» Biography Home
» Biographies A-F
» Biographies G-M
» Biographies N-S
» Biographies T-Z
The great actor who has lately left the world furnished, in his own remarkable character and shining career, a striking exception to the popular tradition that men of genius are the fathers of ordinary sons. The father of Edwin Booth was in his time one of the glories of the English and American stage; but, even in his case the strict rule wavered, for his father, though not a genius, was yet a man of exceptional character; one who marked out a clear path for himself in the world, and walked in it to the end.
How far back the line of the family can be traced, or what was its origin, we do not know; but it has lately been said that the family was of Hebrew extraction, and came into England from Spain, where it had been known by the Spanish name, Cabana. The branch of the family that left Spain to live in England translated the name into the language of their new home, and from "Cabana," a shepherd's cabin, made the English equivalent, Booth.
However it may have been in this case, it was quite in the order of things that this change of name should be made. It has been done everywhere in Europe since very early times, and is doing to-day in this country by new comers from all parts of the old world.
The first of the Booths we read of in England was a silversmith, living in Bloomsbury, London, in the latter half of the last century. He had a son, Richard, who was bred to the law, but who was so imbued with the republican ideas rife at the time that he actually came to America to fight in the cause of Independence! He was taken prisoner, and carried back to England, where, not without some struggles, he again applied himself to the practice of the law, and in time made a fortune. He did not, however, forget America, and we are told that he had, hanging in his house, a portrait of Washington, which he expected all his visitors to salute.
One of the ways in which the republicans of that time showed where their sympathies lay, was in naming their children after the heroes of Greece and Rome; and accordingly we find Richard Booth calling his eldest son, Junius Brutus Booth, after the Roman patriot. This son was born in London, in 1796. His father was a man of scholarly tastes, and gave the boy a classical education, but it was long before he showed a marked inclination for any particular walk in life. He tried his hand at painting, sculpture, and poetry; and for a while studied law with his father. But, when the time came to choose, he gave his voice for the navy, and would have joined the brig Boxer, then fitting out for Nova Scotia. But, as war threatened between England and America, he was induced, by the strong persuasions of his father, not to run the risk of being forced to fight against America. He then decided to go upon the stage, and, in spite of his father's remonstrances, carried out his purpose. After some unimportant essays he at last succeeded in attracting public attention, and before long showed such unmistakable ability in dealing with difficult parts, that the public, till that time undivided in its enthusiasm for Kean, awoke to the fact that a dangerous rival threatened the security of their idol's throne. In the midst of his successes, however, Booth married and left England with his wife for a honeymoon trip to the West Indies. He had intended to return at once to England, but he was persuaded to prolong his journey and to visit New York. After playing a successful engagement there he went to Richmond, where he was no less prosperous. He next visited New Orleans and acquired such facility in speaking French that he played parts in French plays more than acceptably, and distinguished himself by acting Orestes in Racine's "Andromaque," to the delight of the French-speaking population. His accent is said to have been remarkable for its purity. Returning to New York, he acted Othello to Forrest's Iago; but, in the midst of his successes, the death of two of his children produced a temporary insanity, and this was made worse by the news of the death of his favorite son, Henry Byron, in London, of small-pox. This grievous loss was, however, to be made up to him by his son, Edwin, in whom he was to find the counterpart of himself, softened, refined, ennobled, while between father and son was to grow a strong attachment, a bond of mutual affection to last as long as life should endure.
Edwin Thomas Booth was born at Bel Air, Maryland, November 12, 1833. He was named Edwin, after his father's friend, Edwin Forrest, and Thomas, after Thomas Flynn, the actor, whom the elder Booth had known intimately in London. His son dropped the name of Thomas, later in life, and was only known to the public by the name of Edwin Booth. Owing to his father's wandering life Edwin had few advantages of education, but he made the most of his opportunities, and indeed was a student of good letters all his life, turning the light of all he learned from books and experience upon his art. His youth is described as reticent, and marked by a strong individuality, with a deep sympathy for his father, early manifested; his father, a much enduring, suffering man, strongly in need of sympathy, knowing to repay it, too, in kind.
