Our Montclairion Cousin

by Christine Adams Beckett

Photo of Laura Keene, 1826 – 1873. Courtesy of biography.com.

With the recent release of Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed film Lincoln and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War upon us, Montclair can remember a former resident who played a small role in the events that have passed into legend.

By 1873, Montclair was well on its way to being a bedroom community to New York City.  Of particular attraction to creative individuals, Montclair had become something of an artist colony, providing a well-lit, clean, spacious alternative to City living.  One of these seeking suburban refuge in a permanent “away-from-the-City” home was Laura Keene, who is probably best known as the owner of the theatre company that presented “Our American Cousin” at the Ford Theatre on arguably the saddest day in American history: Good Friday, April 14, 1865.   Legend has it that after John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln, Keene entered the presidential box to comfort a frantic Mary Todd and called for calm.  She also reportedly cradled his gravely wounded head in her lap, earning the cuff from her bloodied dress permanent residency in the National Museum of American History at Washington, DC.

The exact chronology of the events of that grave day are unclear, including the reasoning for why she actually entered the presidential box, and how she got there.  Some report that she entered through an exit off the stage, known only to the actors.  Many report that she called for a physician.  She also reportedly asked to cradle the suffering president’s head so that the physicians present could more ably examine the wound as he lay prostrate.  She has even been criticized that she recognized this fateful night as an opportunity for a final performance, a literal “pieta” in play where where she played Mary and Lincoln, the dying Christ, an attempt to revive a failing career riddled with financial set backs and failing health.  Imagining the sudden nature of the catastrophe, one wonders how such a premeditated response could have been formed in seconds.

One would think that the drama of a presidential assassination would be the worst thing one could be witness, but unfortunately Keene was no stranger to heartache.  British by birth, Laura Keene (née Mary Frances Moss) married John Taylor in 1844 at St Martin’s in the Field, London and went on to have two children.  She also went on to be the wife of a convicted felon, as John was sentenced to prison in a penal colony in Australia.  To fend for her two daughters, Keene took to acting.  To fend for her reputation, she took her family to America.

In America, she met Edwin Booth, known for his performance of Shakespeare and considered by many to be the foremost actor of his day.  (The Booth Theatre was named after him). Of course he had a most unfortunate familial connection: the brother of the soon-to-be assassin, also an actor.  The nature of Booth’s relationship to Keene is not known, but the fact that Booth accompanied her to Australia in an attempt to dissolve her marriage to Taylor is.  Upon her return, she met American businessman and Washington, DC resident John Lutz, who was to become her business manager and someone who would also become known as her husband, although wether or not they actually married is unclear.

Lutz, with the help of his attorney brother, brought Keene’s mother and two daughters to Washington from England, where the girls were installed in a convent school and told to keep their true identity secret.  Some reports that the girls actually called her “Aunt.”  In order to build a successful American career, a woman shan’t have been married, and it was even considered inappropriate for a woman to have a hand in managing a theatre at all.   According to historian Norman Gasbarro, no one knew if Lutz was married or divorced; henceforth the common understanding that grew from Keene’s constant companion became that of spouse.  It was never denied.  According to her biographer, John Creahan, they were married and Lutz provided love and support not only to Keene, but her two daughters as well.

Keene went on to have successes and failures.  In her heyday she was a very successful theater impresario, staging dozens of productions throughout the country, but especially in New York.  Her success in a difficult business was even more remarkable for the fact that she was among the first female theater managers in the country at a time when women did not have proper careers, much less in theater.   For a time she was the manager of her own theater at 622 Broadway, Laura Keene’s Variety House, across from Bond Street south of West Third Street.  When Keene had to give the theater up after the Panic of 1857, it became the Winter Garden theater and the venue for Edwin Booth’s ambitious stagings of Shakespeare.  If anything the term “theater manager” understates the range of Keene’s activities, since she was also the director, set designer, producer, and, in many cases, a lead actress in her own productions.  While it was the custom at the time for many plays to run only a few days or weeks at most, Keene’s productions ran for months, including one that purportedly ran for over 250 performances.    One reviewer, Col. T. Alston Brown of the New York Clipper described her as:

[…having a style] that was marked by a noble simplicity, of that chaste and quiet character which, although critically correct, was neither cold nor artificial; disdaining for the sake of mere effect to sacrifice sense and outrage propriety.  Her personations were rich, buoyant and graphic; never overstepping the modesty of nature, yet strongly drawn and marked as being entirely separate and characteristic portraits; and with an entire absence of mannerism.”

The Civil War took its toll on her business, as many theaters simply ceased producing plays upon its inception.  Keene must have thought that the end of the war presaged a revival of interest in the theatre.  She must have seen the production of the comedy Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre just weeks after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, in a benefit performance for the Union troops, and to an audience including none other than the Union saving president himself as the breath of fresh air that might revive her career.

Instead of basking in the footlights in her own production with the President in the house, she became the graceful presence that, if legend can be believed, called for calm during what one can only imagine as utter pandemonium as she tried to comfort the gravely wounded Lincoln.

The events of that evening ended the run of her play and her hopes for a sustained revival of her career.  Indeed, even her ownership of that ill-fated play was contested later in light by none other that Edwin Booth.  She apparently never defended the suit because, Gasbarros speculates, she may have been trying to keep her first tragic marriage, of which Booth was well aware, under wraps.

She did go on to publish a literary and arts magazine, Fine Arts.  Although down on her luck, she continued to pursue her deep interest and respect for all arts, theatre and otherwise.

The legend of Keene continues to include her poor health, exacerbated by the witness to the terrible events of April 14, 1865.  ” Miss Keane continued to live in her Bond Street house until she got well enough to move into the country, when, with her two daughters, she took a house at Montclair, NJ, where she lived, provided with every luxury, were such necessary, and the care, gratitude, affection and devotion and love of her children until her death, which occurred on November 4, 1873″ at the age of 47. (Creahan).

Ms. Keene not only represents Montclair’s traditional and long, strong relationship to the arts, but also its inclusive flavor, as it offered a home to a controversial woman.  She moved to Montclair in the 1870s, a time when our town’s reputation as an artist colony, largely due to George Innes’s residency, grew exponentially.  According to her daughters, our community offered her fresh air at the end of her life, and comfort while suffering from tuberculosis.  One can only assume that the air of creativity that existed here also cradled her at the end of a creative life which bore witness to so many significant events.

For an excellent, detailed analysis of what may actually have passed on the night of April 14th, 1865, please see the Civil War Blog, from Gratz, Pennsylvania.