Friday, November 29, 2019

The Edwin Booth Statue - Gramercy Park

photo by Beyond My Ken

A year after famed Shakespearan actor Edwin Booth died, his biographer, William Winter, wrote:

Early in the morning, Friday, June 9, 1893, the Players assembled at their Club House, No. 16 Gramercy Park, New York, to attend the funeral of Edwin Booth.  The assembly was numerous.  A large company congregated in the street, and all those spectators uncovered their heads as the hearse passed.

The group had been understandably moved.  Booth had not only founded the club and was its first president, but he had presented to them the handsome house which still serves as its clubhouse today.  And it was there, in his private apartment, that he had died.

The shame that his brother, John Wilkes Booth, had brought to the family name by assassinating the President of the United States was never a stain on Edwin Booth's reputation.  He was considered the preeminent Shakespearean actor of his day and built the magnificent marble Booth's Theatre on West 23rd Street in which to stage Shakespearean plays.

Booth's Theatre, on the southeast corner of 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue, was a marvel.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Only weeks after Booth's death a movement had started to erect a memorial.  The famous actor Joseph Jefferson said in The New York Dramatic Mirror on January 13, 1894, "The Booth statue must be the finest of all the statues in Central Park.  It must be made by an American sculptor.  I should favor a submission of competitive designs."

But Jefferson also urged patience.  The country was reeling from the Financial Panic of 1893, a devastating economic depression that brought on the collapse of railroads and banks.  The newspaper wrote "He approves thoroughly of the decision to defer this active beginning of the work of raising funds until the times improve."

The chair which Edmond T. Quinn included in his statue of Booth may well have been inspired by this cabinet card of the actor costumed for his role as Hamlet.  from the collection of the Library of Congress
More eager to collect donations was a group of unscrupulous scam artists who devised a sham "Edwin Booth Statue Fund" and began holding benefits.  On August 31, 1895 The New York Dramatic Mirror cautioned its readers not to be too quick to donate to the fund.   It called the origins of the fund "mysterious" and warned it would possibly rob the true movement of dignity and"threaten to stultify a serious future effort to erect a Booth statue under proper conditions." 

The Players were, indeed, patient.  It was not until April 17, 1906 that The New York Times announced "A movement which will doubtless assume National importance was started yesterday at a meeting of the Players' Club, at 16 Gramercy Park, for the erection of a monumental memorial to Edwin Booth."  In the 13 years since Booth's death $30,000 had been donated to the project--a tidy $865,000 in today's money with which to start.

Although plans as to the final form of the memorial were indefinite, the club had firmly decided that it should be placed in Gramercy Park "so as to face the Players' Club, of which Edwin Booth was the founder, and to look in fact upon the very windows behind which the great tragedian breathed his last."

An anonymous competition was held to decide the final design of the memorial.  The committee of judges remarked that they kept in mind "the two-fold necessity for simple dignity of treatment resulting alike from the size of Gramercy Park and the character of the man."  With that in mind, any large grouping of figures or any "elaboration of the architectural setting" were rejected.  The winning sculptor was Edmond T. Quinn, who coincidentally or not, was a Players' member.

The statue was unveiled on November 13, 1918, Booth's birthday.  Quinn had depicted the actor at the age of 35 in his role as Hamlet, just rising from a chair.  Arts & Decoration magazine pointed out that "What invests this act with extraordinary importance is this--that it is the first statue erected in this country to an Actor."  (Technically, William Shakespeare, whose statue stood in Central Park, could be defined as an actor; but the memorial remembered him as a playwright.)

The article wrote "The statue, of dull green bronze, on a dull green stone pedestal [designed by architect Edwin S. Dodge], stands in the centre of the Park, looking south--as all portrait-statues should look--in order to always have the face in the sunlight."  The writer was especially impressed with Quinn's faithful representation of Booth.  "From the primary and fundamentally necessary standpoint of truth, it is one of the best portrait statues ever erected in this country."

The unveiling was attended by luminaries in the fields of acting, architecture and literature.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The front of the pedestal was inscribed merely:


and the rear held the inscription:

Erected 1918
by Members of
The Players
in Loving Memory of
the Founder
of the Club

The statue was unveiled by Booth's grandson, Edwin Booth Grossman.  Booth's daughter, Edwina Booth Grossman, and his grandson were also present.  The committee responsible for the project represented some of the most recognizable names in the arts--famous actors John Drew and Otis Skinner, producer Daniel Frohman, and architects John Russell Pope and Richard Howland Hunt among them.

Booth's grandson, Edwin Booth Grossman, is second from left.  The three men on the right are actor John Drew (with the cane) sculptor Edmond T. Quinn and architect Edwin S. Dodge.  from the Twenty-Fourth Annual Report of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, 1919 (copyright expired)
Following the dedication Arts & Decoration commented "The next thing to do now, and soon, is to open the gates of Gramercy Park to the public on every Sunday and holiday, from 1 to 5 p.m., so that everyone can at least pass through the Park and enjoy the statue."  The writer feared that the statue should not be "hidden under a bushel" nor "screened behind a fence a hundred feet away."  The journalist would not get his wish.

from the Twenty-Fourth Annual Report of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, 1919 (copyright expired)

On November 13, 1933, Booth's 100th birthday, members of The Players joined members of his family in planting a sycamore sapling in the park near the statue.  The New York Times reported on November 14 "A sycamore was chosen because as a boy Edwin Booth played under a gigantic sycamore which still stands at Tudor Hall, his birthplace near Belaire, Md."

That birthday was, of course, a special one; but every year The Players paid homage to the actor at the statue, most often by laying a wreath.  Among the actors participating in a wreath laying in 1943 were Uta Hagen, Paul Robeson and Jose Ferrer.

photograph by the author
Despite one writer's protest in 1918, the gates of Gramercy Park have always been locked to anyone other than residents of the enclave.  And so the Edwin Booth statue can be seen only by peering through the sturdy iron bars, frustratingly close but unapproachable.

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