Prologue: The Players
By Nora Titone
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2010 by Nora Titone, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from the book My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry That Led to the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Nora Titone and appears here through the courtesy of the author.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts …
– As You Like It, 2.7
On the last day of 1892, a tempest hit Manhattan. A heavy, day-long downpour filled the avenues of the city with ankle-deep water. Fifty-mile-an-hour winds tore umbrellas inside out, chased pedestrians off the streets, and hurled gusts of rain against roof and window. This weather kept most people home for New Year’s Eve, but three hours before midnight a coach carrying the president-elect of the United States started southward, directly into the path of the storm. It was not an easy journey. For forty-five blocks the driver had to urge his balking horses to bring the president to his destination. Only a serious commitment would call a person out in a gale like this one, particularly Grover Cleveland, a good-natured but torpid man who generally avoided physical exertion. Yet tonight he dressed in a white tie and black evening coat, left the comfort of his mansion on East Sixty-Eighth Street, and set forth on the wet and blustery drive without complaint. He was going to a party to give a speech in honor of the actor Edwin Booth.
Paying tribute to an actor would be a delicate mission for any president at the close of the nineteenth century. Most stage stars, no matter how popular, were social outcasts. As a guardian of New York’s high society once explained, acting, like other forms of moneymaking artistic work, was scorned by the nineteenth-century ruling classes “as something between a black art and a form of manual labor.” Adding to the difficulty of Cleveland’s task was that, over the past half century, perhaps no name had been at once more beloved and more reviled by the American people than that of Booth. On an earlier occasion, John Hay, who had lived and worked with Abraham Lincoln in the White House and was like a son to the martyred president, chose to send his speech honoring Edwin Booth by mail. General William T. Sherman, hero of the Grand Army of the Republic and an enthusiastic admirer of Edwin Booth, would be present at tonight’s party but would not address the crowd.
Cleveland agreed to deliver the night’s keynote, encouraged perhaps by the official limbo he found himself in this season. By a strange twist of timing, Cleveland was president tonight, and yet he was not. The only chief executive to win the White House, lose it, and win it back again four years later, this New Year’s Eve Cleveland was at once an ex-president and the president-elect. Benjamin Harrison would hold the real title to the highest office in the land until March 3, 1893, when Cleveland would be inaugurated for the second time.
Booth had made a special request that Cleveland speak for him tonight.
Having a president, even one of indeterminate status, make a personal address meant everything to the actor. On this New Year’s Eve, out of friendship and love for Edwin Booth, Cleveland was happy to play a president’s part. After four years of exile from the White House, Cleveland wanted to wear the mantle of the office again. “What shall be done with our ex-presidents?” he had demanded before his reelection, impatient with the routines of civilian life. “Take them out and shoot them?”
Wind shook Cleveland’s coach as it moved downtown, heading for Gramercy Park. This private square, planted with elms and willows, ornately fenced, and surrounded by some of the finest mansions in the city, was a world unto itself. A proud list of pedigreed American families made their homes in the quiet enclave three blocks from Fifth Avenue – Joneses, Coopers, Ruggleses, and Van Rensselaers all had lived here. Former president Chester A. Arthur kept an address on Gramercy Park, as had, from time to time, such celebrated names as Herman Melville and Edith Wharton. In 1888 Edwin Booth had staked out a permanent place for himself in this patrician nook when he bought the Greek Revival residence at No. 16. His exceptional talents, his status as a nationally recognized “genius,” his immense wealth, and his international fame guaranteed the star a respectful welcome, even here.
Yet from behind window curtains of taffeta and embroidered velvet, the park’s blue-blood residents watched in consternation as construction work began at No. 16 after Booth’s purchase. The actor moved his personal possessions only into the third floor of the mansion. His plans for the rest of the space came as a surprise to all. Over a lunch at Delmonico’s early in 1888, Booth and a handful of his well-known friends–Mark Twain and General William T. Sherman among them–signed articles of incorporation to establish a private club, called The Players, within the walls of No. 16. It was said that the best men in New York, perhaps in the entire nation, would be invited to fill the ranks of this secretive new society. But, it was understood, Edwin Booth would reign supreme over the elite company as the club’s founder and lifetime president.
