Authors: Anna Cora Mowatt

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American playwright, actor, and novelist

March 5, 1819

Bordeaux, France

July 21, 1870

Twickenham, England

Biography

Anna Cora Mowatt (MOW-uht), also known as Anna Cora Ogden Mowatt Ritchie, was born Anna Cora Ogden in 1819, She was the daughter of Samuel Gouverneur Ogden, a New York merchant, and Eliza Lewis, the granddaughter of Francis Lewis, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Samuel Ogden had taken his family to live in France while he conducted business related to his import-export company. Anna Cora was seven when the family returned to the United States. She was the ninth of her parents’ fourteen children. {$I[A]Mowatt, Anna Cora} {$I[geo]WOMEN;Mowatt, Anna Cora} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Mowatt, Anna Cora} {$I[tim]1819;Mowatt, Anna Cora}

Anna Cora Mowatt.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Among the activities of this large family were the writing and producing of skits and plays. Anna Cora (called Lily by her family) was educated primarily at home. She loved to read, and by her own account had read and reread the plays of William Shakespeare by the time she was ten. She became the adapter, producer, and leading actor of the family’s amateur theatricals.

When she was thirteen she met James Mowatt, a wealthy New York attorney, thirteen years her senior. He took a great interest in Anna Cora’s education, and before she was fifteen he had proposed marriage. Because her father insisted that she not marry until she was seventeen, Anna Cora secretly married James in 1834, at fifteen.

James bought Melrose, an estate in Flatbush on Long Island. There, Anna Cora continued her education under the supervision of her husband. During her studies she became interested in epic poetry and wrote her own epic poem, Pelayo: Or, The Cavern of Covadonga. James had it published in 1836.

In 1837 Anna Cora, whose health had always been delicate, became ill and was diagnosed as consumptive (tubercular). She was advised to take a long ocean voyage. Accompanied by her aunt, Mowatt sailed for Europe. While in Europe, she wrote a play for herself and her sisters to perform when she returned home. The play was Gulzara: Or, The Persian Slave and was given a production in the family home, with Mowatt playing Gulzara.

In 1840 James began to lose his eyesight and could no longer practice law. Then, in the fall of 1841, he lost his entire fortune through speculation. Anna Cora realized that she must support herself and her husband. She found the thought of becoming a professional actress revolting, but she did decide that she would give public poetry readings. On the evening of October 18, 1841, Mowatt gave her first program of readings in the Masonic Temple in Boston. She read very successfully for three evenings and then went on to Providence and New York. Mowatt was the first American woman elocutionist to appear upon a public stage.

However, the strain was too much for her. After her second series of readings in New York, her health broke down completely. The doctors could offer little help. At last she did improve, with the help of mesmerism and prolonged hypnosis. When she began to plan her next season of readings, she soon realized that she had neither the strength nor the voice for it. She would have to make money with her pen.

Mowatt studied what was being published in the periodicals and began sending articles to magazines. Before the winter was over, she had become a regular contributor. Most of her pieces appeared under the name of Helen Berkley. She also became a ghost writer for a Mrs. Ellis, who wrote household manuals. Mowatt heard of a contest which the New World was launching for a one-volume novel, to be called The Fortune Hunter. The first prize was one hundred dollars, and Anna Cora won it. James decided to publish his wife’s writings himself and established Mowatt and Company. From September, 1843, to February, 1845, Anna Cora Mowatt compiled eleven books, wrote two original novels, and composed an unknown number of poems.

The Mowatts had a literary friend, Epes Sargent, who had heard Anna Cora imitate the pretensions of some of the newly rich people who had moved into New York. He suggested to Mowatt that she write a play about them. In February 1845, she finished her social satire, Fashion. It was first presented at the Park Theatre on March 26 and ran for twenty nights. Though the play was very successful, the money made from it had to be used to pay the bills from Mowatt and Company, which had failed.

Mowatt at last decided to go on the stage as an actress. On June 6, 1845, she made a successful debut at the Park Theatre in the role of Pauline in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Lady of Lyons (1838). Many of the critics commented on her naturalness, and invitations began to arrive for her, In her first year of touring, she mastered more than twenty parts and played for two hundred nights at venues across the United States. For her second year of touring, Mowatt chose E. L. Davenport for her leading man. Finally getting a rest after that second year of touring, she wrote a new play, Armand, the Child of the People, which was set in eighteenth century France in the court of Louis XV. She wrote the leading roles for herself and for Davenport. The play was first presented in New York and Boston before the Mowatts and Davenport sailed for England.

