It’s a Horse, Of Course

Currier & Ives print of racehorse named after Edwin Forrest. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Currier & Ives print of racehorse named after Edwin Forrest. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

We all love our celebrities. But would you name your car after one? Your boat? A fire engine? In nineteenth-century America, theatre fans did this all the time. You can see one example in the picture above, which is named after Edwin Forrest, who’s been called “the first star of the American stage” by biographer Richard Moody.

Mid-19th-century portrait of Edwin Forrest. Courtesy of the Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Mid-19th-century portrait of Edwin Forrest. Courtesy of the Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Caricature of Edwin Forrest in the role of Spartacus. Courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries.
Caricature of Edwin Forrest in the role of Spartacus. Courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries.

Forrest was used to having people name things after him. Historian Bruce McConachie notes that the actor found his name attached to “steamboats, racehorses, fire engines, and locomotives,” amongst other such “objects of power and danger.” (Melodramatic Formations, p. 70-1) You can get a sense of why this was so when you look at the above caricature of Forrest as Spartacus. To put it in technical scholarly terms, dude was jacked.

In fact, many people made fun of Forrest because it sometimes seemed that his muscles were pretty much all he had going for him in terms of theatrical ability. He didn’t make much of a hit when he crossed the pond to England, and the resulting hurt feelings eventually contributed to one hell of a disaster back in New York (I’ll be writing a post about that incident in May, closer to the anniversary of said disaster). Forrest had a bunch of Shakespearean roles in his repertoire, but the roles in which he really seemed to excel were melodramatic ones, like Spartacus (no, not this Spartacus) and especially Metamora, a doomed but heroic Native American chief.

An older Forrest as Metamora, c. 1861. Man, time can be *rough* on an aging actor. Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
An older Forrest as Metamora, c. 1861. When he was younger (the 1820s and 30s), the role brought him fame and fortune, but as this pic shows, man can time be *rough* on an aging actor. Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

At any rate, it was these roles in melodrama, which mostly emphasized displays of Forrest’s rugged physicality rather than his acting ability, that were his bread and butter. Not everyone liked him, but those who did tended to identify with his brand of strong masculinity (to get a good sense of what it was like to see Forrest in his prime, and on home turf, read this reminiscence by Walt Whitman). Fire companies, in particular, tended to support Forrest. These were rough-and-tumble guys, whose methods could be more than a little shady (don’t believe me? take a look here), but they embraced the man who played Metamora as one of their own.

Forrest wasn’t by any means alone in having things named after him – the English expatriate actress Fanny Kemble, who was about as far away from Forrest as one could get in terms of refinement and femininity, had at least a few racehorses here and there named after her. The wider phenomenon, though, is something that hasn’t really survived into our present day. Sure, if you’re ever able to afford a private yacht, you may fantasize about naming it the “Chris Hemsworth” (“BECAUSE HE’S A DREAMBOAT!” you say), but for legal and other reasons (I mean, it’s a little stalker-y, right?), that’s not something people do nowadays.

Perhaps this is the case because celebrity culture pervades our lives so thoroughly these days that we don’t need these points of contact to make us feel that sense of closeness to our favorite actors, singers, or other notables. It also reflects other changes in our society: those fire companies, for instance, were private, volunteer organizations, and they could collectively name their engine whatever they wanted.

So that particular tradition is dead and gone, along with that racehorse named “Edwin Forrest”. Let’s take a moment to reflect on the passing of time, to the accompanying strains of a memorial to another notable horse. Take it away, Andy Dwyer:

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.

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.

The Love Song of Tracy Patch Cheever, Part 1

Tracy Patch Cheever diary entry, February 3, 1853. Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.


Tracy Patch Cheever was not a big theatre fan. “It is not often that I will tolerate a play,” he wrote in his diary (which is at the Massachusetts Historical Society), “there is so much lack of art[,] especially in the inferior casts, together with such a consciousness of moral inferiority in many of the performers, that high thoughts and noble deeds coming through them, seem mockeries and leave none of the force of life behind them.”

