Saturday, September 10, 2005

Good Brother, Bad Brother

Good Brother, Bad Brother: the Story of Edwin Booth & John Wilkes Booth by James Cross Giblin

As everyone knows, John Wilkes Booth killed President Abraham Lincoln. Most people may recall that JWB was an actor; and some that he came from an acting family.

GBBB shows that there was much more to JWB and the Booth family. This is nonfiction the way I like it: a compelling story, interesting people, photos and pictures and other illustrations to help learn more about the people and places you're reading about.

The Plot: JWB was the younger son of a very well known actor, Junius Brutus Booth. JBB's sons were also actors, including Edwin Booth.

Both EB and JWB were well known and respected in their own right; JWB was not the failed actor/ wannabe that I seem to recall learning about. Both were making extremely good money (tho, as with actors today, they had good years and bad years.) In 1863, JWB made $1,000 for 4 performances.

Up until April 1865, JWB was probably viewed as the "good son", despite being an enthusiastic supporter of the South in a family that was more for the North. He was handsome, charming, and very popular with the ladies (JCG omits the many people claiming to be descendants of the never married JWB). EB was far from perfect; his drinking had caused professional and personal heartache.

Then JWB killed the President. And the rest of the family was left to pick up the pieces. The media of the 19th century were no kinder than the media today.

The Good: Despite being known as the brother of the man who killed the president, EB continued to perform, and continued to get good reviews. His acting style was unique -- simple, direct and factual in a time when flamboyant style was the rage. This style influenced actors who followed him, down to the present day. Some recordings of EB were made, scroll down this page to find one here.

GBBB is also a peak into a part of the 19th century that we seldom see: that of actors, and their connections and life. All the more compelling by the many photos and little details, such as actors doing more than one play during a run at a theatre and supplying all their own costumes.

As is usual with nonfiction, I was interested in learning more about Edwin Booth. There seems to be very little on the web about the Booth descendants. I thought I had read that there was a connection between the Booth acting family and those of the Drews and the Barrymores, but I couldn't find anything to support that. I did find that Cherie Blair, wife of the British Prime Minister, is a distant Booth relation.

An interesting interview with the author is here.

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