One cannot speak of Sir Henry Irving without recalling the wonderful charm and genius of his leading lady, Ellen Terry. She never failed to be worthy of sharing in Irving's triumphs. Her remarkable adaptability to the different characters and grasp of their characteristics made her one of the best exemplifiers of Shakespeare of her time. She was equally good in the great characters of other playwrights. Her effectiveness was increased by an unusual ability to shed tears and natural tears. I was invited behind the scenes one evening when she had produced a great impression upon the audience in a very pathetic part. I asked her how she did what no one else was ever able to do.
"Why," she answered, "it is so simple when you are portraying ------" (mentioning the character), "and such a crisis arises in your life, that naturally and immediately the tears begin to flow." So they did when she was illustrating the part for me.
It was a privilege to hear Edwin Booth as Richelieu and Hamlet. I have witnessed all the great actors of my time in those characters. None of them equalled Edwin Booth. For a number of years he was exiled from the stage because his brother, Wilkes Booth, was the assassin of President Lincoln. His admirers in New York felt that it was a misfortune for dramatic art that so consummate an artist should be compelled to remain in private life. In order to break the spell they united and invited Mr. Booth to give a performance at one of the larger theatres. The house, of course, was carefully ticketed with selected guests.
The older Mrs. John Jacob Astor, a most accomplished and cultured lady and one of the acknowledged leaders of New York society, gave Mr. Booth a dinner in honor of the event. The gathering represented the most eminent talent of New York in every department of the great city's activities. Of course, Mr. Booth had the seat of honor at the right of the hostess. On the left was a distinguished man who had been a Cabinet minister and a diplomat. During the dinner Mr. Evarts said to me: "I have known so and so all our active lives. He has been a great success in everything he has undertaken, and the wonder of it is that if there was ever an opportunity for him to say or do the wrong thing he never failed."
Curiously enough, the conversation at the dinner ran upon men outliving their usefulness and reputations. Several instances were cited where a man from the height of his fame gradually lived on and lived out his reputation. Whereupon our diplomat, with his fatal facility for saying the wrong thing, broke in by remarking in a strident voice: "The most remarkable instance of a man dying at the right time for his reputation was Abraham Lincoln." Then he went on to explain how he would have probably lost his place in history through the mistakes of his second term. Nobody heard anything beyond the words "Abraham Lincoln." Fortunately for the evening and the great embarrassment of Mr. Booth, the tact of Mrs. Astor changed the subject and saved the occasion.
Of all my actor friends none was more delightful either on the stage or in private life than Joseph Jefferson. He early appealed to me because of his Rip Van Winkle. I was always devoted to Washington Irving and to the Hudson River. All the traditions which have given a romantic touch to different points on that river came from Irving's pen. In the days of my youth the influence of Irving upon those who were fortunate enough to have been born upon the banks of the Hudson was very great in every way.
As I met Jefferson quite frequently, I recall two of his many charming stories. He said he thought at one time that it would be a fine idea to play Rip Van Winkle at the village of Catskill, around which place was located the story of his hero. His manager selected the supernumeraries from among the farmer boys of the neighborhood. At the point of the play where Rip wakes up and finds the lively ghosts of the Hendrick Hudson crew playing bowls in the mountains, he says to each one of them, who all look and are dressed alike: "Are you his brother?"
"No," answered the young farmer who impersonated one of the ghosts, "Mr. Jefferson, I never saw one of these people before." As ghosts are supposed to be silent, this interruption nearly broke up the performance.