Anna Cora Mowatt and the Art of Crisis Communication

As he lay dying, James Mowatt gave his wife three sealed letters. One contained detailed instructions on how she was to handle legal matters concerning the disposition of their joint property. One was a personal letter of farewell. The last was a list of practical advice and instructions for the future management of her professional affairs. In this last letter, acting, I believe, in role as her business manager, James Mowatt asked his wife to promise to write and publish her memoirs.1

Anna Cora Mowatt’s autobiography is dedicated to her husband. She makes it clear in the narrative that the work is in fulfillment to this final request.

If you read this work – and you should, it’s a really enjoyable book, available here and in audiobook form here — you will doubtlessly conclude the following;

1. This woman had a very dramatic life.
2. She strongly believes that people should not be prejudiced against actors just because of their profession.

After a quarter of a century of thinking about Mowatt’s autobiography, writing a dissertation , a book, several papers, giving presentations, lecturing, and researching the circumstances around its writing, I have come to believe that this work was also consciously created to minimize potential damage to Mowatt’s reputation caused by the Watts’ scandal.

Unlike you and I, Mowatt could not google “crisis communication” and get lists of the top five or top ten things to do in the midst of a public relations nightmare. None the less, if you take the trouble to consult a few of those sites, you will find that she did a rather good job of anticipating the sort of course these experts recommend for celebrities or companies who find themselves navigating a scandal today.

Mowatt had, of course, the luxury of dealing with a radically slower news cycle. However, she did not have the one asset that almost all crisis communication experts deem as essential – a well-trained PR team. She also had the whole weight of Victorian gender-based prejudicial assumptions weighing against her.

Last week, I quoted her description of Walter Watts’ presentation of the silver vase at her benefit performance of “Armand.” Although I bemoaned her excessive use of passive voice, I think the careful construction of this narrative is a good example of how Mowatt, without the benefit of modern Public Relations counsel, follows many of the standard principles such experts recommend for successful crisis communication. Here and throughout the text, she is being proactive and controlling the narrative.

If you have read any of Mowatt’s other works, you know that she loves florid descriptions and becomes impassioned when she feels that an injustice is being perpetrated. However, in this description, her tone is careful and restrained. Following good crisis communication protocol, she here presents only factual data with no excessive emotional coloring. Victorian etiquette allows her to omit Watts’ name in the name of good taste and propriety just as she has elected to omit other names or references other individuals only via initials at other points in the autobiography.

She acknowledges that she took part in the decision-making process of choosing to give the green light to the purchase of the extravagant silver vase. However she neither apologizes nor casts blame. Therefore her account does not perpetuate or further inflame this potentially damaging incident. Generations of readers have passed over this paragraph ignorant that it refers to a scandal at all.

Just as PR experts recommend, she ends her account on a positive note, saying essentially that as a publicity stunt, she felt the presentation of the silver vase was successful and added greatly to the desired tone of the evening for all participants. No regrets. No blame. She does not make the slightest mention of the fact that, at the time of the writing, Watts is disgraced and dead by his own hand, her own personal fortune wiped out, the silver vase is sitting in a jeweler’s window in New Orleans, and an insinuating blind item has appeared in a newspaper from that city hinting that there is an unsavory story behind that artifact. Her account is not defensive, self-pitying, or accusatory. It is just another anecdote about her many interesting experiences in the theatre.

She deals with the other incident that looms large in accounts linking her to Watts – his providing her with a lavish dressing room at the Marylebone Theatre – in much the same way. That account even has a few touches of humor when she recalls her maid’s appalled astonishment. However, again, she stays strictly factual. She does not cast blame, nor does she apologize. However she does acknowledge what happened and the extent to which she believed that it might have happened at her request.

The only item that consistently turns up in re-tellings of the Watts scandal that Mowatt leaves out of her autobiography is the locket found on Watts’ body that reputedly contained an image of her. The locket, however, is by far the most dubious item on the list in terms of its existence being verifiable. The necklace was reported by only one eyewitness. That person did not say that it contained an image of Anna Cora Mowatt – or anyone for that matter. This is an inference drawn by others after the fact. Even if Watts did have a locket and it did contain an image of Mowatt, that wouldn’t necessarily mean she had given it to him. He was the manager of the Marylebone. He directed publicity for the theater. He was one of the very few people in the world who would have access to the very few pictures of her in existence.

If I were her lawyer/business manager/husband, I would advise my actress/wife/client to just let that sleeping dog lie.

One of the great frustrations of being a researcher is that the deeper one delves into the past, the longer grows one’s list of items that you would cut off your right arm to see, but you know are lost irrevocably to history. In this blog alone, three items on my “Lost in Time” lust-list have put in appearances. The first is that locket, which I vacillate between doubting that it ever existed and placing bets on which photo of Mowatt it contained. The second is the silver vase that either didn’t survive the Civil War at all or is going to wind up on a very special episode of “Antiques Roadshow” someday. The third item I would give my eyeteeth to get my hot little cotton-gloved hands on is the sealed letter the dying James Mowatt gave to his wife.

I doubt seriously that he extracted a deathbed promise from her to publish her memoirs because he felt she had a particularly interesting life-story to tell or because he thought she could serve as a wonderful advocate for the plight of misunderstood performers everywhere.

Because James Mowatt had invested all his wife’s earnings in Walter Watts’ theaters, she was forced to go back on tour while he lay dying and she was only barely recovered from a serious illness that was at least in part, I think, a nervous breakdown. He, better than anyone else, knew how painful re-visiting these memories would be for her and I believe would have only asked her to create such a work if he felt there was some overwhelmingly beneficial professional reason for her to do so. Like Alexander Hamilton in the musical bearing his name, I think that James Mowatt decided that the best way for his talented novelist/playwright/actress/wife to firmly put the Watts scandal behind her with the U.S. public and thus insure her ability to keep on earning a comfortable living after his death was to “write her way out.” If I could get a glimpse at that sealed letter in which he made recommendations about the future of her career, I think, acting as the good lawyer/business manager he was, he may have even suggested some of the carefully neutral wording she used for the difficult passages about Watts as in the paragraph concerning the silver vase.

Under the circumstances, it would have been both a kindness and a very practical application of the skills he possessed. I think he might have felt he owed her that much.

1. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. Boston: Ticknor, Reid, and Fields, 1854. Page 370-371.

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