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Who Was the Most Famous of All?

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New York Public Library
Joseph Jefferson, Palm Beach, Florida, circa 1904

Did you ever see Jefferson?” George Hurstwood asks Sister Carrie as he leans toward her in the Chicago theater to which he’s invited her and her “husband,” Charlie Drouet; “He’s delightful, delightful.” And when Hurstwood reports to his wife that the play was very good, “only it’s the same old thing, ‘Rip Van Winkle,’” every contemporary reader of Sister Carrie would have known exactly what he was talking about. Long before 1900, when Dreiser’s novel was published, Joe Jefferson was the most famous actor in America, and the richest. He was also the most beloved, his unparalleled genius for blending humor and pathos having endeared him to the entire national audience.

Yet it’s hardly surprising that today he’s completely forgotten: Who can remember the names of any American actors of the nineteenth century, except perhaps Edwin Booth and his notorious brother, John Wilkes? What’s surprising is that within the current decade, two scholarly yet engaging full-length biographies of Jefferson have appeared. In retrospect, though, you can see why two respected academics—Arthur Bloom (Joseph Jefferson: Dean of the American Theatre) and Benjamin McArthur (The Man Who Was Rip Van Winkle)—would choose to write about him. Joe Jefferson is not only a fascinating figure but the perfect vehicle for tracking the history of nineteenth-century theater in America. In a sense, his history is its history.

To begin with, acting was the family trade: he was the fourth generation of Jefferson actors. His great-grandfather, named Thomas Jefferson, was an English lawyer-turned-performer who was a protégé of the great David Garrick. His grandfather, the first Joseph Jefferson, emigrated to America and became the leading comedian in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street Theatre, the nation’s most highly regarded playhouse. His father, the second Joseph, although a less resourceful actor, was a talented scenic artist. His mother, Cornelia, had been a very successful singer whose son by a first marriage, Charles Burke, was to become a great stage favorite. And there were sisters, cousins, and aunts in the business, as well as brothers and uncles—it was a clan, a tribe, a dynasty.

It’s natural, then, that Joe the Third, born in 1829, could confidently report sixty years later that “whenever a baby was wanted on the stage, either for the purpose of being murdered or saved, I did duty on those occasions.” At three, having fun backstage, he so charmingly and accurately mimicked the famous T.D. Rice, who had more or less invented the minstrel show, that Rice secretly got him up in blackface and dumped him out of a sack onto the stage while singing, “O Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d have you for to know/That I’ve got a little darky here that jumps Jim Crow.” Laughter, applause, and a rain of coins were his rewards—and these were the rewards he would go on assiduously seeking for the next seventy-odd years. At six he received his first mention in a review: he was little Alexis in a melodrama called The Snow Storm in which he cried out “Mother, Mother” to the offstage heroine, “Lowina of Tobolskow,” before freezing to death in a savage Siberian blizzard.

The fortunes of the Jefferson tribe began to erode when Joe’s grandfather lost his popularity, quit Philadelphia, and died, disheartened, not long afterward. The family troupe, lacking its star, tried New York, Washington, Baltimore, but by 1838 was forced to head west to the new boomtown of Chicago (population: four thousand) where family connections were waiting to welcome them. Through the next few years, the Jeffersons ranged the Midwest, reduced to a group of itinerant players, and eventually proceeded down the Mississippi. Within days of arriving in Mobile, Joe’s father died of yellow fever. Joe, at thirteen, and his younger sister were now the chief breadwinners, acting, singing, dancing in almost every performance, while Cornelia opened a boardinghouse to help make ends meet. But soon the Jefferson company ceased to exist, and the mother and two youngsters joined another itinerant company, which, having “constructed a barge, using scenery as a sail,” floated down a series of rivers to the Mississippi. Things got so bad that at one point the family and all its trappings were abandoned on a lonely road because they couldn’t pay the waggoner.

In 1846 they were in Texas, wary of Comanche raids, until during the Mexican War they followed Zachary Taylor’s army to the filthy, lice-ridden, dangerous town of Matamoras, where loud, drunken soldiers were demanding to be amused. (Some of them were pressed into service as players: Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant was rehearsing Desdemona until a real actress turned up to relieve him.) When the army moved on, the Jeffersons were stranded, Joe and an actor friend running a cigar stand until they managed to get back to New Orleans on a government boat.

In his memoirs, Joe drapes a veil of nostalgia, even romance, over this turbulent decade, but there was nothing romantic about his father’s death, the family’s desperate attempts to establish a new footing in the theater, and the anxieties of an impoverished, itinerant life. What saved them was the web of family connections and loyalties that yet again came to the rescue.

