By MICHAEL GERBINO At 1:17 a.m. on June 7th, 1893, Edwina Booth Grossman held her father, Edwin Booth, the greatest actor of his generation, as the last breath oozed from his body in the third-floor bedroom of The Players on Gramercy Park South. A handful of hours later The New York Times front page read, “The Great Actor Made His Exit Early This Morning.”
The artifacts of Booth’s life lay on display in his room: skulls, costumes, quotes from Shakespeare, portraits of his first wife Mary Devlin, his father Junius Brutus Booth, and his infamous brother John Wilkes Booth—all of them serving as reminders of his great career as an actor and showman. At his funeral the crowds that once gathered at theatres to see him perform paid their last respects at the Little Church Around The Corner. He was buried in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His pipe was laid to rest, his slippers tucked under his bed, and the door to his room on the third floor of The Players was closed.
Then the mourners came, silently lifting themselves from the pigments that hung on hallowed walls in the Library, Great Hall and Dining Room: Richelieu the Cardinal, Doctors Pangloss and Ollapod; Bob Acres and Sir Lucius O’Trigger from The Rivals; Benedick, Beatrice and Claudio from the Cathedral Scene of Much Ado About Nothing; stage folk from Alfred Frueh’s lithographs. The line drawings of George M. Cohan and Lillian Gish extracted themselves from the tarnished paper and made their way way upstairs along with Joe Webber and Lew Fields, the father of soon-to-be-lyricist Dorothy Fields. Stage folk not yet born when Booth passed came as well: Helen Hayes and Alfred Drake, Muriel Kirkland—whose face would grace 16 Gramercy Park three times as the years went by—and Sarah Bernhardt.
Actors from out of the Library made their way up the flight of stairs to the departed’s room: Mary from Superstition, Dr. Cantwell from The Hypocrite, William Charles Macready and Edmund Kean. The easy-going Mr. Timothy Toodles arrived in a drunken stupor with his trademark thumbless gloves. Rip Van Winkle woke up. Noel Coward recited prose and Everett Raymond Kinstler paid tribute in his khakis and paint-spattered dungaree shirt. Writers conjured postscripts to a life well lived: Mark Twain, Franklin Pierce (better known as F.P.A.), Thornton Wilder, Ford Maddox Ford, and soon-to-be Nobel Prize winners Eugene O’Neill, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. Other peers paid their respects: architect Stanford White, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and John Singer Sargent, who only four years before had painted the most revealing portrait of Booth standing majestically near the fireplace in the Great Hall.
All were grateful for the chance to honor the creator of this idyllic setting filled with art, paintings and sculpture; a shrine to music, theatre, comedy and the dramatic arts—a true showplace, a museum of riches that can never be duplicated.
Michael Gerbino writes the monthly email blast “Artwork at The Players” and serves as The Players First Vice President and Chair of both the Art and Branding Committees. Though by day he works as President and Creative Director at Archigrafika while teaching design at Pratt Institute, he also pursues a hidden passion for playing the trumpet. On most nights you will find him playing pool in the Grill.