Gramercy Park’s denizens watched as metalworkers soldered a massive gold-toned plaque into place above No. 16’s doorway. A sunburst of bronze rays surrounded two masks, the emblems of Comedy and Tragedy, one frozen in a rictus of laughter, the other set in a grimace of despair. Quoting Shakespeare, Edwin explained his choice for his new club’s insignia: “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” The laughing and crying masks were eerie reminders of the actor’s peculiar personal history and probably unsettled his neighbors. When carpenters hung two iron lanterns crowned with foot-long spikes on either side of those masks, some muttered about the garish addition to the neighborhood’s refined architecture. Every evening the gas-fed light from these lamps suffused the park with a green brilliance, marking the path to Booth’s door.
Even in the thick of the New Year’s gale, The Players’ beacons did their work. Cleveland would have seen his destination well enough as the carriage entered Gramercy Park, where the wind whipped the leafless elm trees. December 31, 1892, was the fifth anniversary of The Players’ existence. Edwin Booth’s club had grown in that time to almost eight hundred members, and brought unaccustomed traffic to the pavements of Gramercy Park. President Cleveland himself had been a Player in good standing since 1889; his carriage stopping before the clubhouse was by now a familiar sight to park dwellers. Tonight, bundled in a greatcoat, Cleveland struggled to the ground and made his way to the shelter of the porch. Dozens of storm-rattled coaches pulled into line behind Cleveland’s, delivering a procession of figures in high hats and long-tailed coats to the same entrance. The club’s illustrious membership was arriving. They have been described as “the foremost men in every walk of life.” Every New Year’s Eve, on the anniversary of their club’s creation, The Players gathered to pay tribute to their founder, Edwin Booth. This year, Grover Cleveland would lead the assembled greats in a ritual honoring the white-haired actor.
A waiter divested Cleveland of his enormous coat in the club’s white marble entry hall. When political opponents dubbed Cleveland “the Beast of Buffalo,” they were not only referring to the former mayor’s rumored penchant for seducing shop girls in that city. Weighing in at three hundred pounds, with his thick neck and massive jowls, Cleveland was practically bison-sized. As he climbed the curving mahogany steps to reach the club’s main hall, his tread made the boards creak. The room at the top of the stairs was dazzling to the eye, but Cleveland had become inured to its splendors. When Booth chose No. 16 as the home for his private society, the thirty-five-year-old architect Stanford White, Booth’s friend and a founding club member, labored long over The Players’ interior design. Every detail of the rooms and all the furnishings were chosen to gratify the tastes of the eminent men Booth hoped to entice into joining. Century Magazine, a leading periodical of the day, published an illustrated account of White’s designs when the club first opened its doors. Readers across America learned that the club’s millionaire members were donating portions of their art collections to The Players, turning the building into a miniature museum, a treasure house of antiques, rare books and manuscripts, paintings, and curios. A number of fireproof steel bank safes bolted into the walls held the more precious items, including Second, Third, and Fourth Folio editions of Shakespeare, but the rest of the club’s riches were displayed for members to use and enjoy.
Yellow and gold wallpaper lined the reception hall. Blue frescoes covered the ceiling. A fireplace built from slabs of African marble dominated the west end of the room. Zebra and tiger skin rugs covered the glossy oak floors. In the light of crystal chandeliers and lamps selected by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the club’s mahogany furniture glowed. Paintings by Velazquez, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Childe Hassam sat in gilded frames. For Founder’s Night, every room, corridor, and even the balustrade of the grand staircase descending from the second-floor library to the main hall was decked with pine boughs and flowers. Blooms and greenery adorned a life-size portrait of Edwin Booth near the main fireplace, like offerings at a saint’s altar.
Pressing his way through the crowd of guests, Cleveland would have smelled the club’s rich atmosphere of cut flowers and cigar smoke. Smoking was habitual at The Players, tobacco the recognized currency of fellowship. Cuspidors abounded.
A knot of men standing before the central fireplace caught sight of Cleveland and hailed their master of ceremonies with welcoming shouts, ushering him through a pair of sixteen-foot-high sliding doors into the Grill Room, where dinner awaited. Visitors lucky enough to have a meal here found the space magnificent. Branches of stag’s antlers had been transformed into candelabra and affixed to the room’s mahogany-paneled walls. Oak beams criss-crossed the ceiling, evoking the inner hold of a ship. The head of a ten-point buck, shot by a club member, jutted over a fireplace at one end of the room. A portrait of Edwin Booth’s father, the great actor Junius Brutus Booth, hung opposite. Long tables covered in white damask and set with fine old pewter plates and silver goblets awaited President Cleveland, Edwin Booth, and dozens of other distinguished guests.