After a very cool reception by the English cast in Liverpool, Anna Cora and Davenport were at last accepted, and invitations began arriving in for them to appear in London. Once there, they met a young man, Walter Watts, who was very interested in going into theater management. He had secured the lease of a theater in the West End of London, the Marylebone. He offered Mowatt and Davenport an engagement to open the next season there. Early in that season they presented her play Armand, the Child of the People. For this drama, Mowatt had her first great London ovation. The play ran for twenty-nine nights. The winter of 1848-1849 was the high point of her London career. By mid-February of 1849, the Marylebone Theatre had become the most popular theater in London. This was the result not only of Mowatt’s and Davenport’s acting but also to the sets and costumes provided by Watts. Watts had also taken a lease on the Olympic Theatre, which had been refurbished. James invested his wife’s savings in the Olympic. Watts planned to move the company to the Olympic in December, but before that time, James became very ill and, upon a doctor’s advice, went to spend the winter in the West Indies.

The newly refurbished Olympic Theatre opened in January, but in March both the Olympic and the Marylebone were suddenly closed. Anna Cora collapsed and for the next four months lay ill. Once again, she was hypnotized for long periods of time. It was late in July before she began to come back to reality. It was gradually revealed to her that Watts had been put in jail. At his trial, it was shown that he was a clerk in the accounting office of a large insurance company and for some time had been taking cash and checks from the company to pay for the elaborate sets for the plays he produced. He was sentenced to transportation away from England for ten years. After he heard the sentence, he hanged himself in his jail cell.

James returned to London, but all of Anna Cora’s savings that he had invested in the theater were gone. Mowatt began a new tour. Her appearances in Dublin were a great triumph. She went to Newcastle, and there she received word that James had died. He was buried in London, and on July 9, 1851, Anna Cora sailed for the United States.

In early September, Mowatt started from New York on a tour of the United States. Her tour was like a royal progress. She was much honored and celebrated. In Richmond she met William Foushee Ritchie, the editor of the Richmond Enquirer. Ritchie scarcely let her out of his sight. He sent letters, telegrams, flowers, or appeared in person in nearly every city in which she played.

In Memphis, Mowatt collapsed and was then taken to her father’s house in New York. When she was able to be propped up in bed, she began to write her autobiography. It was published early in 1854 and was an immediate best seller. By the end of November, Mowatt had continued her tour. In June, she made her last appearances, in Boston and then New York. On June 6, 1854, she married Ritchie at her father’s home.

Mowatt’s marriage to Ritchie was not a happy one, and in 1860 she sailed for Europe. Once again, she needed to support herself, and she turned to writing. She settled in Florence. In 1862, she came back to the United States to make arrangements with some American newspapers to write regular reports. When she returned to Florence in 1864, she was a full-fledged foreign correspondent.

Mowatt then moved to London, where she began another novel and gathered together some essays she had written eight years earlier. During the last winter of her life, she was unable to leave her room for weeks at a time. On July 21, 1870, she died. She was buried near her beloved James at Kensal Green Cemetery in London.

Author Works Drama: Gulzara: Or, The Persian Slave, pr. 1840 Fashion: Or, Life in New York, pr. 1845 Armand, the Child of the People, pr. 1847 Long Fiction: The Fortune Hunter: Or, The Adventures of a Man-About-Town, 1842 Evelyn: Or, A Heart Unmasked, 1845 (2 volumes) Twin Roses, 1857 Fairy Fingers, 1865 The Mute Singer, 1866 Short Fiction: Mimic Life: Or, Before and Behind the Curtain, 1856 Poetry: Pelayo: Or, The Cavern of Covadonga, 1836 Reviewers Reviewed: A Satire, 1837 Nonfiction: Life of Goëthe : From His Autobiographical Papers and the Contributions of His Contemporaries, 1844 (as Henry C. Browning) Autobiography of an Actress: Or, Eight Years on the Stage, 1854 The Clergyman’s Wife, and Other Sketches, 1867 Italian Life and Legends, 1870 Bibliography Barnes, Eric W. The Lady of Fashion: The Life and the Theatre of Anna Cora Mowatt. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954. Gives details of Mowatt’s life and work. Includes an extensive bibliography. “Mowatt, Anna Cora.” Britannica Biographies, 1 Mar. 2012. Biography Reference Center, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=b6h&AN=32418729&site=eds-live. Accessed 2 Aug. 2017. Provides a brief biographical profile of Mowatt Ritchie, Anna Cora Ogden Mowatt. Autobiography of an Actress: Or, Eight Years on the Stage. 1854. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1980. A lively account of Mowatt’s life until 1854. Robinson, Alice M., Vera Mowry Roberts, and Milly S. Barranger, eds. Notable Women in the American Theatre: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1989. Includes a biography of Mowatt. Taylor, Kelly S. “The Creation of a Public Persona in the Poetry of Anna Cora Mowatt.” American Periodicals, vol. 11, 2001, pp. 65–80. Communication & Mass Media Complete, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ufh&AN=31739159&site=eds-live. Accessed 2 Aug. 2017. Discusses Mowatt’s poetry.

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