No, The Other Brother

To be or not to be a survivor.
To be or not to be a survivor.

Edwin Booth had these eyes: dark, large and full of sorrow.They tore people’s hearts out. It was said that no one had ever seen the young actor laugh. That well-earned sorrow matured into frequent drinking binges and sometimes shoddy performances as an actor, but unlike his insane and brilliant father who begot him illegitimately there was a softness to his voice and a winning sensitivity in his acting that drew people in despite Edwin’s faltering.

His father Junius was famous and famously promiscuous having many children and setting up between his illegitimate sons a devastating competitiveness and ambition. Since Junius was nuts, but the one paying the bills, Edwin at age twelve was given the monumental task of caretaker for his father on the road. So long schooling and stability (if there ever was any) and hello late nights chasing down his father at saloons only to be humiliated when his drunk father pretended not to know him.

Maybe that was better than the nights Edwin was forced to play the banjo at his father’s bedside to help him fall asleep. Did he look down at the man he loved and was ashamed of as the old man’s nose hairs fluttered through his snoring? What must a 12-year-old think?

Edwin_booth-staudenbaurTwelve became 13 and 14 and 19. People said Edwin looked pale, neglected and exhausted but still he ran lines with his increasingly insane father who finally died after drinking river water. Imagine having spent years hiding your father under a bed as you try to explain to angry creditors and theater owners why your father is missing. Imagine sitting up late at night in shoddy hotels still a child, your eyes so soulfully taking in every last evidence that you were a nobody.

But people had noticed Edwin knew the lines his father didn’t. They wanted to take him in–those eyes demanded it. And so his acting career began. Once he played along side his infamous brother John. Once just before his brother assassinated the president Edwin saved Lincoln’s son from falling under a train. This was small comfort as Lincoln’s body was taken to be buried, but Edwin was used to small comfort. Fame didn’t erase sorrow.

Edwina healing her father Edwin.
Edwina healing her father Edwin.

People in the 19th century were acquainted with sorrow. They even worried that too much happiness would cause them to fall away from God who in his great love for these little sorrowful people called upon his own son to die for them. Edwin was no Christ figure but he was called upon to sacrifice a whole lot. He married and had one child. I like to think that when he finally gave up drinking and focused on cementing his career as the best 19th century actor that he also had plenty of tender moments with his child. I hope on those occasions the sorrow left his eyes.

Inspired by Rebel Souls

John Singer Sargent's Edwin Booth
John Singer Sargent’s Edwin Booth

11 responses to “No, The Other Brother”

  1. This is an absolutely fabulous post! Thank you for sharing with us the story of Edwin Booth, whose brother’s misdeed must have overshadowed his own fame. I seem to recall an old movie… King of Hearts? I can’t recall the title but it is quite old. It was Edwin’s story.


    • I may have to watch it (depends on if the lead is handsome 🙂 I’m watching Life with Father (slowly 10 minute viewings while drinking tea). This is my mother’s favorite movie of all time. Her father abandoned her mother after she was born and I think Mr. Powell was her dream father.

      I saw an episode of Drunk History a while back about Edwin and John W Booth. In it they said that Edwin was a pompous ass who cared more about his career that the death of Lincoln. The show was funny but knowing Edwin’s sad early life and how he struggled to get his life together, I felt annoyed that some people would think this was real history. I guess it doesn’t matter that much–Edwin’s already gone.

      On a brighter note:

      Have fun on your trip to the Big Apple.


  2. Saw Edwin yesterday, looking very imposing, with blazing eyes, at brilliant Sargent exhibition at National Portrait Gallery, London – and kept thinking of your wonderful blog and its insights into the mind and soul of 19th and early 20th century America.


    • Ah, Sargent. Thank you so much for reading my blog. I never thought I’d enjoy blogging, but the best part is the sort of pen pal relationships that form.

      I used to have a pen pal from England and now I have you.



      • Yes, that is how I feel – benignly ambushed by new friendships on a blogging journey I started with great scepticism. I have great difficulty keeping up with other people’s posts and writing my own; I’d happily take a break to recharge/research/live a little but then get embarrassed because someone else starts “following” me when there’s nothing to follow….Love from England.


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