Saturday, September 24, 2011

Fanny Kemble Comes to Philadelphia

In 1829, Charles Kemble, the scion of a famous English acting dynasty, was losing money as one of the proprietors of the Covent Garden Theatre in London. His solution: send his reluctant 20-year-old daughter Frances (called Fanny) out on stage and hope she came back a star. And that's what she did.

Fanny Kemble was blessed with a natural stage presence and great expressiveness of face and voice. Despite her lack of enthusiasm for acting, audiences adored her. After two seasons in London and two tours of the provinces (all artistically and financially successful), her father brought Fanny to America in the fall of 1832.

In December of that year, Rebecca wrote her sister-in-law Maria Gratz in Kentucky about the effect the young actress had had on Gratz family life:

"While Miss Kemble is in town I spend a great many lone evenings. Hyman & Jo [two of the brothers who lived with her] go to the theatre. She is really charming. I have seen her three times and more wonderful still Jac went once." (Jac, the third brother for whom Rebecca kept house, was suffering from depression.)

In February 1833, Maria received a letter from her brother-in-law (and Rebecca's good friend) Francis Preston Blair in Washington, DC. Fanny Kemble was then on stage in the capital, and Blair wrote at length about her dramatic skills. Here is a portion of his description:

"I never saw the passions of your sex portrayed so divinely as in the acting of this fine woman [Fanny Kemble]. Her very utterance in grief is absolutely contagious. Her intonations are so natural and yet so beautiful that while one's eyes swell with tears and the throat is choked with the heart, the greatest pleasures derived and the tenderest affection is felt...."

The rest of America agreed with Gratz and Blair about the merits of Miss Kemble. Among her greatest admirers was a wealthy young Philadelphian named Pierce Butler who devoted himself to Fanny throughout her stay in America, following her from city to city and showering her with attention and flowers. In 1834, as the tour came to an end , Fanny Kemble married Butler in Philadelphia before leaving for New York for her final American performance. Her intention seems to have been to return then to England for one last season, thereby ensuring her parents' financial security. (She was, after all, the family breadwinner at this juncture.)

Rebecca Gratz, however, wrote that these plans did not work out: according to what she had heard, Butler insisted on marriage before Fanny left the country "and when married, would not consent to the separation or her continuing on the stage. Her father was angry at losing the aid of her professional talents, considered himself wronged & deceived and made the poor girl very sad...." A settlement with Charles Kemble enabled him to return home without immediate financial worries. It also left Fanny with a husband who thought he could control a diva.

To be continued here.

(Rebecca's letters are in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by Rabbi David Philipson; Blair's letter is reproduced in B. & M. Gratz: Merchants in Philadelphia, 1754-1798, by Vincent Byars. The portrait of Fanny Kemble, shown above, was painted in 1834 by Thomas Sully. It is at the White House, Washington, DC.)

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Grief of Benjamin Gratz

By August 14, 1861, the news of Cary Gratz's death had reached Philadelphia. Elizabeth (Lizzie) Blair Lee, Cary's cousin, was staying at the time with Rebecca, and wrote to her husband:

"Aunt Becky is very much overcome by Cary's death. She says it will be a crushing blow to Uncle Ben to whom he was the dearest of all his children...."

This is not just posthumous exaggeration about how well loved the deceased was. In 1846, when Ben brought Cary east to attend prep school, Rebecca had written that the boy "retains the lovely characteristics and appearance of his childhood with many good talents and promise....His father seems to love him as the apple of his eye...."

Ben had adored his eldest son, also named Benjamin, whom he and the family saw as one destined for distinction. When the child died at age 10, the grief of both his parents was profound and enduring. Yet Ben dared to love again, and the loss of a second favorite must have cost him much.

In the first days of their grief, the family also had to contend with the horror of not knowing where Cary's body lay. His cousin Frank Blair travelled to the battle site and was able to locate Cary's remains. Bernard Gratz, Cary's older brother, went to Missouri to accompany the coffin home. It must have been with a certain amount of relief that Ben was able to bury his son in September 1861. Cary Gratz was the first Civil War soldier to be interred in Lexington Cemetery.

Rebecca tried to console Ben, "whose grief I share, but cannot measure even by that which fills my heart -- all human sympathy are but drops of comfort, in his great sorrow..." She hoped that his wife and daughters might"win from the indulgence of feelings which have so overwhelm'd him -- and I trust restore his peace....we live on, cherishing those that are taken from us, as tho they were only removed from sight -- with the hope of reunion in another world...."

In early October Lizzie Blair Lee received a letter from her sister-in-law, Frank Blair's wife. Lizzie reported to her husband on what it contained. According to her correspondent, a soldier who had participated in the Battle of Wilson's Creek visited them. The man had said he and Cary Gratz had been hit at the same time although he had sustained only a leg wound. Cary, despite his five wounds (if the official account is correct), lingered on the battlefield for six hours before dying. The soldier said he was with Cary the whole time, gave him water and made some shade for his face. There was no mention in Lizzie's account if Cary was capable during his last hours of sending a message to his family.

This story must have brought as much pain as solace to the family. In late December 1861 Rebecca wrote that Ben "writes to Horace [the nephew who lived with her] more calmly than he does to me -- I do not crave his letters."

Ben was calmer when he visited Philadelphia in April 1862. Rebecca reported to Lizzie Lee that "his countenance is unaltered by his loss. He is resigned to giving up his noble boy to his Country['s] cause -- tho he says it yet with quivering lips." This visit seems to have been good for both brother and sister: Rebecca was able to offer what comfort she could and Ben was ready to receive it.

Ben had customarily left much of the Kentucky correspondence with Rebecca to his wife, but after this visit he wrote regularly his sister, a change which gave her great joy. In June 1862 she wrote, "Your letters My beloved Brother, are the day spring of my life and make me feel young again -- through the warmth of the affection they express...."

(Elizabeth Blair Lee's letters appear in Wartime Washington, edited by Virginia Jeans Laas. Two of Rebecca's letters may be found in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by Rabbi David Philipson; the third, from December 1861, is in the Miriam Gratz Moses Cohen Collection, No. 02639, the Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

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