Shakespearean actor Edwin Forrest rifled through the desk drawer in the sitting room of the New York home he shared with his wife, socialite turned actress and theatre manager Catherine Norton Sinclair. The contents of the drawer belonged to Catherine, but Edwin wasn’t interested in maintaining her privacy. In his frantic search, he uncovered a worn and rumpled letter written to his bride from fellow thespian, George Jamieson. “And now, sweetest, our brief dream is over; and such a dream!” the correspondence began. “Have we not known real bliss? Have we not realized what poets have to set up as an ideal state, giving full license to their imagination, scarcely believing in its reality? Have we not experienced the truth that ecstasy is not fiction? And oh, what an additional delight to think, no, to know, that I have made some happy hours with you… With these considerations, dearest, our separation, though painful will not be unendurable; I am happy, and with you to remember and the blissful anticipation of seeing you again, shall remain so…” Jamieson’s declaration of his feelings for Catherine ended with a promise to do “my utmost to be worthy of your love.”
Edwin reread the letter with poised dignity and on its completion sank into the nearest chair, cursing the day he had met the woman he had married. After a few moments, he arose and frantically paced about the room. He denounced Catherine for her infidelity and fell to the floor weeping uncontrollably. According to Edwin’s biographer William Rounseville Alger, Edwin was “struck to the heart with surprise, grief, and rage.” Catherine’s take on Edwin’s reaction and the circumstances surrounding her husband reading the letter are vastly different from Alger’s account. Almost from the moment the pair met, Edwin was jealous of everyone Catherine knew in her social standing and did not shy away from making a scene.
Catherine was born near London in 1818 to Scottish parents who had four children in all. Her father, John Sinclair, was a well-known vocalist who had toured America in 1831 and 1833. Historical records note that Catherine was endowed with natural beauty, and, whatever the quality and quantity of her formal and social education, she had in her teens acquired a sparkle and vivacity that attracted men. She was popular and well-liked and attended formal soirees, theatre openings, and art exhibits with a myriad of friends from all walks of life.
In October 1836, Catherine and a gathering of women, who formed the social circle to which she belonged, attended a performance of a play called The Gladiator. The star of the show was Edwin Forrest. His talent on stage was exceptional, and he was quite aware of the genius he possessed. He relished the positive attention he received from critics and followers. He enjoyed giving spontaneous soliloquies to young women who approached him after a performance. When speaking in or about plays, particularly those of Shakespeare, Edwin exuded confidence. Off stage, however, he struggled to find his place. He was an uneducated man and self-conscious about his impoverished background and lack of refinement.
Catherine saw only an attractive, charismatic actor when they met after the play. The attention Edwin paid her when she met the rest of the cast flattered the young woman. The impressionable Catherine later wrote in her memoirs that “this is the handsomest man on whom my eyes have fallen.” Edwin was taken with Catherine as well, but for different reasons. She was the daughter of a respectable, genteel family of moderate means. Edwin believed Catherine would assure him an excellent social standing that would be beneficial for the advancement of his career.
Edwin and Catherine were wed on June 23, 1837, at St. Paul’s Convent Garden in the city of London. The wedding was fashionable and showy, touched here and there by sophistication and culture. According to the August 19, 1937, edition of the Boston Morning Post, “the ceremony was performed by Reverend George Croly, in the presence of her father, who gave the bride away, and a long cortege of private friends of both parties.
“Upon leaving the church, Mr. Forrest led his young and lovely bride to a new and splendid carriage expressly manufactured for the occasion, and with the aid of four beautiful horses. The happy couple started for Windsor where it is their intention to pass a portion of their honeymoon.
“Miss Sinclair possesses a handsome fortune, which Mr. Forrest, much to his honor has settled on her, and the lady, upon her part, has been equally liberal, securing to him, in the event of her death, her property for life.
“The bride and bridegroom have postponed their departure from England until August 8. On the 18th of September, Mr. Forrest will reappear at the Park Theatre, New York, in the character of Othello.
“On the morning of his marriage, Mr. Forrest presented his friend, Mr. Jones, with a magnificent silver salver, upon which is neatly engraved the following inscription, ‘As a small, but sincere tribute of respect for him as a man, and as an acknowledgement of his friendly exertions, which overcame many objections, and prevailed on me to appear on the British stage’.”
In September the pair sailed to New York where Edwin resumed his stage career. Catherine concentrated on making a home for her new husband and entertaining friends at the Forrests’ elaborate town house on 22nd Street. The friends she entertained had potential to benefit Edwin by investing in the various shows he starred.
