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.

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.