Who Was the Most Famous of All?

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…

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