According to the biography of Edwin’s life penned in 1877, entitled The Life of Edwin Forrest, the American Tragedian, the marriage was doomed to fail because Edwin cared more about his work than his wife. “He was wholly engrossed in himself and neglected Catherine,” Alger wrote. Rumors abounded that Edwin was also unfaithful. Catherine’s friends resented how he treated her and refused to give him the proper consideration he felt he deserved.
By April 1, 1839, the award-winning, tragedienne actor was aggravated with being married, and, according to the April 1, 1839, edition of the Milwaukee Sentinel, Edwin had petitioned for a divorce in a Philadelphia court. He cited the reason for the divorce as “infidelity” – not his own, but Catherine’s. It was a claim her friends vehemently denied. Fearful that the public would side with his wife should he press the matter further, he withdrew his complaint and returned to Catherine, and the couple reconciled their differences.
The Forrests traveled from Massachusetts to Washington and then on to New Orleans as Edwin performed in theatres in those locations. Catherine learned a great deal about the art of acting watching her accomplished husband. She also learned how to manage a theatre by observing the experts at venues such as the National Theatre in Boston and the Bowery Theatre in New York.
In addition to acting, Edwin tried his hand at investing in stocks. The contacts he made through Catherine enabled him to gain inside knowledge of what companies to follow. Along with Horace Greely, he was a majority stockholder in the Sylvania Association. The Sylvania Association helped establish artists and playwrights by funding their early works, and later the talent would pay the company back with interest.
In 1845, the Forrests sailed to England where Edwin was to perform at the Princess Theatre in London. Catherine was eagerly welcomed home by her family and longtime friends. Edwin resented the attention paid to his wife and argued with her that he should have been the one given a hero’s reception because he was a gifted and proven actor.
The Forrests returned to America in the summer of 1847, and their marriage limped along for another year after that. Adding more hurt to the problematic union was the death of the four children they had together. All died at birth. Distressed by their unsuccessful efforts to fulfill their domestic existence, they found companionship outside the home. Friends and relatives of both Edwin and Catherine weren’t surprised to learn they had turned to others for affection; by all accounts the marriage had always been a disaster. Acquaintances reported that the source of the pair’s problems was their vast difference in temperament. Catherine was sociable, and Edwin was private. Forrest’s friend and author, James Reid, believed the couple’s difficulties were a matter of “nationality.” “If Mr. Forrest had established in his household certain rules,” James wrote in his journal, “and taught his wife the difference between English and American habits, much of the evil arising out of their misunderstanding might have been obviated.”
There was some truth to the assertion by Catherine’s supporters that Forrest resented his wife’s superior social position as much as he coveted it. Writing to his wife from Baltimore, for instance, he recounted that a “grand democratic procession” had passed in front of the theatres “with cheers for your humble servant. You will, I am sure, be gratified to hear this in spite of your pretended aristocracy.”
The issue that prompted Edwin to again seek an official end to his marriage with Catherine occurred in the spring of 1848. The couple was in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Edwin was appearing in King Lear. During a break in rehearsals one afternoon, Edwin returned to his hotel room and found Catherine standing between the knees of George Jamieson. George’s hands were resting on Catherine’s waist. Edwin was furious. The two men scuffled, with Edwin getting the best of George. George fled the scene. Catherine tried to reason with Edwin, explaining that whatever happened between her and George should only be considered a “mere matter of indiscretion.”
Shortly after the incident in Ohio, the Forrests had a serious argument about Catherine’s parents. Edwin resented his in-laws and their friends. During the couple’s heated exchange, Edwin made a derogatory accusation about Catherine’s sister. Catherine called Edwin a liar. According to Alger, “The words ‘It is a lie’ fell into his irascible blood like drops of molten iron. He restrained his temper with great difficulty and stated, ‘If a man had said that to me he should die, I cannot live with a woman who has said it.’
Edwin escorted Catherine to the home of her friends, Parke and Fanny Goodwin, and left her there. Divorce was now inevitable. Catherine sent him several letters pleading to keep the demise of their marriage a secret from the press. Edwin initially agreed but decided against it when he learned the situation could be used to smear her name while bringing box office appeal to himself.
Edwin opened the doors to the home he had shared with Catherine and invited newspaper reporters and friends to come in and hear him talk of his woes. After announcing his marriage was over, he proceeded to explain in detail Catherine’s many faults. When a listener attempted to defend her by praising her physical and spiritual beauty, Edwin replied, “She looks ugly to me. Her face is black and hideous.”
