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The angry hawk clenched its talons on the heavy leather gauntlet, stabbing the delicate wrist beneath. Wings bated, the half-wild bird glared fiercely into the large, gray eyes of his captor. Mary Anderson stared back with steely determination. This unruly bird would be tamed, she resolved, and would become a living prop for her performance of the Countess in Sheridan Knowles’ comedy, Love. A stuffed bird would not provide the realism she intended, and what Mary Anderson intended usually came to be.
“There is a fine hawking scene in one of the acts,” Mary wrote in her memoirs, “which would have been spoiled by a stuffed falcon, however beautifully hooded and gyved he might have been; for to speak such words as: ‘How nature fashion’d him for his bold trade, / Gave him his stars of eyes to range abroad, / His wings of glorious spread to mow the air, / And breast of might to use them’ to an inanimate bird, would have been absurd,” she declared. Always absolutely serious about her profession, Mary procured a half-wild bird and set to work on bending its spirit to her will.
The training, she explained, started with taking the hawk from a cage and feeding it raw meat “hoping thus to gain his affections.” She wore heavy gloves and goggles to protect her eyes. The hawk was not easily convinced of her motives, and “painful scratches and tears were the only result.”
She was advised to keep the bird from sleeping until its spirit broke, but she refused to take that course. Persevering with the original plan, Mary continued to feed and handle the hawk until it eventually learned to sit on her shoulder while she recited her lines, then fly to her wrist as she continued; then, at the signal from her hand, the bird would flap away as she concluded with a line about a glorious, dauntless bird. The dauntless hawk and Mary Anderson were birds of a feather.
Born July 28, 1859, at a hotel in Sacramento, California, Mary’s earliest years were unsettled. Her mother, Antonia Leugers, had eloped with Charles Henry Anderson, a young Englishman intent on finding his fortune in America. It was a love match not approved by Antonia’s parents. The young couple arrived in Sacramento in time for Mary’s birth but too late to scoop up a fortune from the nearest stream. The easy pickings of the 1849 Gold Rush were gone.
Disappointed, the family returned east to Louisville, Kentucky, where Mary’s uncle was the priest in a small settlement near the city. Her father joined the Confederate Army and died in battle when she was three. A few years later her mother married Dr. Hamilton Griffin. Despite the strong guidance Griffin provided for his stepchildren, Mary, at least, went her headstrong way almost from the first.
“It was my desire to be always good and obedient, but, like ‘Cousin Phoenix’s legs,’ my excellent intentions generally carried me in the opposite direction,” Mary wrote in her memoirs. “On seeing a minstrel show for the first time I was fired with a desire to reproduce it. After a week of plotting with [my brother] Joe I invited Dr. Griffin and my mother to the performance of the nature of which they were utterly ignorant.”
The performance took place in the family’s front parlor which was divided by double doors. The audience sat in back, and when the folding doors were thrown open, Mary’s stunned parents took in the scene. “My baby sister and I were discovered as ‘end men.’ She was but eight months old and tied to a chair. Our two small brothers sat between us, and we were all as black as burnt cork rubbed in by my managerial hands could make us.” To top off the visual shock, Mary gaily began the opening chorus of the show: “Goodbye John! Don’t stay long! Come back soon to your own chick-a-biddy.”
That creative spirit and the will to back it up challenged the nuns at the Ursuline Convent Mary attended. They could not interest her in geography and arithmetic. “She was one of those children whose wild artist nature chafes under the restraints of home and school life,” wrote J. M. Farrar of her early years. “Indeed, her wildness acquired for her the name of ‘Little Mustang.’” The beautiful, headstrong little girl became a beautiful, headstrong woman who trained herself to become an actress who eventually became known in the western states as “Our Mary.”
Mary was twelve years old and already memorizing Shakespeare when she saw the famous Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth in Hamlet. At that point The Bard became her self-selected schoolmaster, and becoming an actress became her one burning goal. At thirteen she dropped out of school and began studying elocution with a nearby teacher, but, above all, she memorized lines and practiced roles on her own.
