One definite piece of information we can glean from the historical records is that Anna Cora Mowatt’s contemporaries thought she was beautiful. Eyewitness accounts of encounters with her throughout her lifetime invariably mention how attractive she was. Even snide remarks from her detractors use her personal appearance as a focal point in comments like, “more beautiful than talented” or “being a pretty woman has obvious advantages…”
In last week’s blog entry, I complained about the scarcity of photographs and drawings of Mowatt, However, Marion Harlan, who knew her from her days in Richmond asserted,
No picture I have ever seen does her even partial justice. In her youth, she was extremely pretty. At thirty eight, she was more than handsome. Time had not dimmed her exquisite complexion; her hair had been cut off during an attack of brain-fever, and grew out again in short, fair curls; her eyes were soft blue; her teeth dazzlingly white.1
The effect of meeting Mowatt face-to-face was apparently a bit breath-taking. Poet Camilla Dufor Crosland described feeling transfixed by the actress’ loveliness on the occasion their first meeting in this excerpt from a poem written about her:
Thy perfect beauty not the theme
On which to fondly warm;
For common clay has ta’en, ere now,
The Spartan Helen’s form.
And yet that beauty had a spell
Which unto awe could reach,
When first I clasped thy hand, and heard
The music of they speech.
It stayed the words upon my tongue,
My foot upon the floor;
I could but gaze as I, methinks,
Had never gazed before.
We were not strangers – O, no, no!
And cordial was thy clasp;
And yet, that awe well nigh forbade
My hand return the grasp.2
Similarly mesmerized was Edgar Allan Poe, who was at this time still keeping his Broadway Journal afloat. In his capacity as drama critic, he reviewed her play “Fashion.” Poe initially disliked the production, but ended up returning to view it over forty times and caught almost every performance of her debut season as an actress in New York. He described Mowatt as follows:
Her figure is slight — even fragile — but eminently graceful. Her face is a remarkably fine one, and of that precise character best adapted to the stage. The forehead is, perhaps, the least prepossessing feature, although it is by no means an unintellectual one. Hair light auburn, in rich profusion, and always arranged with exquisite taste. The eyes are gray, brilliant and expressive, without being full. The nose is well formed, with the Roman curve, and indicative of energy. This quality is also shown in the somewhat excessive prominence of the chin. The mouth is large, with brilliant and even teeth and flexible lips, capable of the most instantaneous and effective variations of expression. A more radiantly beautiful smile it is quite impossible to conceive. Mrs. Mowatt has also the personal advantage of a profusion of rich auburn hair.3
English critic Bayless Bernard, after witnessing Mowatt assay many roles during her four years in London, also found that her appearance particularly suited her for the stage:
Mrs. Mowatt, like Mr. Davenport, has a serio-comic genius; but we think, upon more inclining to the latter. Nature has not adapted her for the higher walks of tragedy, nor even that of its youthful heroines, in denying her the force their due expression calls for. She wants the strength for Juliet’s passion, or even Julia’s, in The Hunchback; nor is her face of that marked character that could atone for this defect, by affording a reflex of the mind, whereon the throes and changes of a great passion could be pictured. It is essentially bright and cheerful – made up of rounded outlines, and gay, laughter-loving features, that, when forced into gloom or passion, become more painful than expressive. Thus whilst she has a tenderness and pathos that render her Imogen and Viola scarcely equaled in our memory, there is such an entire adaptation of her whole person, look, and spirit, to the blander sphere of comedy, that we cannot but feel it is her true one… That mixed exposition of the ideal and the true, which stamps all Shakespeare’s writings as the profoundest insights into man, receives the happiest illustration in the genius of Mrs. Mowatt. Sensibility and mirth are ever neighbors to each other: and our fair artist well interprets what our best poet has so well divined… It is in Beatrice and Rosalind that she must be witnessed, to be estimated – equaled by some in art, and surpassed by force by many, she alone has that poetic fervor which imparts to them their truth, and makes our laughter ever ready to tremble into tears.4
This impression of sweet, happy, plucky, youthful vulnerability seems to have been an essential part of Mowatt’s charm. Men, in particular, seemed immediately to want to defend, protect, and, if possible, possess her.
Civil War-era diarist, Tracy Cheever Patch was no fan of the theatre prior to 1853. On February 3rd of that year, he wrote,
It is not often that I will tolerate a play, 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.5
His mind was changed when a group of his friends took him to see a performance starring Anna Cora Mowatt during what would become one of her last tours of the United States. His reaction to her was one of immediate wistful devotion.
I am truly sorry to part with the sight of Mrs. Mowatt. 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. Unless I am misinformed, 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.6
In her autobiography, Mowatt includes the creepy-to-modern ears story of meeting her first husband. Thirteen-year-old Anna Cora snuck into the parlor to get a glimpse at the very eligible 26-year-old lawyer who had come to call on one of her older sisters. Catching a glimpse of her, James Mowatt forgot about the more age-appropriate sibling and decided he liked the saucy tween-ager better. Her father insisted that they wait until Anna Cora was seventeen to get serious about the relationship, but as a the day of the young girl’s official debut into society drew closer, Mr. Mowatt began to panic about the potential of having to compete for his young sweetheart’s attentions against more youthful beaux and pressured the fifteen-year-old into an elopement.
I did warn you before I began that this story had some creepy elements for modern ears, didn’t I?
