Read CHAPTER II - BIRTH AND EDUCATION of Mary Anderson, free online book, by J. M. Farrar, on

Seldom has a more charming story been written than that of Mary Anderson’s childhood and youth to the time when, a beautiful girl of sixteen, she made her debut in what has ever since remained her favorite rôle, Juliet and the only Juliet who has ever played the part at the same age since Fanny Kemble.

There was nothing in her home surroundings to guide in the direction of a dramatic career; indeed her parents seemed to have entertained the not uncommon dread of the temptations and dangers of a stage life for their daughter, and only yielded at last before the earnest passionate purpose to which so much of Mary Anderson’s after success is due. They bent wisely at length before the mysterious power of genius which shone out in the beautiful child long before she was able fully to understand whither the resistless promptings to tread the “mimic stage of life” were leading her. In the end the New World gained an actress of whom it may be well proud, and the Old World has been fain to confess that it has no monopoly of the highest types of histrionic genius.

Mary Anderson was born at Sacramento, on the Pacific slope, on the 28th of July, 1859, but removed with her parents to Kentucky, when but six months old. German and English blood are mingled in her veins, her mother being of German descent, while her father was the grandson of an Englishman. On the outbreak of the civil war he joined the ranks of the Southern armies, and fell fighting under the Confederate flag before Mobile. When but three years old Mary Anderson was left fatherless, and a year or two afterward she and her little brother Joseph found almost more than a father’s love and care in her mother’s second husband, Dr. Hamilton Griffin, an old Southern planter, who had abandoned his plantations at the outbreak of the war, and after a successful career as an army surgeon, established himself in practice at Louisville.

Mary Anderson’s early years were characteristic of her future. She was one of those children whose wild artist nature chafes under the restraints of home and school life. Generous to a fault, the life and soul of her companions, yet to control her taxed to their utmost the parental resources; and it must be admitted she was the torment of her teachers. Her wild exuberant spirits overleaped the bounds of school life, and sometimes made order and discipline difficult of enforcement. She was never known to tell an untruth, but at the same time she would never confess to a fault. Imprisoned often for punishment in a room, she would steadfastly refuse to admit that she had done wrong, and, maternal patience exhausted, the mutinous little culprit had commonly to be released impenitent and unconfessed. Indeed her wildness acquired for her the name of “Little Mustang;” as, later on, her fondness for poring over books beyond her childish years that of “Little Newspaper.” At school, the confession must be made, she was refractory and idle. The prosaic routine of school life was dull and distasteful to the child, who, at ten years of age, found her highest delight in the plays of Shakespeare. Many of her school hours were spent in a corner, face to the wall, and with a book on her head, to restrain the mischievous habit of making faces at her companions, which used to convulse the school with ill-suppressed laughter. She would sally forth in the morning with her little satchel, fresh and neat as a daisy, to return at night with frock in rents, and all the buttons, if any way ornamental, given away in an impulsive generosity to her schoolmates. It soon became evident that she would learn little or nothing at school; and on a faithful promise to amend her ways if she might only leave and pursue her studies at home, Mary Anderson was permitted, when but thirteen years of age, to terminate her school career. But instead of studying “Magnall’s Questions,” or becoming better acquainted with “The Use of the Globes,” she spent most of her time in devouring the pages of Shakespeare, and committing favorite passages to memory. To her childish fancy they seemed to open the gates of dreamland, where she could hold converse with a world peopled by heroes, and live a life apart from the prosaic everyday existence which surrounded her in a modern American town. Shakespeare was the teacher who replaced the “school marm,” with her dull and formal lessons. Her quick perceptive mind grasped his great and noble thoughts, which gave a vigor and robustness to her mental growth. Since those days she has assimilated rather than acquired knowledge, and there are now few women of her age whose information is more varied, or whose conversation displays greater mental culture, and higher intellectual development. Strangely enough, it was the male characters of Shakespeare which touched Mary Anderson’s youthful fancy; and she studied with a passionate ardor such parts as Hamlet, Romeo, and Richard III. With the wonderful intuition of an art-nature, she seems to have felt that the cultivation of the voice was a first essential to success. She ransacked her father’s library for works on elocution, and discovering on one occasion “Rush on the Voice,” proceeded, for many weeks before it became known to her parents, to commence under its guidance the task of building up a somewhat weak and ineffective organ into a voice capable of expressing with ease the whole gamut of feeling from the fiercest passion to the tenderest sentiment, and which can fill with a whisper the largest theater.

The passion for a theatrical career seems to have been born in the child. At ten she would recite passages from Shakespeare, and arrange her room to represent appropriately the stage scene. Her first visit to the theater was when she was about twelve, one winter’s evening, to see a fairy piece called “Puck.” The house was only a short distance from her home at Louisville, and she and her little brother presented themselves at the entrance door hours before the time announced for the performance. The door-keeper happened to observe the children, and thinking they would freeze standing outside in the wintry wind, good naturedly opened the door and admitted Mary Anderson to Paradise or what seemed like it to her the empty benches of the dress circle, the dim half-light, the mysterious horizon of dull green curtain, beyond which lay Fairyland. Here for two or three hours she sat entranced, till the peanut boy made his appearance to herald the approach of the glories of the evening. From that date the die of Mary Anderson’s destiny was cast. The theater became her world. She looked with admiring interest on a super, or even a bill-sticker, as they passed the windows of her father’s house; and an actor seen in the streets in the flesh filled her with the same reverent awe and admiration as though the gods had descended from their serene heights to mingle in the dust with common mortals. We are not sure that she still retains this among the other illusions of her youth!