Mary was about fifteen when she got hold of copies of old playbooks, which she used to teach herself. A local theater character, Uncle Henry Davis, an aged prompter from the days when performances included an offstage voice, or prompter, reading lines the actors repeated, provided her with an invaluable aid. Davis took apart the playbooks, added blank pages, and then diagrammed stage positions and described on them the “stage business” necessary to a performance. As she paced about, thinking, memorizing, trying to understand the motivations of Shakespeare’s heroines, Mary unconsciously worried the yellow-backed books with her teeth.
Two years later, almost completely self-taught, Mary made her debut at a Louisville theater. On Saturday, November 27, 1875, after only a single rehearsal, she played Juliet before a packed house. The next morning the Louisville Courier praised her performance as a great actress but did not overlook her faults: “In the latter scenes she interpreted the very spirit and soul of tragedy, and thrilled the whole house into silence by the depth of her passion and her power. . . . We owe it to her, for it is the greatest kindness, and yet we do not speak harshly and are glad to admit that most of her faults–such for instance as frequently casting up the eyes–are not only slight in themselves, but enhanced if not caused by the timidity natural on such an occasion.”
In February Mary again took the stage in Louisville, then opened in St. Louis and was invited to New Orleans, where, at the opening-night performance of Evadne, only $48 was made in ticket sales. Nevertheless, young men in the audience from the military college nearby were so impressed by her beauty and passion that between acts they went out and bought up all the bouquets they could find–and the last act was played knee-deep in flowers. By the time she left New Orleans, the seventeen-year-old beauty was a star, and two Confederate generals and an admiring crowd saw her off at the train station.
Some criticism of her presentation appeared in newspapers and theater journals, but Mary was a sensation with the general public. It was early in 1876 when she, not yet eighteen, decided to tour the West. Accompanied by her mother and stepfather, Dr. Griffin, who was now managing her career, Mary declared her intention to bypass San Francisco for her first performance. Instead, she insisted on stopping first in the town of her birth, Sacramento. The people in the new state capital turned out to welcome her “home,” but by the time she opened in San Francisco, she had acquired a few critics, some of whom considered her an empty-headed debutante like those in the city who wanted to become actresses. “We have some dozen or two in this little city alone,” wrote an editor in the San Francisco Call, “and the dramatic fever is becoming as universal and epidemic as the epizooty among horses a season or two ago.”
Mary was hardly prepared for the reception she received from the press or the other actors in the troupe: “My appearance in San Francisco at Mr. John McCullough’s theatre soon followed, and was the most unhappy of my professional life. With but few exceptions, the members of the numerous company ridiculed my work. My poor wardrobe was a subject of special sport to the gorgeously dressed women; and unkind remarks about “the interloper” were heard on every side. The Press cut me up, or rather tried to cut me down, advising me to leave the stage. Continual taunts from actors and journalists nearly broke my spirit.”
Mary was concerned for McCullough’s ticket sales as well as the assault on her pride as an actress. On the last few nights she played Meg Merrilees in Guy Mannering, her ghostly makeup was so successful her own mother didn’t recognize her. That role and one other dramatic part gained “genuine enthusiasm,” the newspapers reported by the end of her San Francisco engagement.
Like the hawk she’d trained, her spirit had received a shock, but her will remained unbroken. In the midst of the terrible reviews in the press, her hero, Edwin Booth, appeared. “He laughed at my idea of quitting the stage on account of the unkindness of my fellow actors,” she recalled. “I also am a fellow actor,” said he; “I have sat through two of your performances from beginning to end–the first time I have done such a thing in years–and I have not only been interested, but impressed and delighted.”
The remainder of the tour, which included an introduction to President Ulysses Grant, was highly successful. At her New York debut on November 12, 1877, she was considered to have “much dramatic potentiality.” Her beauty was part of the attraction: “Tall, willowy, and young,” the Herald described, with a “fresh, fair face” and a small, finely chiseled mouth, large, almond-shaped eyes, and hair of light brown. She was beautiful, acknowledged the critics, but many found her lacking in feeling. One defender, however, spoke up on her behalf. Charles Wingate, author and historian, countered the prevailing opinion of Mary Anderson as cold or reserved: “From the time of her first appearance on November 27, 1875, at McCauley’s Theatre in Louisville, Ky., when the California-born girl was in her seventeenth year, her Juliet, her Rosalind, her Parthenia, her Galatea, her Pauline, her Julia, had shown what popular favor a magnificent figure, a superb voice, and a natural tragic power could gain, even if command of pathos and naturalness in comedy acting were less marked; but at the same time, the world constantly repeated the two words “cold” and “stately.” Perdita, however, her last character on the stage, was a revelation.”