It was Joe’s beloved half-brother, Charles Burke, who proved to be the lifeline, summoning them all to join him in Philadelphia where he was already a successful young actor installed in a first-rate company. Joe had grown up as a precocious all-purpose entertainer; now, at seventeen, he began his serious apprenticeship to his art, slowly moving up the pecking order of the traditional stock company. He was already conspicuous for his ambition: from the first he saw himself as a potential star, just as from the first it was obvious that he had talent—as well as that essential quality for an actor, the ability to please. Yet it would take another decade of persistent hard work, false starts, and good luck before he became a name to be reckoned with—a star attraction if not quite a star.

By the late 1850s, Joe was an established leading comedian. He was also a married man. At the age of twenty-one, he had married a young actress with whom he quickly had six children, two of whom died as babies. In his autobiography, he never gives her name (Margaret Lockyer): “If I dwell lightly upon domestic matters, I do so, not from any want of reverence for them, but from the conviction that the details of one’s family affairs are tiresome and uninteresting.”

He was far more forthcoming about the great blow that had struck him in 1854, when Charles Burke died (of tuberculosis) in his arms, murmuring “I am going to our mother.” Joe’s love and admiration for Charles never wavered—although “only a half brother, he seemed like a father to me”—and he always maintained that if “my brother Charley had only lived, the world would never have heard of me.” Typical Jefferson self-deprecation, yet obviously heartfelt. Needless to say, Joe’s oldest son had been named after Charles.

By this time, Joe had begun evolving his near-revolutionary approach to character acting: again and again he would invest a one-dimensional farcical character with a simple and appealing humanity. It was a new brand of realism that critics as well as audiences came quickly to embrace and cherish. You laughed at Joe Jefferson, but it was a laughter of appreciation, not mockery.

His big breakthrough came when he joined a prestigious New York company and in 1858 was instrumental in launching a new comedy—Tom Taylor’s Our American Cousin. Joe played Asa Trenchard, the cousin from Vermont, who turns up in England and sorts out all the family problems as well as finding true love with a milkmaid who happens to be an heiress. The stage Yankee was traditionally a stock comic character with uncouth manners and mannerisms, good for a derisory laugh. Contemporary reviews underline that Joe played Asa with rough dignity and warmth, demonstrating Yankee common sense rather than Yankee eccentricity. The heart of gold—a Joe Jefferson specialty—shone through, and Our American Cousin achieved an almost unprecedented run of 139 consecutive performances (only Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Drunkard had run longer).

A streak of other hits followed: Dion Boucicault’s Dot, an adaptation of Dickens’s The Cricket on the Hearth, in which he played Caleb Plummer, the lovable but forlorn old toymaker; a version of Nicholas Nickleby in which his Newman Noggs, Ralph Nickleby’s clerk, became the central character; Boucicault’s sensational abolitionist melodrama The Octoroon, whose final line (at least in the version Jefferson preferred to play) he delivered as the heroine expired: “Poor child; she is free.”

Finally, and fatefully, in 1860 Joe happened to reread Washington Irving’s famous tale of Rip Van Winkle and realized that the character of Rip was tailor-made for him. There had been at least ten previous stage versions, but none of them had really succeeded in dramatizing Irving’s narrative effectively. Tinkering with the text, Joe took the crucial step of making the encounter between Rip and the ghosts of Hendrik Hudson and his crew the heart of the play. “I arranged that no voice but Rip’s should be heard. This is the only act on the stage in which but one person speaks while all the others merely gesticulate.” Convinced that he had a career-changing hit, he toured Rip through the Northeast, but the expected triumph didn’t materialize. Perhaps only he himself could imagine at this point that he had in his grasp what would become the most popular male role of the century.

In the spring of 1861, a concatenation of events led to a decisive moment in Joe’s life. Twenty-eight-year-old Margaret died in March, leaving him with four children to raise; his own health was a concern, since like his mother and half-brother he had weak lungs and a predisposition to tuberculosis; Rip hadn’t prevailed—his route to official stardom was blocked. But most important, the Civil War was breaking out, and he intended to play no part in it. After his death, a friend wrote:

Early in 1861 Jefferson came to me and said: “There is going to be a great war of sections. I am not a warrior. I am neither a Northerner nor a Southerner. I cannot bring myself to engage in bloodshed or to take sides. I have near and dear ones North and South. I am going away and I shall stay away until the storm blows over.”

It certainly rings true that Joe would not take sides if he could avoid it—his entire life was spent attempting to please everyone and offend no one. No surprise, then, that on June 1, 1861, seven weeks after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, he left New York for California, taking with him ten-year-old Charley and leaving behind, with his late wife’s parents, the other three children, whom he would not see again for five years.

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