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.)

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