The Players was an unusual society. Nothing like it existed anywhere else in the country. Too ill and infirm to act onstage any longer, the sixty-year-old Booth had devoted his remaining energies to creating a club where the brightest minds and biggest talents in America could meet and mingle. Membership in this society was limited, by Booth’s own decree, to a small number of actors and a lengthy list of men who had proved themselves giants or geniuses in their chosen fields of endeavor. When the actor had approached leading figures in the arts, finance, law, publishing, politics, and science, all submitted their names for membership. Not only William T. Sherman and Grover Cleveland answered the call, but J. Pierpont Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, and assorted scions of the Astor and Carnegie families. Inventors Nikola Tesla and Peter Cooper Hewitt, author Samuel L. Clemens (always known as Mark at The Players), architect Stanford White, painter John Singer Sargent, designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, and sculptors Frederic Remington and Augustus Saint-Gaudens all sought admission along with poets, judges, book publishers, magazine editors, diplomats, and art patrons.
The Players comprised a field of accomplishment so varied that Booth’s bookkeeper was led to devise odd abbreviations to keep track of its members’ multifarious occupations. In the official club records, the terms Bish, Bnkr, CP, Expl, Lyr, Mag, Mer, Min, Orn, RE, and RR denote Players who identified their professions, respectively, as Bishop, Banker, College President, Explorer, Lyricist, Magician, Merchant, Mining executive, Ornithologist, Real Estate magnate, and Railroad baron.
Women were barred from the club’s door. On one day each year, Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23, the wives and daughters of members were permitted to cross the threshold, and then only between the hours of two and four, to drink tea. Club rules also forbade gambling and card playing. Plentiful food and drink, a well-stocked library, camaraderie, and conversation were the only diversions on offer.
Booth considered The Players his lasting gift to America. He hoped the society’s members, through continual association, would find new ways to invigorate the nation’s cultural, intellectual, and economic life for generations to come. In private, the actor confessed to another goal in mind. He had been born to a family of stage performers, and learned from childhood that Americans viewed actors as second-class citizens; they were hardscrabble illusionists, hucksters who mimed and dissembled before crowds for money. Refined people disapproved of theaters and looked down on anyone who made a living inside them. Even while clamoring for tickets, respectable folk recoiled from social intimacy with the traveling Bohemians they applauded, fearing a taint of immorality. So actors lived apart, in a closed and clannish subculture of their own.
Edwin Booth knew better than most that an actor’s isolation from the mainstream could have disastrous consequences. He wanted The Players to bridge the gap between the real world and the realm of the stage, with himself as chief ambassador. “We actors do not mingle enough with minds that influence the world,” the Founder explained. “We should measure ourselves through personal contact with outsiders.” A club composed only of theater people, Booth said, “would be a gathering place of freaks who come to look upon another sort of freak. I want real men there.” Of the 750 men who belonged to the club in 1892, 150 were actors. The rest were “real men.”
Edith Wharton, chronicler of the American upper class in the waning years of the nineteenth century, once observed that “the attempts of vulgar persons to buy their way into the circle of the elect” rarely succeeded. Perhaps only a man of Edwin Booth’s caliber could have accomplished it. Toward the end of his life, newspapers called Booth “the Actor King.” In the last decades of an almost fifty-year career, the millionaire star traveled from city to city by private railroad car, performing Shakespeare for audiences paying up to a hundred dollars per ticket. Booth could earn fifty thousand dollars in four weeks on the road – roughly the equivalent of $2 million in modern currency. When the train towing his car approached a station, bands of musicians gathered by the tracks, alongside parades of citizens and delegations of local officials, to salute him. Edwin Booth, opined one newspaper, “is the foremost actor of a nation of sixty millions, an honor to his time and to his country. No other actor of any age has ever been held in higher esteem. “The head of one of Manhattan’s ruling families put it another way. “Edwin Booth is a man of genius,” he said simply, “and a most charming person to meet – which is not always the case with men of genius, you know.”
