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Showing Off

George Eastman House/Getty Images
John Wilkes Booth with the devil whispering in his ear, 1865

Was sibling rivalry responsible for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln? So you would conclude if you took seriously the phrase “The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth That Led to an American Tragedy,” which is blazoned across the dust jacket and the title page of My Thoughts Be Bloody, a new book by Nora Titone, with a hyperbolic foreword by her “teacher and mentor,” Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Titone (this is her first book) has done her homework and digested it. If she had restrained herself from attempting to fit the Booth story into a soap-opera construct “filled with ambition, rivalry, betrayal, and tragedy…as gripping as a fine work of fiction,” as Goodwin puts it, she would have performed an even more valuable service than she has. Although there have been many books about John Wilkes Booth and the assassination, few have focused to this extent on his place in the theater dynasty of which he was a less distinguished member than his biographers—and he himself—would have liked us to believe. He started acting late, he was untrained, and his superb looks and natural charm and athleticism could carry him only so far.

He certainly, however, had his share of the family ambition. The father, Junius Brutus Booth, was the grandson of a Jewish silversmith whose origins lay in Portugal. Having failed to unseat Edmund Kean as London’s leading tragedian, Junius emigrated to America in 1821 and quickly established himself as one of the nation’s most famous actors, despite his chronic alcoholism and his periodic bouts of insanity. The oldest of his ten children born here, Junius Brutus Booth II, was only modestly talented as an actor, knew it, and wisely established himself as a theatrical manager. (He had an even temperament, but the Booth streak of madness emerged much later on in one of his children, who in middle age shot and killed himself and his wife.)

The second son, Edwin, born in 1833, grew up in the theater and began acting in his late teens, determined to rise to the very top, and by the time he was in his mid-twenties, this ambition, combined with his great talent and relentless work ethic, had propelled him there. The third son—variously known as Wilkes, John, Johnny, and Jack—was driven by fantasies of stardom, but circumstances, together with his lack of discipline and judgment, stood in his way.

There was no rivalry between the two older brothers. Junius II opened up his San Francisco company to Edwin, and kept him busy learning stagecraft from the ground up, playing, as Titone puts it, “every part handed to him. He obediently donned blackface, thumped his banjo, sang minstrel tunes, and hoofed it in clogs. He acted comedies, melodramas, burlesques, variety shows, and farces.” (Later he would grasp how important this broad experience had been for his art, even if it had been humiliating at the time. He called it “a lesson for crushed tragedians.”) In time, he graduated to more significant parts, then to sudden and sustained success in his father’s most famous role, Richard III, and Hamlet, which would become his own most famous role.

Edwin was also leading a wild life in the highly permissive atmosphere of the San Francisco of the 1850s. His drinking was out of control—perhaps even more serious than his father’s. (His grandfather and great-grandfather had been alcoholics too.) His womanizing was notorious. “At twenty I was a libertine…. All the vices seemed to have full sway over me and I yielded to their bestializing voices.” (He paid the usual price—venereal disease.) But although he was seen as a happy-go-lucky, friendly young man, already the deep melancholy that was to characterize his life was upon him. At the age of twelve, he had been chosen to accompany Junius on his endless tours—to endure the horrific travel conditions of the day; to dog his father’s footsteps after every performance in order to keep him from drinking the night’s earnings away, sometimes shadowing him through the dark streets until morning; to act as Junius’s dresser and general dogsbody; to trick him into getting to the theater on time for performances; to tend him through his outbursts of lunacy. “I had no childhood,” he was to say.

There are endless examples of Junius’s erratic behavior. Once, playing in Boston, he burst into tears and “turning to the audience…screamed, ‘take me to the Lunatic Hospital!’ and ran sobbing toward the exit.” (“The stage manager stepped forward to announce, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Booth cannot appear this evening. His reason has left him.’”) Even more serious, one morning in a hotel lobby he announced, “I must cut somebody’s throat today, and whom shall I take?” then whipped out a dagger and attempted to stab a prominent member of the company.

As Junius deteriorated, the theater world grew wary of him—of “Crazy Booth, the mad tragedian”—but audiences still responded to his thrilling performances. We can imagine how his behavior affected the boy Edwin, who, apart from everything else, loved his father. These painful years, however, were the foundation of Edwin’s knowledge of the theater, of acting, and of the repertory. They lasted until he was nineteen—seven years.

Whenever possible, father and son repaired to the large family farm in Bel Air, Maryland, where Junius was always happy being with his adored “wife,” Mary Ann. (He had married very young and very badly in England, fathered a son, and then, abandoning wife and child, eloped to America with Mary Ann, a beautiful teenaged flower seller. It was only well after she and Junius had produced their ten children that they were able to regularize their union.)