The person who seems to have fixed Mary Anderson’s theatrical destiny was one Henry Woude. He had been an actor of some distinction on the American stage, which he had, however, abandoned for the pulpit. Mr. Woude happened to be one of her father’s patients, and the conversation turning one day upon Mary’s passion for a theatrical career, the older actor expressed a wish to hear her read. He was enthusiastic in praise of the power and promise displayed by the self-trained girl, and declared to the astonished father that in his youthful daughter he possessed a second Rachel. Mr. Woude advised an immediate training for a dramatic career; but the parental repugnance to the stage was not yet overcome, and Mary remained a while longer to pursue, as best she might, her dramatic studies in her own home, and with no other teachers than the artistic instinct which had already guided her so far on the path to eventual triumph and success.

When in her fourteenth year, Mary Anderson saw for the first time a really great actor. Edwin Booth came on a starring tour to Louisville, and she witnessed his Richard III., one of the actor’s most powerful impersonations. That night was a new revelation to her in dramatic art, and she returned home to lie awake for hours, sleepless from excitement, and pondering whether it were possible that she could ever wield the same magic power. She commenced at once the serious study of “Richard III.” The manner of Booth was carefully copied, and that great artist would doubtless have been as much amused as flattered to note the servility with which his rendering of the part was adhered to. A preliminary rehearsal took place in the kitchen before a little colored girl, some years Mary Anderson’s senior, who had that devoted attachment to her young mistress often found in the colored races to the whites. Dinah was so much terrified by the fierce declamation that she almost went into hysterics, and rushing up-stairs begged the mother to come down and see what was the matter with “Miss Mami,” as she was affectionately called at home. Consent was at length obtained to a little drawing-room entertainment at home of “Richard III.,” with Miss Mary Anderson for the first and last time in the title rôle. For some months the young debutante had carefully saved her pocket money for the purchase of an appropriate costume, and, resisting, as best she might, the attractions of the sweetmeat shop, managed to accumulate five dollars. With her mother’s help a little costume was got up a purple satin tunic, green silk cape, and plumed hat and wearing the traditional hump, the youthful, representative of Richard appeared for the first time before an audience in the Tent Scene, preceded by the Cottage Scene from “The Lady of Lyons.” The back drawing-room was arranged as a stage; her mother acting as prompter, though her help was little needed; and, judged by the enthusiastic applause of friends and neighbors, the performance was a great success. The young actress received it all with even more apparent coolness than if she had trodden the boards for years, and made her exits with the calm dignity which she had observed to be Edwin Booth’s manner under similar circumstances. Indeed, Booth became to her childish fancy the divinity who could open to her the door of the stage she longed so ardently to reach. She confided to the little colored girl a plan to save their money, and fly to New York to Mr. Booth, and ask him to place her on the stage. Dinah entered heartily into the affair, and at one time they had managed to hoard as much as five dollars for the carrying out of this romantic scheme. Some years afterward when the wish of her heart had been long accomplished, Mary Anderson made Mr. Booth’s acquaintance, and recounting to him her childish fancy asked what he would have done if she had succeeded in presenting herself to him in New York. “Why, my child, I should have taken you down to the depot, bought a couple of tickets for Louisville, and given you in charge of the conductor,” was the rather discouraging answer of the great tragedian.

Not long afterward Mary Anderson’s dramatic powers were submitted to the critical judgment of Miss Cushman. That great actress, then in the zenith of her fame, was residing not far distant at Cincinnati. Accompanied by her mother, Mary presented herself at Miss Cushman’s hotel. They happened to meet in the vestibule. The veteran actress took the young aspirant’s hand with her accustomed vigorous grasp, to which Mary, not to be outdone, nerved herself to respond in kind; and patting her at the same time affectionately on the cheek, invited her to read before her on an early morning. When Miss Cushman had entered her waiting carriage, Mary Anderson, with her wonted veneration for what pertained to the stage, begged that she might be allowed to be the first to sit in the chair that had been occupied for a few moments by the great actress. Miss Cushman’s verdict was highly favorable. “You have,” she said, “three essential requisites for the stage; voice, personality, and gesture. With a year’s longer study and some training, you may venture to make an appearance before the public.” Miss Cushman recommended that she should take lessons from the younger Vandenhoff, who was at the time a successful dramatic teacher in New York. A year from that date occurred the actress’ lamented death, almost on the very day of Mary Anderson’s debut.

Returning home thus encouraged, her dramatic studies were resumed with fresh ardor. The question of the New York project was anxiously debated in the family councils. It was at length decided that Mary Anderson should receive some regular training for the stage; and accompanied by her mother she was soon afterward on her way to the Empire City, full of happiness and pride that the dream of her life seemed now within reach of attainment. Vandenhoff was paid a hundred dollars for ten lessons, and taught his pupil mainly the necessary stage business. This was, strictly speaking. Mary Anderson’s only professional training for a dramatic career. The stories which have been current since her appearance in London, as to her having been a pupil of Cushman, or of other distinguished American artists, are entirely apocryphal, and have been evolved by the critics who have given them to the world out of that fertile soil, their own inner consciousness. There is certainly no circumstance in her career which reflects more credit on Mary Anderson than that her success, and the high position as an artist she has won thus early in life, are due to her own almost unaided efforts. Well may it be said of her

“What merit to be dropped on fortune’s hill?
The honor is to mount it.”