Edwin Booth, the Hamlet of New York

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gramercy park - edwin booth statue
Statue of Edwin Booth as Hamlet in Gramercy Park is by Edmond T. Quinn

In the center of Gramercy Park, there is a statue. It depicts an actor in the role of Hamlet, forever contemplating “To Be or Not To Be”. This actor is Edwin Booth.

One of the great American Shakespearean actors of the 19th century, he was particularly famous for his signature role of Hamlet. In 1864 his Broadway run of Hamlet lasted for one hundred performances, a record for its time. (Sometime later, in 1922, John Barrymore played the part on Broadway and it was assumed that he would stop at 99 performances out of respect for his famous predecessor. Alas, Barrymore extended the run to 101 performances in order to claim the record for himself.)

Edwin Booth (1833 - 1893)
A bust of Edwin Booth in front of a portrait of Edwin Booth in The Players

Edwin Booth was a part of a theatrical family, his father was a renowned English actor and both of his brothers, Junius Brutus Booth Jr. and John Wilkes Booth, graced an American stage. Edwin was the most talented of the brothers and surpassed even his father as a performer. Ironically, the family name – Booth – went down in history not for its fame but rather for its infamy: John Wilkes Booth, the younger brother of Edwin Booth, assassinated President Lincoln in 1865 making their family name the most hated in the country. John Wilkes was a committed secessionist while Edwin, with the rest of the family, supported the Union cause. Edwin, who had been feuding with John Wilkes before the assassination, disowned him afterward, refusing to have John’s name spoken in his house. Despite that, the national contempt for the family name was so tangible that for a certain amount of time Edwin Booth was afraid to leave the house. Thinking that the Booth actors would never be able to perform again, he had no other choice but to stop acting. Almost a year later he made his return to the stage playing his signature role of Hamlet.

Fate twisted Booth and Lincoln together once before in a bizarre coincidence. About a year before the assassination, Lincoln’s son, Robert, was on the train station in Jersey City, NJ, traveling from New York to Washington, D.C. He misstepped, lost his footing and could have fallen in front of a passing train if it weren’t for Edwin Booth who happened to be standing right next to him, grabbed him by the collar and pulled him to safety. Robert Lincoln had no idea whom he owed his life to until he turned and saw the familiar face of a famous thespian – Edwin Booth. He had thanked him by name.

The Players
The Players, a club founded by Edwin Booth in 1888

The statue of Edwin Booth looks almost directly onto the remarkable place he founded – The Players. It was conceived as a private club where actors, theater professionals, and benefactors could meet both socially and professionally. The Players incorporated in 1888 with 15 other members including Mark Twain, and it was the first professional club in the country. Edwin Booth lived in the building occupying the top floor apartment. In fact, that’s where he spent the last five years of his life until his death in 1893.

The Players
Programs, old photos, props on display in The Players

His funeral was held in another New York neighborhood gem called The Little Church Around the Corner on 29th Street. At the time, the now-all-glamorous profession of acting was associated with disrepute. While other churches refused to hold funerals for actors, the Church of the Transfiguration nicknamed The Little Church Around the Corner, didn’t. The tranquil beautiful church became favorite with the actors. Edwin Booth is commemorated in the church by a stunning stained glass installed in his memory by the members of his Player’s Club.

The Alcove in The Players
The Alcove in The Players adorned by the portraits of former club presidents

Edwin Booth (1833 – 1893)
Statue of Edwin Booth as Hamlet in Gramercy Park is by Edmond T. Quinn (1917)

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