Showing Off

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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 …

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