Anna Cora Mowatt and the Woman Who Didn’t Write “Fashion”

Anna Cora Mowatt’s success as a playwright in the spring of 1845 was as unprecedented as it was unexpected. Not only was she a complete unknown with no ties to New York’s theatre scene, she was a woman. At that time, women who published wrote poems, romance novels, and sentimental short stories. They did not write plays. They definitely did not write hit comedies for Broadway.

To deal with this contradiction of expectations, some people rejected the idea of Mowatt’s authorship. The only reasonable explanation to them was that if it was improbable that Mowatt could have written something like “Fashion,” it was probable the show was actually written by someone else. This week’s blog will look at an attempt made person or persons unknown to cast doubt on Mowatt’s success.

Perhaps because Mowatt did not comment on this incident in her autobiography, it is not part of the usual story that biographers tell of the premier of “Fashion.” However, a few weeks after the debut of the comedy, the following letter appeared in the columns of a New York newspaper;

As you are one of the public servants “pro bono public,” I wish simply to tell you a few facts which may possibly relate to the somewhat famous new play called Fashion.

In the early part of last October, I sent to the Sunday Atlas office a sketch entitled “A Distinguished Character,” which was published in that paper on the 6th October, 1844. The following week I sent another, which was left at the office, and there remained for two weeks unpublished. The last was entitled “Three days among the Bon Ton.” The gentleman who was kind enough to take my paper to the office, returned it to me, and said that the person in the office would give no reason for not publishing my sketch.

Well, a short time since, I was much surprised to see announced in all the daily and weekly journals, the play of “Fashion,” with my plot for its plot; or, in other language, the skeleton of my sketch, “Three days among the Bon Ton,” drawn cut like a piece of wire into a long prosy five act comedy. Certainly they have added stuff that would only please the “Distinguished” person who was so kind as to stretch all his or her brain into invisibility.

‘Tis true, Mr. Editor, I move in a quiet and unobserved path, still I observe a great deal more than those who have perhaps greater leisure; and I feel vexed that the Atlas editor, or Mrs. Anna Maria Cora Mowatt, should stoop so low as to steal a little trifling flower from the forehead of one who exists only in obscurity – one who would not wrong a fellow creature even to the weight of a hair, although Fame were the reward. Mrs. Mowatt has got the fame ‘tis true, but, with your assistance, I will have justice.

If, sir, you want proof, look at the Atlas October 6, 1844, besides which, I will send you the MS of my sketch and you can publish it in your journal, which will prove that my innocent sprig has been transplanted into a greenhouse to grow amazingly!

You are at liberty to publish this letter; and you will please state in your next paper whether you will think proper to publish my “poor devoted” sketch.

As I am poor in purse and still poorer in friends, I have used this method to lay my grief before the “public,” who will, I feel assured, assist me to regain the simple flower that was snatched from my brow, to adorn another’s who did not need it.

‘Tis said that several gentlemen assisted Mrs. Mowatt, and I have no doubt she would never have thought of writing the play if the plot had not been put into her head – alas! for their love of notoriety. If the play succeeds I should not wonder if the Atlas gentlemen should declare that they wrote it and she only mothered it. Do assist me, Mr. Editor, for it is either a conspiracy or miraculous coincidence.

Yours Truly,
Mary Maywood1

The claim of the writer of this letter is not that remarkable. Many an author of a rejected manuscript has entertained notions that a successful work along similar lines was evidence that their intellectual labor had been stolen. What is more noteworthy, in my opinion, is that the editors of the Anglo-American chose elevate this complaint by publishing this letter making such a serious and damaging charge on such flimsy grounds. Taking the accusation at face value, Maywood is asserting that the plot of “Fashion” was stolen from an unpublished work that was not a play at all, but rather a short piece of non-fiction that was submitted to and rejected by a publication with which Mowatt had no connection. In answer to Maywood’s challenge in the last line of her letter, it seems more likely that any similarities between the two works can easily be attributed to a not very miraculous coincidence rather than being the result of an elaborate conspiracy.

Illustration of a scene from the original production of "Fashion" 1845
Illustration of a scene from the original production of “Fashion” 1845

I also see it as significant that instead of being dismissed as the sour grapes of disappointed author, Maywood’s accusation of plagiarism was then taken up by other papers and allowed to become a story for several weeks. Granted – newspapers need to sell copies. “Fashion” was the hot ticket in town that spring. Any controversy surrounding something that everyone was buzzing about could be considered newsworthy. However, in addition to the weakness of the initial claim, Maywood, after making her charge, vanished. Not only did she not produce any evidence to back up or defend her allegations, she evaporated from the scene so quickly and completely that there was general speculation that “Mary Maywood” never existed.

