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American Women: Resources from the Manuscript Collections

Actresses & Actors

John Tallis & Company, publisher. Charlotte and Susan Cushman as Romeo and Juliet. Circa 1860. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

One of the division's earliest sources of information on actresses is the Robert Merry collection (50 items; 1792-1850), containing engravings, clippings, and notes relating to Merry's wife, actress Ann Brunton Merry (1769-1808). Also included are playbills, 1801-17, from several Philadelphia theaters, which list the names of several actresses.

Researchers interested in women's theatrical endeavors in the mid-to-late nineteenth century have more sources to mine. Complementing the papers of Fanny Kemble (1809-1893) in the collection of her grandson Owen Wister (see Novelists), is a separate group of the actress's papers (75 items; 1829-74). This small collection contains correspondence relating to her 1849 divorce from southern plantation owner Pierce Butler, whose ownership of slaves she found abhorrent, and two volumes of material she used for her 1835 Journal of a Residence in America, which was critical of American social life and customs.

Shakespearean actress Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876) enjoyed a successful theatrical career both in the United States and abroad. Her collection of correspondence, annotated scripts, and reviews (10,000 items; 1824-1941; bulk 1861-75) chiefly concerns theatrical matters, including a benefit tour for the U.S. Sanitary Commission in 1863. For much of the 1850s through the 1870s, Cushman lived in semi-retirement in London and Rome, and her correspondence from that period records the activities of Americans abroad and their reactions to the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln's assassination. From 1857 until her death, Cushman's constant companion was American sculptor Emma Stebbins (1815-1882), whose correspondence also appears in the collection. Additional Cushman items may be found in the research papers (1,750 items; 1830-1960) of educator Jennie Lorenz (1886-1962), who wrote a master's thesis on the actress.

Actress Laura Keene (1826-1873), best known for her performance in Our American Cousin the night Lincoln was assassinated, was also a theater manager, and her papers (107 items; 1855-85) contain clippings about that fateful night at Ford's Theater as well as documents reflecting the business side of theatrical ventures.

The collection of army officer F. W. Lander (1,250 items; 1836-94; bulk 1849-62) includes the papers of his wife, Jean Davenport Lander (1829-1903), relating to her career as an actress in Europe, North America, and the Caribbean. Her correspondents include Harriet Lane, Julia Marlowe, and Anna Cora Ritchie. Marlowe (1866-1950) is also represented by more than one hundred letters in the papers of author and journalist Charles Edward Russell (12,000 items; 1864-1941; bulk 1900-1930).

At the turn of the century, both Anna E. Dickinson (see Antislavery Movement) and Minnie Maddern Fiske (1865-1932) blended their acting careers with their interests in reform. An outspoken critic of cruelty to animals, Fiske denounced bullfighting, use of aigrette feathers on hats, and fur-trapping. Her papers (18,000 items; 1884-1932) reflect these concerns and provide a picture of an accomplished actress, director, and producer who defiantly bucked the theatrical trusts of the period.

Twentieth-century stage actresses are equally well represented in the division. Small collections document the careers of:

  • Maude Adams (1872-1953), the immensely popular actress who later became a lighting designer (19 items; 1925-56)
  • Alla Nazimova (1879-1945), the legendary Russian-born stage and film actress who was considered the foremost interpreter of Henrik Ibsen's dramas (1,400 items; 1877-1988)
  • Rosamond Pinchot (1904-1938), the actress who was discovered by Max Reinhardt while traveling on an ocean liner and was known for her appearance in the Broadway play, The Miracle (100 items; 1918-1955; bulk 1923-1937)
  • Natacha Rambova (1897-1966), the actress and cinematic designer who married Rudolph Valentino (210 items; 1955-65)
Bain News Service, publisher. Eva Le Gallienne. Between ca. 1920 and ca. 1925. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Providing high-quality stage productions at affordable prices to working Americans was an important goal of actress and producer Eva Le Gallienne (1899-1991), whose recently acquired collection (9,000 items; 1875-1993; bulk 1916-83) documents her profound influence on American theater as an actress, director, translator, teacher of young actors, and founder and promoter of repertory theater in this country. Le Gallienne had great admiration for actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse, who are represented in her papers, as are her former partners Marion Gunnar Evenson, actress Josephine Hutchinson, and actress Margaret Webster.

Like Le Gallienne, Margaret Webster (1905-1972) was a director and producer as well as an actress. Her papers (7,000 items; 1837-1974; bulk 1937-70), including especially candid letters to her mother, relate to her career and her research on two family biographies, The Same Only Different (1969) and Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage (1972), which focus on her parents, May Whitty and Benjamin Webster of the British stage. Other topics include Webster's involvement with Le Gallienne and Cheryl Crawford in the American Repertory Theater in New York, her interest in experimental theater with Marweb Productions, a Shakespearean company, and her associations with Lynn Fontanne and Sybil Thorndike.

Two other supporters of American repertory theater were stage and screen actors Jessica Tandy (1909-1994) and husband Hume Cronyn whose papers (98,800 items; 1885-1994; bulk 1935-93) reflect their long careers and marriage.

Bain News Service. Lillian Gish, full-length portrait, standing, facing left, wearing pink morning gown of chiffon and lace. 1922. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Years before Tandy embarked on a film career, other pioneering actresses had already begun to make their mark on that medium, including May Robson (1858-1942), Miriam Cooper (1891-1976), Lillian Gish (1893-1993), and Ruth Gordon (1896-1985). Cooper's papers (300 items; 1915-76) concern her marriage to actor and director Raoul Walsh and her work with D. W. Griffith in Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. Highlights of Gish's papers (8,750 items; 1920-73) are several annotated film scripts and nearly four hundred letters relating to her activities on behalf of the America First Committee. Gordon's papers (6,000 items; 1924-69) concern her dual careers as an actress and playwright and include correspondence from many writers and Hollywood leading ladies such as Claudette Colbert, Edna Ferber, Gertrude Lawrence, Vivien Leigh, Anita Loos, Clare Boothe Luce, Mary Martin, and Rebecca West.

Three collections of television and radio scripts—Sid Caesar (2,000 items; 1950-63), General Foods Corporation Radio Script Collection (150 items; 1932-49), and Fred Allen (404 items; 1932-51)—contain texts of commercials aimed at women and document the work of writers Selma Diamond and Lucille Kallen and actresses Imogene Coca, Janet Blair, Nanette Fabray, and Talullah Bankhead.

As with most topics and types of collections, documents of interest to women's historians may also be found in the papers of men who were active in the theater and film business. A good example of this are the papers of Vincent Price (60,000 items; 1883-1992; bulk 1932-92), which concern his acting career as well as his accomplishments as a gourmet cook, art collector, and critic. As an art consultant for Sears, Roebuck and Company, he generated numerous files relating not only to women artists but also to home fashion accessories, housewares, and other items typically designed for and purchased by women. Other files in Price's papers relate to Charlotte Cooper, Barbara O'Neill, and the Miss America Pageant, and correspondents include his wives— actress Edith Barrett (1906-1977), costume designer Mary Grant Price (b. 1917?), and actress Coral Browne (1913-1991).

Manuscript Resources Referenced

The following collection titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content, including finding aids for the collections, are included when available.