Edwin Booth made his first appearance on the stage in 1849 at the Boston Museum in the youthful part of Tressil, in Colley Cibber's version of Shakespeare's "Richard III." It had been against his father's wishes that he had adopted the stage as a profession; but, as his father had done in a like case before him he persevered, and soon had the satisfaction of convincing his parent that he had decided wisely. He did not at once come to New York after his success in Boston, but went to Providence and to Philadelphia, acting Cassio in "Othello," and Wilford in the "Iron Chest," a part he soon made his own and in which he made his first appearance in New York, playing at the National Theatre in Chatham Street, in 1850. The next year he played Richard III. for the first time, taking the part unexpectedly to fill the place of his father, who was suddenly ill. In 1852 he went out with his father to San Francisco, where his brother, Junius Brutus Booth, Jr., was the manager of a theatre; and the father and his two sons acted together. At Sacramento, we are told that the incident occurred which led Edwin Booth to think of acting Hamlet, a part which was to become as closely associated with his name as that of Richard III. was with his father. He was dressed for the part of Jaffier in Otway's play, "Venice Preserved," when some one said to him "You look like Hamlet, why not play it?" It was, however, some time before he ventured to assume the part. In October, 1852, the father and son parted, not to meet again. The elder Booth went to New Orleans, and after playing for a week took passage in a steamboat on the Mississippi, and catching a severe cold succumbed after a few days' illness and died. For a while after his father's death Edwin suffered greatly from poverty and from the hardships of his precarious life, unsustained as he now was by the affection and encouragement of a father who, with all his faults, and in all the misfortunes brought on by serious ill-health and some aberrations that were the effect of ill-health had always been an affectionate and true friend. But a talent such as Edwin Booth possessed, united to a high character, and to a dauntless spirit, could not long be hid, and in a short time his name began to be heard of as that of one destined to great ends. In 1854 he went to Australia as a member of Laura Keene's company. He had made a deep impression in California, acting such parts as Richard III., Shylock, Macbeth, and Hamlet, and on returning there from Australia that first impression was greatly strengthened. On leaving San Francisco he received various testimonials showing the high esteem in which his acting was held by the educated part of the community; but throughout Edwin Booth's career, the interest he excited in the vast audiences that followed him was by no means confined to the self-styled "best people." Though he never "played to the gallery," the heart of the gallery was as much with him as the heart of the boxes, and he knew the value of its rapt silence as well as of its stormy voices.
In Boston, in 1857, he played Sir Giles Overreach, in Massinger's "A New Way to Pay Old Debts," and the profound impression he made in it confirmed him in his purpose to devote himself to tragic acting. The story of an actor's life is seldom eventful, and Mr. Booth's history, after his first assured success, is the record of a long line of triumphs without a failure. The most remarkable of these triumphs was at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York, where he acted Hamlet to large and ever-increasing audiences for over one hundred successive nights, that is, from November 21, 1864, to March 24, 1865. On this occasion a gold medal was presented to the actor by friends and admirers in New York; the list of subscribers including the names of many well-known citizens. The Winter Garden Theatre was managed by Booth and his brother-in-law, the clever actor, J. S. Clarke, until Booth bought out Clarke and assumed the entire management himself. In 1865 the terrible tragedy occurred which blighted Booth's whole after-life, and for a time drove him from the stage. He did not act again until 1866; in 1867 the theatre was destroyed by fire, and in 1868 the corner-stone of a new building, to be known as Booth's Theatre, was laid, and in a short time New York was in possession, for the first time, of a thoroughly appointed, comfortable, and handsome theatre. This building was made famous by a number of Shakespearian revivals that for beauty, magnificence, and scenic poetry have, we believe, never been equalled. We doubt if "Hamlet," "Julius Caesar," or "Romeo and Juliet," have ever been presented with more satisfying completeness to the eye and to the imagination than in this theatre by Mr. Booth and his company. Although the theatre was in existence for thirteen years, from 1868 to 1882, when it was finally closed, Mr. Booth's management lasted only about half that time. The speculation was not a fortunate one for the actor; the expenses ate up all the profits, and Mr. Booth was bankrupted by his venture. He paid all his debts, however, and went bravely to work to build up a new fortune. He made a tour of the South, which was one long ovation, and in a season of eight weeks in San Francisco he took in $96,000.
In 1880 he went to England and remained there two years. In 1882 he visited Germany, acting in both countries with great success, and in 1883 he returned home and made a tour of America, repeating everywhere his old triumphs, and winning golden opinions from all classes of his countrymen.
Edwin Booth died in New York, June 7, 1893, at the Players' Club, where he had lived for the last few years of his life. This was a building erected by his own munificence, fitted up with luxurious completeness, and presented to a society of his professional brethren for the use and behoof of his fellow-artists, reserving for himself only the modest apartment where he chose to live, in sympathetic touch with those who still pursued the noble art he had relinquished.
Mr. Booth was twice married. By his first wife, Miss Mary Devlin, who died in 1863, he had one child, a daughter; by the second, Miss McVicker, he had no children. She died in 1881.