Part XVIII: The Beginning of the End
In 1853, Anna Cora Mowatt did not perform “Lady of Lyons” a single time. I might as well admit to that fact from the onset. There were press releases in January, mid-summer, and early fall that indicate that engagements or tours that might have included “Lady” as part of the line-up would take place. Nothing comes of any of these, however. By all rights, I should skip this year entirely. Instead, I am going to stretch the definition of my theme to the very breaking point and use these near misses of productions of “Lady of Lyons” to allow me to talk about the very significant developments in Anna Cora Mowatt’s career that took place during this pivotal year.
In her autobiography, the actress said that upon returning to the U.S. she had already decided that she was going to stay in show business only for a limited amount of time;
At this period I fixed a time in my own mind when I would retire from the profession. But until that epoch arrived, I determined, by close application to the study of my art, to win the highest distinction to which my abilities, in their full cultivation, would entitle me.1
Mowatt also informs us that in the second of the three posthumous letters she received from James Mowatt, her husband had specified as one of his dying wishes that she persevere in her career on the stage until specific undisclosed goals where obtained;
One was that I would resume my profession, and resist the entreaties of relatives or friends to abandon the stage until certain objects were accomplished.2
My speculation is that James Mowatt recommended that his wife stay in the profession long enough to recover her decimated fortune and provide for a secure retirement. There weren’t many other ways for a woman to generate a large income at this time. Anna Cora may have felt like it was gauche to be upfront about her profit motive. However, their private correspondence reveals that the Mowatts were very clear-eyed about the stage as a business venture. This did not mean that she was not equally serious about Theatre as a form of art. She simply applied the same sort of discipline and focus when she regarded her work as a money-making career as when she looked at it as a type of spirit-enriching creative expression.
The two above statements from her autobiography would lead one to expect that when the time came for her withdrawal from public life, that process would be deliberate and well-planned.
When the announcement of her retirement from the stage came, it was abrupt and unexpected. 1853 was a year of cancelled plans, unfinished projects, and extended retreats from the public eye. Rather than an orderly and dignified process throughout which Mowatt kept the focus on her achievements as an artist, the news of her decision to leave the theatre quickly descended into a media circus rife with speculation and rumors about her personal life.
The extent to which Mowatt preferred to carefully monitor and regulate her public image is demonstrated in the following letter to the editor of the Daily Delta that she wrote in response to a critique of a production of “Armand” at the St. Charles Theater;
My Dear Sir: Allow me to correct an unintentional mistake made in your paper of last evening. You speak of my having been at considerable expense to pay for theatrical properties which the management refused to furnish. The simple facts of the case are these. As the first rehearsal of “Armand” a May-pole, with ribbons, flowers, etc. was brought to me, which I objected to use. The property man replied that it was the same they had already used in May-pole dances, and seemed to suppose it quite good enough. I replied, “You must give me fresh ribbons, and wide ones, fresh flowers, fresh garlands, and plenty of the latter to be used in the other scenes of the piece.” As these properties are rather expensive, and the season is drawing to a close, Mr. Howard very naturally thought that the management would object. To end the matter and procure what I wanted, I requested him not to apply to the management at all, but, for my plays, to procure all the needful properties, and charge them to me.
On Monday evening, fresh ribbons, flowers, garlands, &c, &c, were all duly furnished for my play. I thanked the property-man for the careful manner in which he had executed my wishes, and asked for his bill. He answered, that he had just taken it to Mr. Ludlow, and that that gentleman had refused to allow it to be presented to me, having paid it himself.
Not one word had ever passed between the managers of the Theatre and myself, on the subject. These, sir, are the exact facts, and, by making them known, you will much oblige.3
There are no other examples of similar retorts to the press from Mowatt. However, she was still relatively new to acting as her own tour manager and press liaison. Her tone is far from angry. Her actions are quite reasonable. Still, she is being very firm and assertive both in insisting that the props and scenery for her production be of high quality – even if that means paying for them herself – and that reviews of her shows are accurately truthful – even when they are not altogether flattering.