Cheever wasn’t alone, especially in nineteenth-century Boston, which happened to be the time and place in which he lived. This was a time when many people still harbored a deep suspicion of theatre: after all, would you trust someone who made their living by pretending to be other people? Playhouses were often seen as disorderly places, where mobs might start a riot or ladies of ill repute would troll for customers. This had started to change in a pretty significant way by the 1850s, when Cheever wrote his sniffy dismissal of theatre and actors, but the phrase “Banned in Boston” would remain shorthand for a moral censoriousness that lasted well into the twentieth century.

Then, in early February 1853, everything changed. Cheever was on a trip to Washington, D.C. when he was dragged to the theatre by some acquaintances, but what he saw there changed his attitude entirely. The star that night was Anna Cora Mowatt, well-known as both a playwright and an actress. Cheever fell in love with her almost instantly.

“I am truly sorry to part with the sight of Mrs. Mowatt,” wrote Cheever.  “It seems as though a blessing were taken from me.  No influence that I have experienced in Washington seems so good as that she exerts over me, no less of her graceful art, than by the noble personal virtues which seem to belong to her.” It wasn’t just that Mowatt was good on the stage: she was, in his eyes, both beautiful and a fundamentally good person. “Unless I am misinformed,” he said, “she unites in her own person, the charms of the best heroines she portrays.  Such a woman not only blesses beyond computation, her husband, family and friends, but all who can be reached by virtue, by piety and by intellectual accomplishment.”

We’ve all been there: we see an actor in a role and start to conflate their personality with that of the character they played. However, I think that what Cheever was doing here was a little more interesting, and a little more significant than that. Remember, this is a guy who didn’t care for theatre very much, and not necessarily because he thought that most productions had bad acting or crummy sets. It was the moral characters (or what he assumed he knew of their moral characters) of the actors that he found most objectionable.

And yes, we all fall prey to this. We all know about Jennifer Lawrence’s aw-shucks public persona and project it onto whatever role she happens to be playing. We love Kanye or Taylor Swift’s music (feel free to mutter “uh, not me” in response as necessary), but can’t dissociate it from their antics outside of the recording studio.

Cheever’s experience is so interesting to me because it’s one small example of how attitudes towards performers were beginning to change at this time. I would also argue that it’s a demonstration of how the concept of celebrity was becoming a driving force in entertainment, especially theatre, in the nineteenth century. My fast-and-loose definition of celebrity is that it refers to a person whom you recognize without ever having met them in a social setting and whose personal life is of as much or even more interest to you than what they do for a living. Today, we like to bemoan the omnipresence of people like the Kardashians, who truly deserve Daniel Boorstin’s cranky dismissal of celebrities as people “known for [their] well-knownness,” but many of them are accomplished performers, politicians, etc. in their own right. We follow these people’s lives not because we’re necessarily intimately interested in every little detail of their craft, but because we find their personalities and private lives fascinating, and we want to know more.

Cheever wasn’t some aesthete who wanted to analyze every little technical aspect of Mowatt’s performance onstage. He was interested because he thought she was an interesting individual and, on some level, he was a little bit in love with her. He pretty much said so, in fact. He rhapsodized that, “I find myself drawn by cords of strong esteem towards this most excellent lady.  It would be too much to ask of Heaven that such an [sic] one might be sent to strew with exalted happiness my own pathway of life.” Translation: oh man, so pretty, want to marry her.

I’ll have more to say about Tracy Patch Cheever and Anna Cora Mowatt, because the story doesn’t end there. He’d make plenty more trips to the theatre to see his favorite celebrity, and in the process he’d both demonstrate all the ways that celebrity was working its way into popular culture and run up against some of the limitations of this modern cult of fame.

Anna Cora Mowatt, depicted in this undated engraving based off of a photograph. Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.