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The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth that Led to an American Tragedy

by Nora Titone

Pub Date: Oct. 19th, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-4165-8605-0
Publisher: Free Press

A collective biography of the celebrated—and reviled—Booth family of actors.

In her debut, historical researcher Titone adopts the emerging biographical technique of examining a family instead of an individual (e.g., Paul Fisher’s House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family, 2008). Although it’s difficult to keep the spotlight away from murderous John Wilkes—unsurprisingly, he dominates the final chapters—the author does a remarkably thorough job of illuminating the lives of his parents and siblings, most notably older brother Edwin, a 19th-century stage mega-star who once played Hamlet on 100 consecutive nights and dined with President Lincoln, a fan. Titone begins with a tribute to Edwin on New Year’s Eve, 1892, a gala function attended by President Grover Cleveland. The author then moves back to England in the 1820s, where Junius Brutus Booth (Edwin and John’s father), a notable London actor, was fleeing to America, abandoning his wife and child, in company with pregnant Mary Ann Holmes. After providing the relevant back stories, the author relates the astonishing American success of Junius Brutus, and notes the fierce secrecy about his marital life (it later crumbled). Three of the sons became actors, but Edwin had the greatest talent and eventually became wealthy and influential. John Wilkes, writes Titone, had great ambition and a matinee idol’s looks, but little thespian ability. Though his surname gained him gigs, he rarely impressed either critics or audiences. The three brothers once did a benefit performance of Julius Caesar together, and had plans for Romeo and Juliet at the time John Wilkes was off interrupting Our American Cousin in Washington, D.C. After the assassination, Edwin never again uttered his brother’s name publicly.

Though some historical detail seems more tangential than pertinent, the multiple portraits display hidden facets of all the Booths.