I include this anecdote here to pull back the curtain to reveal a more controlling side of Mowatt’s personality that in her own writing and much of the writing of others is concealed under the façade of sweet feminine graciousness that was more socially acceptable for women of her class in the Victorian era. Although in her autobiography she does not complain about the disordered manner in which the events of 1853 unfolded, in my opinion, the way in which she re-writes the chaos of that year out of existence does indicate that she wished things would have occurred differently.
The new year started with Mowatt still riding high on the wave of popularity generated by “Ingomar.” She had launched two new roles, “Anne Blake” in December at the Broadway Theater and “Adrienne” in “Adrienne the Actress” at Howard Athenaeum.
J. Westland Marston’s heroine was a bit of a change of pace for Mowatt. Rather than an historical heroine set in the glamorous past, Marston’s Anne Blake was contemporary maiden. The role was not as much a departure from Mowatt’s usual type as another new character she had debuted a few months earlier in “All that Glitters is not Gold.” As the following review describes;
Mrs. Mowatt’s conception of the character of Martha Gibbs accords better with the probabilities of the cast than any other we have ever seen. Most actresses convert the factory girl, living in a garret and spinning cotton for her bread, into a much finer lady, more delicately-fingered and daintily bred than the Lady Valeria or any other lady. Mrs. Mowatt represents her as a girl with a good heart and some breeding, but in all general features a factory girl working for her bread.4
In tribute to her role model, Rachel, the legendary tragedienne of the Comédie-Française, Mowatt took on the role of Adrienne in a play called “Adrienne the Actress” in U.S. This drama, billed under the title “Adrienne Lecourveur” in other translations, was written by Eugene Scribe for the renowned French actress. The play is a romantic tragedy filled with backstage intrigues. None of these new titles rivalled “Ingomar” in popularity, but were well-received by the public and critics.
On March 24, Mowatt was in the middle of a successful tour of the South when, without warning or prelude, the following announcement was appeared in the Boston Evening Transcript;
We learn that Mr. William F. Ritchie, the well-known editor of the Richmond Enquirer, will soon lead to the hymenial altar, the distinguished actress and estimable woman, Mrs. Mowatt. We know not which party ought to be more the subject of congratulation; but suppose of course it must be the gentleman. It is Mrs. M’s wish to take a farewell leave of the stage in our principal cities. She owes this to the many warm friends whom she has made in her histrionic career, and we hope her “liege lord that is to be,” will interpose no objection. Mrs. M. will carry with her into 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.5
The next day, the news of the engagement was in all Boston’s major newspapers and many of leading news outlets in New York. It took the Boston Bee less than twenty-four hours to crown actress Julia Dean heir to Mowatt’s scepter as reigning queen of the U.S. stage.6 By mid-April, most major U.S. papers were buzzing with news of the Ritchie-Mowatt match. Speculation on how soon Anna Cora would quit the stage was rampant.
By mid-summer, when word was out that Mowatt was soon to publish a memoir, the attitude of press was such that this joke, rife with publishing/intimacy puns that tested the boundaries of good taste, made the rounds of many papers;
Mrs. Mowatt is said to be preparing for the press a volume. – Phila. Ledger.
Yes, you are right. It will be ready in the fall. William F. Ritchie of the Richmond Enquirer has engaged the press-work. The composition is to be done by the job in this city. We’ll be bound the work will take. – Boston Mail.
The work we suppose will be struck off in sheets, and when bound –
“It will only be bound in one’s arms.”7
Mowatt reacted the way that — to be perfectly honest — she usually did in stressful situations. She got very ill. She had been suffering from an increasing number of colds, sore throats, and bronchial infections since her return to the U.S. Such problems were rife among performers from this era. Air quality in the sections of urban centers where playhouses were located was frequently bad. Theaters themselves were filled with a veritable smorgasbord of pollutants that could prove damaging to an actor’s respiratory system. Additionally, stress can worsen several types of respiratory-related illnesses.
Although Mowatt was experiencing a high degree of professional success at this time, she was still shouldering a lot of responsibility. Because she was a woman and chose to be careful of her reputation and social standing, her actions were scrutinized closely by her family, acquaintances, the public, and the press. Her choices were often judged harshly.