Of the children, four were to die of dysentery or cholera—Booth’s grief was inconsolable. Still living at home with Mary Ann were their reclusive daughter, Rosalie, who would spend her entire life with her mother; their younger daughter, Asia, handsome, intelligent, and strong-willed; John Wilkes; and a final son, Joseph, who would lead a bewilderingly feckless life until at the age of forty-nine he became a doctor. When the family was together, usually during the summers, Junius enjoyed running the farm, steadfastly refusing to own slaves while hiring the help he needed, both black and white, from around the neighborhood.

But if for Junius Bel Air was an idyll, for Johnny Wilkes it was a cage. To him, Edwin’s harrowing years with his father represented freedom, excitement, glamour; why was he trapped on a Maryland farm with his mother and siblings while Edwin was living a great adventure? Doris Kearns Goodwin tells us that “when Junius chooses the older son, Edwin, to accompany him on the road, a fierce jealousy begins to fester in John Wilkes.” Yes, young children can be violently jealous, but even in a family as far from conventional as the Booths, no one would seriously have considered sending an eight-year-old on such a mission.

In 1852 Junius suddenly died of cholera while returning alone from a tour in California, Edwin having decided to stay behind to chart his own course. It was now that he took his first steps toward ascendancy in his profession. And he needed only four years—after rough early times in California and an unfortunate detour to Australia and Hawaii, followed by his successes in San Francisco—before he was back in the East, with a purse filled with gold and a copy of a proclamation from the California state legislature referring to him as “a treasure, a gift of great value that the people of California were bestowing on the rest of the United States.”

In 1856, when Edwin arrived home, John Wilkes was eighteen and on fire with energy and zeal. He was building, Asia would write, “fantastic temples of fame…. For my brother, no visions or dreams were too extravagantly great.” His mother had sent him to a series of reputable boarding schools, in which he failed to shine. (At school he was thought of as a pugnacious bully who appeared to enjoy treating “the smaller boys cruelly.”) On the farm, though, with the older Booths on the road and young Joseph off at school, the teenage John “became the only male in his mother’s home, sole recipient of all female attentions…. His older sisters…tiptoed past his bedroom as if it were a shrine.”

Indeed, throughout his brief life John’s effect on women was electrifying. Taller than his (short) father and brother, with his jet-black hair and piercing eyes, his superb mustache and magnificent marble-white neck and shoulders and arms, he was often referred to as the handsomest man in America. And when things were going well for him, he had extraordinary charm and a real kindness. “There was something so strong and sweet in his nature,” a fellow actor wrote, “that it won the love of those who knew him.”

Early on he had decided that his way to glory lay in outshining both his father and brother in the family trade, but since there was no one to teach him, no available apprenticeship, he would go out into the woods of Bel Air and spout Shakespeare under the eye of his sister Asia. “How shall I ever have a chance on stage?” he burst out one day, Asia reported. “Buried here, what chance have I of ever studying elocution or declamation?” When he was just seventeen, he sneaked away to make his stage debut in a small role in Richard III at an insignificant theater in Baltimore. (His looks and the Booth name would always guarantee him a job.) But at his debut his acting was so poor that he was hissed, and it would be two years before he acted again.

By 1ate 1859 he was playing minor roles, often as an extra, at the Marshall Theatre in Richmond. By this time his pronounced sympathies for the South in the charged atmosphere leading up to secession were well known—in fact, he broadcast them everywhere. The romance of the Southern “cause” appealed to him, not least because of its defense of slavery, which he regarded as “one of the greatest blessings…that God ever bestowed on a favored nation”—a position one is tempted to ascribe to some kind of Oedipal reaction to his father’s.

And then one day, during a rehearsal, he rushed from the theater and bluffed and bribed his way into an elite militia known as the Richmond Grays who were grouping in Washington on their way to help guard John Brown, on his way to his execution, from possible rescue attempts. On December 2, 1859, dressed up in a gray military uniform, he was within easy viewing distance of the hanging. (It shook him badly.) Later, he would boast to Asia that he had been “one of the party going to search for and capture John Brown,” and that he had been “exposed to dangers and hardships.” His need to dramatize himself, to appear a hero, was already fully developed. This unauthorized two-week absence from the theater branded him with a reputation for unreliability. “The stunt seemed [to the family] the height of immaturity,” writes Titone, “a sign that John Wilkes Booth was unfit for stage work.”

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