The May 8, 1849, edition of the Daily Banner was one of many newspapers that printed articles about the Forrests’ impending divorce. “The pair was living happily until the beginning of last winter,” the report read, “when Mr. Forrest became moody and melancholy.” “In the month of December,” the article continued, “Mr. Forrest returned from a professional engagement in a most unhappy state of mine, and at once demanded a separation. He assigned no cause, offered no apology for the position he assumed; and when the immediate friends of the parties interfered, and asked to be informed why it was he asked for repudiation, his only reply was a studied, incomprehensible silence.”
Catherine’s friends encouraged her to enter a countersuit in the divorce proceedings, charging Edwin with infidelity and extreme cruelty. She hired a prominent New York attorney named Charles O’Conner to represent her. He directed Catherine in every aspect of the trial, including what she wore to court. When the scandalous, divorce hearing began in December 1851, Catherine’s look made quite an impression on the press. A reporter from the New York Herald wrote, “Mrs. Forrest was habited in black, wore a black silk bonnet with a white cape and a black lace veil covering her face.”
The courtroom was filled to overflowing with the city’s most curious individuals. All wanted to get a glimpse of the “Feuding Forrests” and hear all the sordid details of what led to the downfall of the marriage. The New York Times covered the daily activities of the trial, the witnesses called to the stand, and ran transcripts of what was said in the courtroom. A handful of people testified that they had seen Catherine behaving inappropriately with other men; one of those witnesses was Robert Garvin, a servant in the Forrests’ home.
“I am a Protestant, Irishman from the North of Ireland, I came to this country in June 1848, or thereabouts and went to live with Mr. Forrest on 22nd Street in the city of New York, in the month of July of that year,” Robert testified. “I staid [sic] eight months with Mr. Forrest and left his service in March 1849; because the family was going to break up. During that time, up to the month of January 1849, or thereabouts, the conduct and demeanor of the said Edwin Forrest to his wife was always kind and affectionate.
“Mr. Forrest was absent three times from the house while I was employed there, about two or three weeks, each time at least on professional business. When Mr. Forrest was at home the family was conducted in a very orderly manner, and the house was shut up generally about ten or eleven o’clock and I usually shut it up. When Mr. Forrest was absent, however, there were several gentlemen who were in the habit of staying very late. Mrs. Forrest would tell me, “I could go to bed,” and after she and her visitors would sit up very late.
“Some time in the course of the year a Mr. Richard Willis was secreted in the house for three days and three nights. One morning I saw him open the door to get fresh water, and in only his shirt and trowsers [sic]; the last of these nights there was a good deal of noise. Almost immediately after this, Mrs. Forrest and Mrs. N. P. Willis, Mrs. Woorhess, Richard Willis and Mr. Ibbotson sat up all night; I came down in the morning, and found them in the back drawing-room, in the same clothes they had on the night before; there were a few glasses lying about the table broken; they seemed to have been drinking a good deal.
“After that, Mr. Richard Willis and Mrs. Forrest came home once very late, in a carriage together. She came home several times with drivers I had never seen before. When Mr. Forrest was at home she always went and came in another’s carriage. On this occasion Mr. Forrest was absent. Mrs. Forrest got out of the carriage, and ran up the steps where I was standing. Mr. Willis put out his head and was getting out; when he saw me he went back into the carriage, but Mrs. Forrest called to him, ‘Richard, come on,’ and he followed her. Mrs. Forrest knew that I had seen him and that there was no use in trying to conceal it. Mr. Richard Willis never came when Mr. Forrest was at home.
“After this, one day I let Captain Calcraft in, he went up into the library and Mrs. Forrest was there. Shortly after that, the same evening Mrs. Bedford went up and returned, and said she found the library door locked. My suspicions were excited, and I thought of climbing up the back piazza to look in through the window of the library, which was in the rear of the house; the blinds of the library window were shut tight, and I saw them shut the next day; the large library chair, which had a falling back, was found broken.
“One night a man named Mr. Wyckoff brought home Mrs. Forrest from the theatre or opera in a carriage. I saw and heard them playing and skipping round in the lower hall, and to the best of my belief I heard him kiss her.”
Catherine’s attorney denied Robert Gavin’s testimony and called witnesses that reported a different version of Edwin’s behavior. They testified to the outstanding character of his wife and the trauma she had endured in losing all of her children. Catherine’s witnesses also testified that Forrest had not only formed many liaisons but had also been abusive in his treatment of Catherine and had driven her from their home.