In March of 1853, Mowatt had just made two huge decisions that would affect the course of the rest of her life. With the advantage of the hindsight provided by the perspective of viewing events from one hundred and seventy years later, it would seem that both of her choices put her on the wrong path. Although she ended her career on a high note, she did not stay in the profession long enough to establish a lasting legacy as an actress. E.L. Davenport and his wife, Fanny, returned from England in 1854. The couple had the support of Fanny’s cousins, James and Lester Wallack. If Mowatt had joined the Davenports and Wallacks at the height of her popularity, the resulting company could have proved an extremely formidable alliance. Had she stayed in the profession only five more years receiving the sort of reviews critics were writing about her in 1852, she might be remembered very differently today.
Anna Cora Mowatt and William Foushee Ritchie seemed to be drawn together trusting in the old proverb “Opposites attract.” They often do. Unfortunately, individuals with incompatible personalities and mismatched values frequently do not form happy or lasting relationships. Hot-tempered, domineering, out-spoken Ritchie and the polite, gracious, but strong-willed Mowatt never technically divorced. Mowatt’s religious beliefs did not permit the possibility of divorce. However, by 1857, a serious rift had developed in the marriage. Mowatt lived with her family in New York at least half of every year. In 1860, Mowatt moved to Europe to live with her sister, May. The couple’s separation was complete this time. She never returned to Ritchie.
In the spring of 1853, Mowatt was ill. Instead of moving forward with the plan the Boston Evening Transcript had announced for a grand farewell tour, she retreated from the public eye, cancelling all engagements. She only emerged in May for Mary Warner’s benefit performance in Boston as per this report;
Mrs. Mowatt arrived in this city on the 12th inst., accompanied by Wm. F. Ritchie Esq., editor of the Richmond Enquirer. In fulfilment of a promise of long standing, Mrs. M. will appear in the character of Desdemona, for the benefit of Mrs. Warner, the accomplished English tragedienne, whose severe indisposition and many trials have greatly enlisted the sympathy of the public. Mrs. Mowatt will not appear again during the season, her own health not being quite re-established. In September she will commence a round of farewell engagements in the principal cities of the Union, and early in the spring she will lay aside her stage attire for bridal robes, and retire to Richmond to private life. Her last engagement and final farewell of the stage will take place in Boston, where also her nuptials with Mr. Ritchie will be celebrated.8
Mowatt does not specify her degree of acquaintance with Mary Warner. Although Warner left the Marylebone Theatre months before Mowatt arrived, coverage of this benefit performance indicates they knew each other. It is possible that the two only had a nodding familiarity as mutual associates of William Macready who may have encountered each other at a dinner party. It is also quite probable that they could have been on very familiar terms as mutual friends and business partners of Walter Watts. In either case, the two were close enough that Warner had called upon Mowatt for aid. Despite being ill herself, the actress had felt compelled to come to her colleague’s assistance when hearing of her plight.
Warner had breast cancer. She had come to the U.S. both to have surgery and raise funds to pay for her treatment. Although she was under the care of Dr. Valentine Mott, one of the leading surgeons of the day, techniques were still primitive. The cancer was too far advanced. Warner was too weak from her procedures to fill many of her scheduled engagements. She would go home to find her family in bankruptcy court.
Newspaper accounts at the time were focused on Mowatt’s ill-health. Advance publicity advised purchasers that a last minute substitute might have to stand in for the actress. In the end, it was Warner who proved too ill to perform. Malinda Jones filled the part of Emelia. Wyzeman Marshall was Othello and Anna Cora went on as Desdemona as scheduled. Mowatt described the night in her autobiography as follows;
At this period Mrs. Warner was about to leave America, where she had encountered a series of most
heartbreaking trials. The autumn previous I had promised her my services for a benefit, at any time when she chose to call upon me. I thus hoped to make amends, in a slight degree, for the losses and discomfitures which had waylaid her whole path in a foreign land. She was now just recovering from a dangerous illness — or rather, was supposed to be recovering. Late tidings bring the sad intelligence of a relapse, which it is feared may prove fatal. She was to receive a complimentary benefit at the Howard Athenaeum, in Boston, and requested the fulfilment of my promise. I consented to enact Desdemona to her Emelia, and went to Boston for that purpose about the middle of May. On the morning of the benefit Mrs. Warner was still unable to leave her apartment. The benefit, however, took place, and a thronged attendance proved the high estimation in which she was held by an American public. Mrs. M. Jones filled the role of Emelia in Mrs. Warner’s stead. I represented Desdemona — Mr. Marshall Othello. I once more used my voice with great facility; but the exertion consequent even upon so unarduous a performance made me conscious of unusual deficiency of strength and elasticity.9
In this way, yet another last, sad tie to her days at the Marylebone Theater ended for Anna Cora Mowatt.
