Famous Stage Actor Biography of Edwin Booth

About the famous American stage actor Edwin Booth, biography and history of the 19th century actor.

Edwin Booth (1833-1893). The greatest American actor of the 19th century, Edwin Booth was the 1st U.S-born performer to win wide acclaim in Europe. Darkly handsome and slight of build, Booth possessed a magnificent voice, a profound understanding of the characters he played, and a natural unmannered style of acting. Nat Goodwin, who burlesqued many famous persons, refused to imitate Booth, explaining, "You can't be funny exaggerating something that is not in the 1st place a little overdone. . . I couldn't be funny caricaturing perfection."

In 1846, at the age of 13, Edwin began to tour with his father, the brilliant but erratic tragedian Junius Brutus Booth. The quiet youngster had a calming influence on his eccentric father, whose flights of madness and inebriation made him a threat to his fellow performers, his career, and himself. At 16, Edwin made his stage debut in a minor part in Richard III, his father playing the title role. Two years later, the young actor portrayed Richard III when his father refused to go on. In the years that followed, Edwin became a star in his own right, setting a Broadway record in March, 1865, with his 100th consecutive performance as Hamlet. Other favorite roles included Richelieu, Lear, Iago, and Shylock.

Throughout his life, America's last great tragedian was afflicted with melancholia--not without reason. Mary Devlin, the woman he most loved, died of pneumonia in 1863, 2 years after he married her. Booth forever blamed himself for having been too drunk to open the telegrams which said she was dying and urged his prompt return. In 1870, Booth's only son, Edgar, died just hours after his birth. The loss led to the insanity of Edwin's 2nd wife, Mary McVicker. Then, in 1874, Edwin went bankrupt, losing the beautiful Booth Theater, which had been built to his specifications 5 years earlier.

The greatest calamity of Edwin's life was also a national tragedy. On April 14, 1865, 3 weeks after his record run in Hamlet, his younger brother, John Wilkes Booth, shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln in the Ford Theater in Washington, D.C. Twelve days later Booth himself was shot in a burning barn in Virginia. Desperately seeking to surpass Edwin's fame, John Wilkes had feared that chronic hoarseness would curtail his own promising acting career. The evening of the assassination he vowed, "When I leave the stage for good, I will be the most famous man in America." Grief-stricken and humiliated by his brother's mad crime, Edwin immediately retired. Ironically, a few years earlier Edwin had saved Lincoln's son Robert from being crushed by a train at Pennsylvania Railroad Station in Jersey City.

Eventually Booth rebounded from all his adversities, returned to the stage, and died in 1893 a wealthy man with many friends and admirers. A bronze statue of Edwin Thomas Booth stands in New York's Gramercy Park opposite The Players, a club for actors that he founded in 1888. The Harvard Theatre Collection in Cambridge, Mass., boasts 2 recordings Booth made in 1890.

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