Hundreds of Players were making the trip through the New Year’s storm for the midnight ritual honoring the actor, but a small circle of club members arrived early to share a formal dinner with Booth and President-elect Cleveland. Immense fortunes had been made in the quarter century since the end of the Civil War, years some historians have referred to as “the most shameful period ever seen in American life.” It was a time of collusion between government and private business over land rights, coal and mineral deposits, supply contracts, and tax exemptions. This period witnessed the rise of mammoth trusts and corporations, many of which owed their existence to the rulings of federal courts, Congress, and a White House that saw “the acquisition of wealth as the single worthy aim.” Contemporaries called it “the Great Barbecue”; a small number of individuals had the choicest cuts of meat while the mass of Americans, it was said, made do “with the giblets.” Many of the men seated in rows along the tables in the Grill Room for Booth’s private banquet tonight had seized some of the biggest portions.
One guest, the Player calling himself Mark Twain, had written a novel whose title gave these years their enduring name, “the Gilded Age.” Twain lampooned the spectacle of new American wealth by revealing the mendacity and fraud that had accompanied it. The age was gilded, not gold, Twain argued, because one scratch of this gleaming facade revealed the layer of dross underneath.
The same might be said of Booth’s palace on Gramercy Park, and not because its owner, decades earlier, led a vagabond’s existence, stealing chickens when hungry and sleeping off his hangovers in the gutter. Every man at the table tonight knew who Edwin Booth’s younger brother was, though it was forbidden to speak the dead youth’s name within the club’s walls. Outside The Players, the same newspapers and magazines hailing Edwin Booth as a national treasure observed a similar ban. Everyone knew of the actor’s refusal to discuss his brother or his brother’s crime. Close friends always took care to warn visitors to The Players that the Founder “had no brother by the name of John Wilkes Booth.”
In the twenty-seven years since Abraham Lincoln’s death in 1865, the actor refused to set foot in the nation’s capital, declining a personal invitation from President Chester A. Arthur to perform there in 1885. Even when a host of United States senators, Supreme Court justices, and cabinet members joined the call for Booth’s appearance, the star remained unmoved. He would perform in Baltimore, but no closer. When Booth refused to act in Washington, the capital made a pilgrimage to Booth. A line of first-class railroad cars shuttled President Arthur and his administration to and from Baltimore for a full week. “Night after night,” Booth’s manager recalled, “the Great World came to him.” “Official, Diplomatic, Social Washington,” he said, occupied front-row seats in an auditorium forty miles away from Ford’s Theatre, honoring Booth with tearful ovations. Such demonstrations left the actor unmoved.
Once, during a social evening over brandy and tobacco, a young player eager to curry favor with the Founder forgot this taboo, and asked,
“How many brothers and sisters did you have, Mr. Booth?”
A hush fell over the company as the actor replied, slowly, between puffs on a pipe, “I forget the lot of us. I’ll name them. You count them for me! Junius Brutus-after my father, of course–Rosalie, Henry, Mary, Frederick, Elizabeth–I come in here–Asia, Joe–how many is that?”
“Nine, Mr. Booth,” answered his questioner, mortified at committing such a gaffe. “What big families they used to raise!” the Founder marveled, continuing to smoke, and the topic of conversation was changed. Everyone listening that night knew there was a tenth Booth sibling, but during the Founder’s lifetime he was omitted from the count.
About the book: Nora Titone’s, My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry That Led to the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, revives an extraordinary figure whose name has been missing from the story of President Lincoln’s death. Edwin Booth, John Wilkes’s older brother by four years, was in his day the biggest star of the American stage. He won his celebrity at the precocious age of nineteen, before the Civil War began, when John Wilkes was a schoolboy. Without an account of Edwin Booth, Titone argues, the full story of Lincoln’s assassin cannot be told.
The details of the conspiracy to kill Lincoln have been well documented elsewhere. My Thoughts Be Bloody tells a new story, one that sheds light on Booth’s decision to conspire against the President by setting that decision in the context of a bitterly divided family—and nation. By the end of this journey, readers will see Abraham Lincoln’s death less as the result of the war between the North and South, than the climax of a dark struggle between two brothers who never wore the uniform of soldiers, except on stage.
About the author: Nora Titone studied American History and Literature as an undergraduate at Harvard University, and earned an M.A. in History at the University of California, Berkeley. She has worked as a historical researcher for a range of academics, writers and artists involved in projects studying nineteenth-century America including historian Doris Kearns Goodwin for Goodwin’s book on Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
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