Charlotte Cushman: Relentless Romeo


Charlotte Cushman was one of the most successful American actresses of the 19th century, internationally famous for her masculine vigor and commanding presence in male roles onstage, and her tempestuous love affairs with women offstage. The strong jawed Cushman is pictured here playing Romeo to her sister Susan’s Juliet.

Her connection to Philadelphia was brief, but she left a lasting impression. In 1842, the 26 year old Cushman became the manager of the Walnut Street Theatre, no small accomplishment for a woman. While having her portrait painted by Philadelphia painter Thomas Sully, she fell in love with his beautiful young daughter Rosalie. Soon, the Sullys began treating Charlotte as one of the family. In an 1844, diary entry she mentions sleeping with Rosalie and giving her a ring. She cryptically adds “R Saturday, July 6, ‘Married.’”

Not long after, Cushman left for a European tour, promising to return to Rosalie after her engagements were through. The tour was so successful that it was extended for years. When word got back to Philadelphia that Cushman had moved on to another woman, the heartbroken Rosalie contracted a fever and died.

Cushman reacted to Rosalie’s death by cancelling performances and retiring to a spa. She would later move on to volatile affairs with writer Matilda Hays, sculptor Emma Stebbins and 18 year old actress Emma Crow, whom she affectionately called “my little lover.”

In 1907, a group of Philadelphia women formed the Charlotte Cushman Club as a respectable place for actresses to stay while they were appearing in plays in the city. When the club was dissolved the house on Camac Street and its collections of theater memorabilia were sold to endow the Charlotte Cushman Foundation which still funds non-profit theaters and groups in the Philadelphia area.
- Bob Skiba, Curator