowatt would “carry into her private life, not only the admiration of those, whom her professional success has made friends, but the benedictions of hundreds whom her benevolence has cheered and assisted.” Others, casting a jaundiced eye on what seemed a frivolous and overblown event, resorted to snark. It might surprise us a bit today, but the New York Times was one of the papers to take this latter route, noting the star-studded guest list and dryly commenting that “Queen Victoria was not present, and the name of the Empress Eugenia is not mentioned among the five or six hundred guests.” It also commented on the oddness of the ceremony, which was a Swedenborgian one. Without getting into the weeds of nineteenth-century religion, suffice it to say that that marked the ceremony as a little mystical, perhaps a bit wacky by more conventional standards – again, something that will likely be familiar to anyone who follows celebrity weddings today. All snarking about the guest list and ceremony aside, the Times correspondent still found space to include a detailed description of Mowatt’s dress, along with the names and well-bred backgrounds of her bridesmaids.

The mere fact that Mowatt and Ritchie’s wedding was considered newsworthy seems significant. It was a muted affair compared to later celebrity nuptials, and of course any event that featured President Pierce was going to draw media attention, but the amount of time spent on the details of the ceremony, Mowatt’s dress, and similar subjects suggests that the papers were legitimately interested in the event on its own terms. That, in turn, indicates that there were plenty of people like Cheever, back home in Boston, who would be interested in reading about the event, even if they’d never met any of the people involved on a personal basis.

Unfortunately, like most celebrity marriages, the Mowatt-Ritchie union didn’t last long. Mowatt appears to have split from her new husband within a few years, crossing the Atlantic shortly before the Civil War broke out in order to live apart from him. She continued to write, and occasionally to give public readings of her works, but she never returned to the stage.

Cheever, for his part, ran out of room in his diary in 1855, and if he continued in a new volume, it doesn’t seem to have survived. He’d go on to serve as a soldier and in the Massachusetts legislature, according to the Massachusetts Historical Society’s catalog entry for his diary, but he’s mostly remained obscure. In a way, though, that fits perfectly with his experience as an adoring fan of Mowatt’s. The future of culture belonged to people like Cheever, people who might not be terribly sophisticated or knowledgeable when it came to theatre, or art in general, and who wouldn’t take pride of place in history books about the times in which they lived, but who would become devoted fans of the celebrities who graced the stage or screen in front of them.

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