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The 200th birthday of Edwin Forrest, the first great star of the American stage, is celebrated. A recap of his career by Paul Lieberman for The Los Angeles Times.

The original star

When Edwin Forrest died at 66 in 1872, of what they used to call apoplexy, now a stroke, the New York Times obituary said: "In the life of Mr. Forrest is to be found much of the history of the American stage. Before his time no American actor had appeared whose delineations of Shakespearean characters equaled those of the best actors on the English boards. With his debut as Othello, in the summer of 1826, the previously undisputed superiority of the English actors ceased. Edwin Forrest, at twenty years of age, became a 'star.' "

Almost overnight, Forrest was earning $200 a show, funding new plays by American writers — then performing in them to ensure their success — and buying mansions here in his hometown and along the Hudson. He collected art as well, including a portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Thomas Sully, who naturally painted him too. Sculptor Thomas Ball captured him larger-than-life in marble, in the robes of Coriolanus, Shakespeare's ill-fated Roman warrior.

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One of the co-respondents in the Forrest divorce was Nathaniel Parker Willis, editor of The Home Journal, which was the predecessor to today's Town and Country magazine. Forrest, mountainous and well over six feet tall, accosted Willis, five feet nothing, in what is today Washington Square and gave him a real shellacking with a cane, all under the watchful eye of the New York Metropolitan Police, who, suffering from the regular trouncings they were getting in the Five Points and on the waterfront, simply looked on as Forrest swept up the street with Willis. (This reluctance to get involved came to an end after the "Dead Rabbits" Riot of 1857, when an entire police precinct was routed by the rioters.) Forrest was a huge public figure, both in stature and reputation, and his wife was equally statuesque. Observers of the trial were bemused by the apparent physical mismatch between Willis and Mrs. Forrest. "He must have used a ladder," opined one.

Willis, deeply embarrassed by the trial, but proved responsible for little except a belief in Utopianism and a tendency to dandyism, decided to reside out of town, but his initial choice for a country home, Elmira, NY, proved to be TOO far out of town for him to conduct his work on the magazine, so during the Civil War, while he was mostly in Washington covering Capital Society, he selected a new place for an estate which he named "Idlewild" in what is now Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY. The house, which was in the highly popular Hudson Valley Gothic style, survives today, but shorn of its upper stories. The deep gorge of the Idlewild Creek, which constituted much of his acreage, still shows the roadbeds and bridge foundations of Willis' complex internal driveway.

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