Wingate described how Mary played two parts, one serious and rather austere, the other a light-footed “gazelle” who sang and danced with the abandon of a gypsy, something she had never successfully accomplished in the past.
By 1883 she was headed for Shakespeare’s home ground in England, and she made it a point to put on performances in Stratford-on-Avon. She drew huge crowds and achieved unprecedented popular acclaim. Still, many of the British critics were not pleased by the American import.
She appeared as Galatea, a part that begins with the actress draped in white, gracefully posed, impersonating a beautiful marble statue that is brought to life by the love of the sculptor, Pygmalion. The critics said the part was easy because she played many of her parts with all the emotion of a statue. “Even in her ingenious scenes of comedy,” reported the Morning Post, “there is no more dramatic vivacity than might be looked for in a block of stone.”
Other newspapers realized how popular she had become. Despite the critics, Mary caught and held her audiences. “So strong was the appeal of her acting that on one occasion, where, as Galatea, she turned toward the auditorium with arms outstretched crying ‘The Gods will help me,’ the whole gallery rose and roared back ‘We will! We will!’ “
In 1886 she returned in triumph to America. Marcus R. Mayer, an advance agent drumming up publicity for her tour, told a reporter for the San Francisco Call that Mary was earning unprecedented sums. “Miss Anderson’s gains have been simply immense,” reported Mayer to the newspaperman. “She drew $249,000 during her seven months in London.” “Her receipts were larger,” he said, “than those of the famous Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, though she played in Mr. Irving’s own theater.” In New York she reportedly made $65,000, and three weeks in Boston netted $42,000. The entire tour in the East totaled $237,000, a huge sum of money in 1886.
The Sacramento Union published her itinerary: Denver, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, and then San Francisco. The second time around, San Francisco loved her. On April 4 the San Francisco Call detailed her training and its success: “The late Noble Butler grounded her in the use of the English language, and directed her literary work, besides developing her voice, the richness of which is one of her great charms. Mr. Wastell, the dancing master, taught her to dance and instructed her in posturing.”
Mary described what she did to succeed at her chosen profession. She studied her characters and every word they uttered on stage and looked at the interaction between characters to pin down the psychology of her part. Physically, she worked hard at every move she performed. “Always on the alert for improvement,” she said, she decided to try the Delsarte system of movement. “I determined to study it. As far as mechanical exercises were concerned, it seemed perfect to me, for it overlooks no muscle or tendon of the face or body, and gives strength, suppleness and control over them all. The rest of the system I afterwards found it best to discard.”
One of the weak points of the system’s theory, Mary decided, was the belief that outward expression and movement awaken and control emotions which she concluded was exactly the opposite to what actually happened. “The development of these various types, with their natural personality, mannerisms, etc., is a most engrossing study. How would a man or woman weep under given circumstances? Would he or she weep at all? And so in joy as well as sorrow, under the influence of every emotion, they have their individual way of doing everything. The art is to make the character harmonious from beginning to end; and the greatest actor is he who loses his own personality in that of his role.”
Since her days with the hawk, she had insisted on what was natural rather than melodramatic. Achieving that goal required deep analysis of reality and of the psychology of expression and emotion, with the aim of always portraying as true a character as possible.
Back in London in 1887, she presented a unique version of The Winter’s Tale. It ran for 164 performances, and she played two parts, Hermione and Perdita, in each performance, something no other actress had attempted. In 1888 she brought the production back to America, but it ended abruptly in 1889. Some say Mary suffered a nervous breakdown. She herself put it differently: “At Washington [It was Inauguration Week, and Mr. Harrison had just been proclaimed President] I went through the first two nights. On Ash Wednesday the doctor thought me too tired to make the effort, and I did not appear. On Thursday, against his wishes and those of that kindest of impresarios, Henry E. Abbey, I insisted on acting. The first scenes of The Winter’s Tale went very smoothly. The theatre was crowded. Perdita [one of the parts she played] danced apparently as gaily as ever, but after the exertion, fell fainting from exhaustion, and was carried off the stage.”