Edwin lost his temper a number of times in court. He cursed and yelled at the judge and Catherine’s lawyer whenever the subject of his infidelity was raised. Edwin was particularly enraged when the court was made aware of the affair he’d had with actress Josephine Cliften, a brawny, athletic woman with, in one reporter’s account, “a bust finely developed, a physiognomy indicative of great firmness of character, and a mind rather of a masculine turn.”
The Forrests’ divorce case was played out in the public eye for a full six weeks. On January 25, 1852, the judge granted Catherine a decree of divorce. Edwin’s behavior in court confirmed Catherine’s claim of abuse, and she was granted the right to marry again when and if she chose. Forrest was denied that privilege and was ordered to pay all court expenses and $3,000 a year in alimony. According to the January 26, 1852, edition of the New York Daily Times, “Mrs. Forrest was thoroughly vindicated by the court, possessed public sympathy, and had before her a prospect of a quiet social life, with an income of money and of the world’s esteem that will secure for her a select association of vulnerable friendship.” Edwin was appalled by the decision and vowed to appeal the court’s ruling.
With the divorce behind her, Catherine turned her full attention toward finding work. She decided to pursue a career in the field where she’d gained the most experience in the last ten to twelve years, the theatre. She briefly studied acting with popular, British thespian George Vandenhoff. Catherine Sinclair made her stage debut on February 2, 1852, in the play School for Scandal at the Brougham’s Lyceum Theatre in New York. She drew a large crowd of curious people to the first performance. They left excited about what they had seen Catherine do on stage and shared their opinion with others who swarmed to the theatre to see the show for themselves. Audiences and critics were complimentary of her performance as Lady Teazle.
Catherine followed her performance in School for Scandal with leading roles in Lady of Lyons, Much Ado About Nothing, Love’s Sacrifice, and the Patrician’s Daughter. Although she was “consistent and entertaining” in the plays she was featured, attendance fell with each production. People were not as interested in the socialite-turned-actress as they were immediately after the divorce. Catherine was well aware that she was no longer a money maker for the theatre companies. At the conclusion of the theatrical season in June 1852, Catherine left New York and traveled to England to see her family. She had hoped to invade the English theatre while visiting London, but she was unable to secure an engagement because of the unfavorable publicity surrounding her due to the divorce.
Not one to be left idle, Catherine decided to try her hand at writing. The reviews of the novels she wrote, entitled Beatrice, Modern Accomplishment, and Lord of Lady Harcourt, were favorable. “Beatrice is written with great care and tenderness,” one critic noted in the November 13, 1852, edition of the London Standard. “In scenes of description or emotion Miss Sinclair has taken a step forward and exhibited a spirit which we have not recognized before.” Another review wrote, “We feel no hesitation in predicting for this new production of Miss Catherine Sinclair eager readers and a great run.”
In 1853, Catherine returned to America and joined an acting troupe touring the United States. Several towns denied the troupe admission on the grounds that the public was not interested in dramatic entertainment nor would they take into their midst a notorious woman, a female who dared violate her marriage vows. Catherine’s most enthusiastic audience was in New Orleans. Theatre goers were thrilled to see her and cheered her each night she performed.
On May 5, 1853, Catherine arrived in San Francisco. Residents of the city welcomed her with open arms. The May 6, 1853, edition of the Daily Alta California announced her landing via the steamer the Panama. “Mrs. Sinclair has met with much success in Atlantic cities and previous to her departure for this country, concluded a long and successful engagement in New Orleans; embarking from that port for this ‘land of promise,’ as she pictures it,” the article read. “We certainly hope it may prove to Mrs. S. a land of abundant realizations. It is the intention of Mrs. S., we believe, to make her debut in one of her favorite pieces at the San Francisco Theatre. We predict crowded houses. Though she has come among us unannounced, she is not unknown, nor will she fail to meet all the sympathy and encouragement as a woman and as an artist that her talents and position entitled her to an intelligent and generous community.”
Throughout the summer of 1853, Catherine played several engagements in San Francisco, Sacramento, and Marysville. Not all the reviews of her work were necessarily glowing. According to an article in the July 24, 1853, edition of Golden Era newspaper, “Mrs. Sinclair’s performances have improved materially since her first engagement in this city. Her acting is by no means faultless,” the article noted, “It must be acknowledged that as a tragedienne, she has no rival in California.” Despite her critics, she made numerous friends who thought everything she did on stage was outstanding. She gained ground both socially and professionally. In August 1853, she was given a complimentary benefit by the gentlemen composing the First California Battalion. The event was significant because it was the first of its nature to be given to an artist in California.