James Mowatt, ex-lawyer and husband of Anna Cora, upon seeing the Maywood letter, immediately fired off this response;

In answer to the wholly unfounded charge, to which public attention is called in your paper of this date, as brought against the authoress of “Fashion,” by some person signing him or herself “Mary Maywood,” I have simply to reply that Mrs. Mowatt has never seen or heard of any of the published or unpublished productions of that person, nor has she ever had and communication, directly or indirectly, with any of the editors of the Sunday Atlas.2

His statement was backed up by a response from the editors of the Atlas who stated;

We beg leave to assure Miss Maywood that we are as totally unacquainted with Mrs. Mowatt as we are with her. We have never spoken to or seen either of the fair ladies, and know nothing of the right of either to the plot. If, however, Mrs. Mowatt got the idea of her play from the sketch of Miss Maywood, she most unquestionably did not get it from us. We now leave the ladies to fight their own battle, assuring Miss Maywood that we are by no means ambitious of fathering a bantling that we have been compelled to speak of in any but flattering terms.3

After these two unequivocal rebuttals, Mary Maywood drops out of active participation in the story. Questions arise about her identity. The daughter of Robert Maywood, a successful comedian, stepped forward to clear suspicion that she was the letter-writing Mary Maywood, saying;

Sirs, in your paper of Saturday evening I perceive you have used my name in connection with that of someone who attacks Mrs. Mowatt about her delightful Comedy, and who signs Mary Maywood. Now sirs, I beg to disclaim all knowledge of the person and the circumstance alluded to. Your insertion of this will oblige,
Yours Respectfully,
Mary E. Duvenal4

Despite the lack of further argument from the author of the Maywood letter, papers continued to mention the story for several weeks. Most treated the incident as a source of humor, as in this mention from the Times Picayune in New Orleans;

Miss Mary Maywood charges Mrs. Mowatt with plagiarism in her new comedy. The True Sun comments up this with true sense: — “She took, we understood, all the words of her comedy from an English Dictionary.”5

Or this item that appeared in the Atlas in early May;

The theatre closes on the 14th of June, and reopens on the 18th of August with a new comedy. Whether this is the production of Mrs. Mowatt or Mary Maywood we are unable to say. By the bye, can anyone inform us who is Mary Maywood?6

As you can see, when I say the papers treated the allegation lightly, what they found laughable was that two women were fighting over the authorship of a play. The wholly unsupported accusation of plagiarism from Maywood is not seriously questioned in any of these mentions.

Without a Mary Maywood to keep breathing life into it, the story of the Maywood letter died by the end of that summer. However, rumors would linger for years that “Fashion” was not Mowatt’s work.

Title page of "Fashion"
Title page of “Fashion”

After Maywood, no one ever stepped forward to claim even partial credit for the play. Other than the unnamed “literary gentlemen” Maywood alludes to, the only specific individual I have seen designated as the comedy’s true author is Epes Sargent. Sargent’s qualifications (other than being a man) as being a more plausible choice than Mowatt include being an established editor, author, and playwright.

In 1845, Sargent had already penned two hits – The Bride of Genoa (1836) and Velasco (1839). He had begun his career as a political affairs reporter, but was a frequent contributor to the literary sections of many magazines and papers, authoring scores of poems and short stories. By the time of “Fashion’s” debut, Sargent had served as an editor for the New York Mirror and Park Benjamin’s New World. He was at that time publishing “Sargent’s New Monthly Magazine,” a critically acclaimed journal that featured the work of luminaries such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and John Quincy Adams.

Epes Sargent
Epes Sargent

Unlike the editorial staff of the Atlas, Sargent was close friends with Mowatt. He did, in fact, directly contribute to the inspiration, editing, and promotion of “Fashion.” He was undoubtedly the “E.S__” she refers to in this passage from her autobiography;

“Why do you not write a play ?” said E. S _- to me one morning. “You have more decided talent for the stage than for anything else. If we can get it accepted by the Park Theatre, and if it should succeed, you have a new and wide field of exertion opened to you — one in which success is very rare, but for which your turn of mind has particularly fitted you.”

“What shall I attempt, comedy or tragedy?”