Mary explained that overwork caused the onstage blackout.
In Shakespeare’s Heroines of the Stage, written in 1895, Charles Wingate wondered what might have happened had Mary not collapsed: “Curious it is to recall that one feature in this last stage character of Mary Anderson displayed for the first time an utter abandonment of the charge which, from the very first of her career, had been held up against her acting. All critics had admitted her natural beauty, all had commended her intelligence, and many had praised her for earnestness and strength. But all declared that she was cold and passionless.”
Wingate found that Mary’s final character had broken the mold: The quick-footed gazelle could scarcely have been more light of foot, more animated, or more fascinating in action. The wild gypsy-like dance showed a living picture of free, easy, voluptuous movement, so devoid of artificiality or restraint as to be as captivating as it was real for such an ideal country-bred character. Who could have believed the stately Mary Anderson capable of such graceful romping?
At twenty-four years old, Mary retired from the stage. In her memoirs she commented on the decision: “After so much kindness from the public it seems ungrateful to confess that the practice of my art (not the study of it) had grown as time went on more and more distasteful to me.”
Mary realized that being an actress was more than just immersing herself in her art–she recognized how the public came to feel an ownership interest in the life of an actor.
In speaking the words of Shakespeare, the poet who had awakened her to the dream of acting, had become a dull routine. She had been enamored with the characters wrought by Shakespeare’s pen and as a girl had never contemplated what success in portraying those characters might cost: “To be conscious that one’s person was a target for any who paid to make it one; to live for months at a time in a groove, with uncongenial surroundings, and in an atmosphere seldom penetrated by the sun and air; and to be continually repeated the same passions and thoughts and the same words–that was the most part of my daily life, and became so like slavery.”
With characteristic determination, Mary Anderson retired at the peak of her popularity, just as she seemed to have overcome the one criticism that had dogged her career from the beginning. She had determined her course at the age of twelve, had worked to step onstage in a lead role, and did it at barely seventeen; she’d traveled across the United States on tour several times, made a tremendous amount of money before she was twenty, had convinced the British Isles that an American could play Shakespeare, and had broken tradition by being the first actress to play two parts in The Winter’s Tale.
In effect, Mary Anderson had no life but her life on the stage. She may have feared the same fate as the young hawk she’d once trained. “As an actor,” she said of the hawk, “his career was highly successful. But constant travel and change of climate proved too much for him. In spite of the greatest care, he at last succumbed, and our noble bird was buried in the alley back of McVickers’ Theatre, Chicago.”
In June 1890, she married Antonio Fernando de Navarro, a wealthy American of Basque heritage who was said to have a claim on the throne of Spain. Mary met Tony when he arrived backstage after a performance. She’d refused his first requests to call on her but finally gave in and was impressed by the young man who looked and acted like a Spanish aristocrat. In her memoirs she recalled Tony telling her he vowed at that first meeting to marry her or become a priest.
The couple moved to Worcestershire, England. It was, according to her memoirs, a happy marriage that set her free from what she called bondage to the theater. She reveled in living naturally under the sun and the stars, rather than working to appear natural in a part written for a scene in a play performed under an artificial moon and fake stars suspended above the stage.
Mary and Tony were part of a wealthy, literate set that included famous writers, musicians, and playwrights. Their home was a mecca for artists, and Mary enjoyed riding and outdoor entertainments as well as domestic pursuits. Her first son died in infancy, but two other children prospered. Mary was continually asked to return to the stage, but her appearances were generally limited to charity work. During World War I, she appeared on behalf of war charities and made visits to injured soldiers and to women working in factories to support the war effort.
Tony died in 1932, and Mary lived another eight years, the last several of which she was seriously ill. Mary died in 1940 at the age of eighty at her home in England.