By November 1853, Catherine had decided to combine her acting skills with managing a production and the new theatre where the production would debut. The magnificent Metropolitan Theatre opened its door on December 24, 1853, presenting School for Scandal with Catherine Sinclair as Lady Teazle and distinguished actor James E. Murdoch as her leading man. Matilda Heron and Edwin Booth, stars in their own rights, were among the cast, too. A report in the January 1, 1854, edition of the Golden Era newspaper proclaimed Catherine to be “an exceptional woman who has reached the height of her career. She has found her niche in her chosen profession as manager.”
Catherine managed the Metropolitan Theatre from November 1853 to March 1856. In addition to directing the behind the scenes activities at the Metropolitan Theatre she also took a turn at managing the American Theatre in Sacramento. Ernest Harold, a pioneer actor, attributed her success as a manager to “extravagant spending.” “The salaries she paid at the Metropolitan were unprecedented,” Ernest shared with reporters at the Golden Era newspaper. “She was a lady of profuse liberality, generous impulses, brilliant accomplishments, and a supremely finished education. Mrs. Sinclair’s prodigality was in the lavish expenditure of money in the production of plays and operas, and engaging the very artists at enormous expense, employing permanently a dramatic corps, opera company, and ballet troupe.”
On April 26, 1856, Catherine left San Francisco for Australia. After a short time there, performing with a troupe of actors that had appeared at the Metropolitan Theatre during her time managing the business, she traveled to England to visit her ailing father. Catherine returned to the London stage in November 1857 playing Beatrice in Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing. The notices published in the London papers reported that she was a “most decided success.” The November 5, 1857, edition of the Daily Alta California relayed the opinion of the English audience. “Her talents were made evident in the first scene,” the article read. “Her conception of the part of Beatrice is distinguished by sound judgment and excellent taste. Her animal spirits are very great, and she never loses a chance of making a point. In everything she does she indicates the careful, studious, and conscientious artist. The audience received her with unusual marks of distinction throughout the performance and recalled her at the end of the third act and the fall of the curtain.”
Catherine returned to American in December 1858. She planned to make a starring tour through the country with her fiancé, musical composer George Loder. Edwin Forrest had no intentions of allowing his ex-wife to marry another man and live happily ever after. Since the Forrests’ divorce had become final in 1852, Edwin had continued to pursue a way to prove Catherine had been guilty of adultery. He was still battling with the courts when Catherine’s engagement was announced. Edwin could not persuade a judge to see things his way, and, in early 1859, his case was dismissed and $1,000 more was added to alimony he was to continue paying Catherine. Ultimately, she and George called off their wedding and went their separate ways. Edwin continued to seek out a court that would act on his behalf.
Catherine Norton Sinclair retired from the stage in late 1859. Her final performance was on December 18, 1859, at the Academy of Music in New York. She lived a fairly secluded life with her sister, Mrs. Henry Sidley, at the actress-manager’s home in Staten Island. Occasionally, a newspaper article about the accomplished theatre manager would appear explaining to readers how she was spending her remaining days in peace. “Very few people outside her own family and immediate circle are aware of the fact that the lady is still alive and a resident of this city,” the April 4, 1889, edition of the Hawarden Independent read. “And yet the tottering, white-haired, venerable looking matron, who every fine sunshiny morning about eleven o’clock is tenderly assisted down the steps of a residence on West 84th Street, and tucked away under heavy fur robes in a carriage, was forty years ago the bride of the great tragedian, the joy of his life and the sharer of his triumphs. She has passed by nearly three years the span of life allotted to man by the prophet, but although her frame is feeble and her eyes dim, her memory is clear and vigorous and she is never so happy as when recalling her childhood days and never so sad as when recalling her life with Edwin Forrest and the litigation that came as a result of their troubled marriage.”
Edwin finally abandoned the court battle against his ex-wife in 1868. He died four years later. According to the December 19, 1872, edition of the Indiana Democrat, Edwin was found lying dead on his bed by his housekeeper. The December 13, 1872, edition of the Fort Wayne Daily Sentinel announced the actor’s passing and expanded on his long, illustrious career in the theatre. “Personally, Mr. Forrest was not popular,” the article read. “He was overbearing in demeanor and morose in disposition. He formed few friendships and made many enemies, both among his fellow actors and his social acquaintances. His treatment of his wife, a most estimable lady, did much to estrange the few friends he had.”
Catherine Sinclair passed away on June 16, 1891. Broken in health, she had gone blind in 1881. She lived out her last days with her nephew. Catherine is recognized by theatre historians as the most dynamic force in the national world of theatre in the 1850s. She was seventy-four when she died and is buried at the Silver Mount Cemetery in Staten Island.