“Comedy, decidedly ; because you can only write what you feel, and you are ‘nothing if not critical’ — besides, you will have a fresh channel for the sarcastic ebullitions with which you so constantly indulge us.”7

Sargent’s New Monthly Magazine
was published by James Mowatt’s small publishing house. Anna Cora, under her own name and her “Helen Berkeley” pseudonym, was one of its most prolific contributors. Sargent’s first contact with Mowatt had been as a reviewer critiquing her play “Gulzara” when it appeared in The New World. Of that drama, he had said,

The drama of Gulzara, or the Persian Slave, was written by a young lady lovely and accomplished. There is a unity and simplicity in its design and execution which cannot fail to give sincere pleasure. It is pervaded by rare and delicate thought; many passages are strikingly beautiful, and the impartial critic will think, with us, that the drama would do credit to a much more experienced writer.8

Professional as well as friendly interest probably prompted Sargent to see that “Fashion” succeeded. Since the Mowatts were his business partners, what profited them benefited him as well. Sargent served as Mowatt’s editor from the rest of her life – no matter where her works were published. He probably heard early drafts of “Fashion” and gave feedback. It was her general practice to read her works aloud to friends and family as she wrote. Sargent also composed a light-hearted prologue for the play that acknowledges and then laughs off popular prejudices against female authors.

It was probably also Sargent who recommended the comedy to Mr. Simpson, the manager of the Park Theater, and saw that the ms was placed at the top of the pile of script submissions to be considered. As a playwright who had written two successful dramas for the Park, he had an insider’s knowledge of workings of that theater. The extraordinary rapidity with which “Fashion” was reviewed and selected for production suggests that Sargent had gotten a hot tip that the management of the Park was looking for new material and might be unusually willing to risk staging a work by a new author who could create buzz in the press.

Simpson also had a connection to Mowatt. He was a former neighbor who had loaned her costumes for her production of “Gulzara” and had probably attended the performance. Therefore those who claimed that Mowatt had gotten the show produced by having “pull” were partially correct. An anonymous Mary Maywood-type author whose husband did not own a publishing firm and who was not best friends with a successful playwright and who had not grown up next to the manager of a Broadway theater would have been far, far, far less likely to have gotten her first script submitted produced in 1845.

Poster for "Fashion" 1850
Poster for “Fashion” 1850

What the naysayers looking for an alternate author for “Fashion” fail to take into account was Mowatt’s talent and experience. She was only twenty-six years old when the comedy premiered. However, by that time, she had published two novels (one of which had won first place in The New World’s novel-writing contest,) two book-length poems, and several short stories, as well as numerous shorter poems and works of non-fiction. Although as a child, she had subscribed to the popular prejudice against the theatre, as a young woman, she had out-grown this bias. During her tour of Europe, she had seen Madame Vestris and Charles Matthew at the Olympic. In France, she not only attended productions at the Comédie-Française staring the great Rachel, she had taken classes from one of the tragedienne’s sisters. Mowatt was perhaps influenced by the works of Eugene Scribe at this time. Her works show signs of his so-called pièce bien faite or “well-made-play” technique. Mowatt is supposed to have composed a few short dramatic pieces for the drama school she attended. “Gulzara” was a result of the training she received while abroad.

Therefore, although a Broadway novice, at twenty-six, Mowatt was not an inexperienced writer with no history of successful publications. She was a talented, prolific, and hard-working author who had started publishing at age seventeen and kept up a steady stream of critically praised output ever since. Trying her hand at drama was, as Epes Sargent recommended, a logical next step for her professionally. The combination of sophisticated humor and sharp social commentary in “Fashion” is entirely consistent with that she deploys in short stories like “An Inconvenient Acquaintance” or “The Colonel Abroad” as well as her prize-winning novel, “The Fortune Hunter.” Her work does show the influence of her editor, friend, and mentor, Sargent, but has a flavor entirely her own.

After “Fashion” Mowatt penned another hit play, “Armand,” four more best-selling novels, several more short stories, an acclaimed autobiography, and many other works of non-fiction. No Mary Maywood stepped forward to place any claim on any of them. No entourage of anonymous gentlemen employed as ghost-writers accompanied her. No intricate conspiracies with the editorial boards of newspapers were uncovered.

Maybe a Broadway hit could be written by a woman after all…

1. “The Authorship of Fashion.” The New York Herald. April 19, 1845. Page 3, col. 3.
2. “Movements, Doings, &c.” The New York Evening Express. April 21, 1845. Page 2, col. 2.
3. “Miss Mary Maywood and the Comedy of “Fashion.” New York Atlas. April 20, 1845. Page 2, col. 1.
4. “Movements, Doings, &c.” The New York Evening Express. April 21, 1845. Page 2, col. 2.
5. Times-Picayune. April 24, 1845. Page 2.
6. “Theatricals.” New York Atlas. May 5, 1845. Page 2, col. 4.
7. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Reed, and Fields: Boston, 1856) Page 202.
8. Barnes, Eric Wollencott. The Lady of Fashion: The Life and Theatre of Anna Cora Mowatt. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954. Page 45.

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