By Christopher Shields
Greenwich’s connection to people who have excelled in the entertainment industry is familiar to many. But it is interesting to note the long history of this connection. Edwin Thomas Booth, considered by some to have been the most accomplished actor of his day, was a resident of Cos Cob for 4 years. The Booth surname may sound familiar – and for good reason. Edwin Booth was the older brother of John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.
Edwin came to acting through his experience touring with his father, the famed actor Junius Brutus Booth. His first professional engagement was in 1849 as part of Junius’ production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, and he embarked on his own career beginning in 1852. By 1860 Edwin was a well known figure who commanded large audiences in many cities, including New York and Boston.
Booth leased the Winter Garden Theatre in Manhattan with two other partners, acting and producing there until the theater’s was destroyed by fire in 1867. After working to raise money, Edwin established his own venue, Booth’s Theatre, in 1869. This establishment was located at Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street. The productions that he offered were apparently well received, but poor business management decisions resulted in the theater’s bankruptcy in 1874.
“Cedar Cliff,” as Booth’s Cos Cob home was known, was purchased from noted playwright Charles M. Barras in 1872. The house was located across from the Cos Cob train station on a riverfront piece of property known as Studwell’s Point. Edwin lived there with his second wife, Mary McVicker, an actress who had played Juliet to his Romeo in a Chicago production.
Accounts note that Booth was seriously injured in 1874 or 1875 when he was thrown from his carriage in Cos Cob while on his way to Stamford for supplies. Fortunately, he was able to recover from these injuries and return to his touring and stage work.
The entire Booth family experienced the contempt of the populace immediately following John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of the President. Edwin was personally devastated by his brother’s action and ceased his acting work. Fortunately, the waves of negative public opinion soon subsided, and Edwin was able to continue his career without unwarranted damage to his reputation.
Booth sold his Cos Cob home in 1876 for $50,000. However he continued his visits to Greenwich, staying at the home of his friend, Commodore E. C. Benedict.
Commodore Benedict reported that it was aboard his yacht, Oneida, that Edwin Booth originally proposed the idea for a club where actors and managers could meet both socially and professionally. This club, known as The Players, was incorporated in 1888 with 15 other members, including Mark Twain. It is an active organization to this day and remains at its original location at 16 Gramercy Park in Manhattan.
The archives at the Greenwich Historical Society has photographs of Edwin Booth’s Cos Cob home and some secondary source material detailing his life.
The archives are open to the public on Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1 to 4 p.m.
Christopher Shields is the archivist at the Greenwich Historical Society, 39 Strickland Road, Cos Cob, CT 06807.