Mowatt’s second husband, William Foushee Ritchie, was also struck with love at first sight. He saw her play Parthenia in “Ingomar, The Barbarian” and was instantly smitten. “Ingomar” was a wildly popular historical/fantasy/romance in the “Tarzan and Jane”/ “Beauty and the Beast” genre. Parthenia, a lovely and chaste Greek maiden, switches places with her father as hostage with the barbarian leader, Ingomar, and teaches him about love and being civilized and noble through her sweet and pure example. Audiences, including William Foushee Ritchie, loved Mowatt in this role and flocked to see her whenever she played it. Mowatt enjoyed the part and identified it as a favorite in her autobiography. She reported that some had called the text a covert “woman’s rights” play, but she liked the way it demonstrated woman’s “mysterious influence over the sterner sex.”7
Mr. Ritchie, a tall, rangy, red-head with a quick-temper, who had a reputation of being something of a beast in political circles, fell hard for dainty Mrs. Mowatt. Despite being a confirmed bachelor, he surprised friends by pursuing the widowed actress from town to town and showering with flowers and gifts until she finally agreed to marry him. The play “Ingomar” was apparently very special to the couple, for Anna Cora embroidered a pair of slippers with the most famous lines from the play;
“Two souls with but a single thought,
Two hearts that beat as one.”
Although opposites might attract, it is not always easy for them to cohabitate. A Washington acquaintance of theirs reported,
Alas! I cannot conclude my little story, “And they were married and lived happily ever after.” They were married—and lived miserably—and were separated ever after. The single thought was how they could best escape each other—and the two hearts beat as one in the desire for freedom.8
In my opinion, probably the most accurate description we have of Mowatt’s appearance comes from Mowatt herself. In the book Mimic Life, we get a very detailed and evocative description of the autobiographically-based character of Stella.
Now, before I give the quote, if writing a flattering description of oneself under the guise of fiction strikes you as vain or egotistical, pause and consider. This description was written by a woman of thirty-five describing a character based on herself at eighteen. We are all allowed to have some appreciation and perspective on how we once looked, right? Next, Stella is a fictional character. You are not supposed to know how autobiographical she is. I am rudely lifting the curtain and pointing that out. The original audience was intended to politely ignore the many parallels. And finally, wake up. Everyone knows how they look. We all look in the mirror every day. Women in particular are not charmingly unaware of their appearance. If one is in any doubt, other people inform you bluntly of your plus and minuses and provide suggestions for improvements. Anna Cora Mowatt, for personal and professional reasons, knew exactly how she looked… as do we all. As a writer, she was well-equipped to articulate that information. Here is her description of a character who was probably the person she saw in the mirror at age eighteen:
To paint … the melting hues of a rainbow, the soft effulgence of a moonlight lamp, would be more promising attempt than to portray by language the intangible attribute which compelled those who gazed upon her to pronounce Stella beautiful. The charm dwelt not in any one feature, for none was faultless. The perfect harmony that blended the whole countenance, the rapid transitions of expression, the flashing soul shining through its transparent covering as through a crystal casement – these constituted the elements of her loveliness.
Her eyes were neither very large nor very small. At one time they appeared to be brilliantly black; at another, they seemed a lustrous blue. They were, in reality, of a grayish hue, mingled with light hazel, which possesses the peculiarity of changing its color with varying emotions.
Her abundant hair exhibited that rare tint which the French call chatain dore – chestnut, streaked with gold. It partook in the chameleon property of her eyes: when the air was clear, and radiant with sunshine, her tresses were almost golden; in humid atmosphere, the shining yellow was extinguished, and replaced by a soft brown.
Her flexible lips disclosed immaculate teeth, and, in repose, the mouth seemed to curve itself spontaneously into a smile. Her figure was slightly above the medium height, with the slender, spanable waist, underdeveloped proportions, and not very erect bearing, which characterize the American maiden at eighteen; the precise opposite of the swelling form, the rounded arms, dimpled shoulders, and firm carriage, that distinguish an English girl at the same age.9
Anna Cora Mowatt’s was a lively beauty, not easily caught in a still image. Her loveliness came not merely from her appearance but from her personality. More than that, she had just the sort of look and character that appealed to people at that unique moment in history. Like Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, Debbie Reynolds, Doris Day, Sally Fields, Farah Fawcett, Christy Brinkley, Julia Roberts, Taylor Swift and whoever is the darling of the moment right now, she had a fresh-faced, “American Girl” charm that perfectly suited the spirit of her time.
Anna Cora Mowatt, in other words, had “It” – the ineffable mixture of appearance, temperament, intellect, and personality that made for Victorian star quality. She was truly lightening in a bottle – not easily explained, impossible to re-capture.
1. Harlan, Marion. Marion Harlan’s Autobiography: The Story of a Long Life. Harper & Brothers: New York, 1910. Page 290
2. Crosland, Camilla Dufor. “To Anna Cora Mowatt.” Quoted in Anna Cora Mowatt’s Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. Boston: Ticknor, Reid, and Fields, 1854. Page 292.
3. Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Drama.” Broadway Journal. July 19, 1845. Page 184.
4. Bernard, Bayless. Tallis’s Drawing Room Table Book of Theatrical Portraits, Memoirs, and Anecdotes. London: John Tallis, 1851. Page 11
5. Patch, Tracy Cheever, diary entry Feb. 3 1853 (Mass. Historical Society) quoted in “Love Song of Tracy Cheever Patch – Part 1” by Michael Lueger. Feb 6, 2016, The Theatre History Podcast
7. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. Boston: Ticknor, Reid, and Fields, 1854. Page 409.
8. Pyor, Sara Agnes Rice. Remembrances of Peace and War. New York: Macmillan, 1904. Page 14.
9. Ritchie, Anna Cora Mowatt. Mimic Life; or Before and Behind the Curtain. Boston: Ticknor and Fields,1856. Pages 12-13