The primary reason that I wanted to include this entry that covers a year without a “Lady of Lyons” production (Mowatt cancelled the September tour that the press release announcing Warner’s benefit promised) in this series on her performances as Pauline, is that the actress began writing her autobiography in the summer of 1853. I think it is terribly important to understand the context in which this work was composed.
Mowatt’s autobiography powerfully shapes the impression modern readers have of her. It is a remarkable text; unlike any autobiography of the era. Next to her play, “Fashion,” “Autobiography of an Actress” is her most potent legacy. I have devoted a chapter to this work in “The Lady Actress.” From the poised, self-possessed tone of that work, one might assume that the text was composed after her separation from Ritchie during the 1860s while she was residing in Italy or even later in that decade when she was living in England and looking back on her career.
Mowatt was only four months past the announcement of her engagement to Ritchie when she began. The couple had probably been romantically involved for over a year. She had not yet retired when she began writing. Mowatt had just reached an apex of success in the U.S. theatre world in the role of Parthenia. However she was still barely three years past the traumatic events of 1850-51.
Mowatt does not make any mention of her relationship with William F. Ritchie in her autobiography. I am aware that she was a very private person and that the etiquette of the day was fairly strict about male/female relationships. However, their engagement was public knowledge. He was openly escorting her to events. Ritchie’s wishes would have seemed to have factored into her decision to leave the stage. She does not acknowledge any input from him in her book. In fact, the only person who she does credit with contributing to her thinking on this crucial question is James Mowatt.
Perhaps the most moving and emotional passages in the entire text are found in the chapter Mowatt writes describing the death of her first husband. Despite Swedenborgian views that discourage grieving as displaying a lack of faith in an idyllic afterlife that far outshines the turmoil of mortal existence, the actress’ autobiography puts her mourning for the passing of James Mowatt on display. The text does not give us any glimpse of her as an enraptured fiancée looking forward hopefully to a new start in a new romance.
Mowatt ends her memoir not joyfully, but ill and in bed, defending the choices that she has made about her career. Unlike a historical researcher, she could not see how her decisions would play out from the vantage point of a few centuries afterwards. She lived as we all do — from day to day. She tried to control the aspects of her life that it was in her power to manipulate. She made the best guesses she could about the potential consequences of her actions. When things went wrong despite her best efforts, she made the best of bad circumstances with incredible energy… or sometimes was crushed by pain and regret to nearly the point of death herself.
Perhaps it is the quality of struggle that she sometimes attempts to camouflage in her autobiography that ultimately makes Mowatt into a relatable figure. Despite the fact that she was intelligent, beautiful, talented, and successful, Mowatt was as vulnerable to whims of fate as any of us. Startling tragedy visited her as often as extreme good fortune. She never settled into a stable point of “happily ever after.” Despite her many advantages, she had to struggle at every point with uncertainty, self-doubt, unexpected misfortune, detractors, the ill will of colleagues, and bad luck on a sometimes near to epic scale.
Next week, Mowatt begins finally begins her grand farewell tour. She will play Pauline once again!
1. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston, 1856) Page 380.
2. Ibid. Page 370.
3. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Letter to the Editor. The Daily Delta. March 9, 1853. Page 4, col. 1.
4. “Amusements.” New Orleans Times-Picayune. March 7, 1853. Page 1.
5. “Personal.” Boston Evening Transcript. March 24, 1853. Page 2, col. 6.
6. “Mrs. Mowatt.” Boston Daily Bee. March 25, 1853. Page 2.
7. Evening Star. June 23, 1853. Page 3.
8. “Personal.” Evening Mirror. May 16, 1853. Page 3.
9. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston, 1856) Page 420-21.