"Oh, someone really should run a bullet through that...that vulgar ape!"
Startled from my desk, I rushed to the operating room and there under the skylight stood Maggie Mitchell. Sunbeams falling upon a mess of red curls, she was dressed in a tattered costume for her celebrated stage role of Fanchon, Miss Mitchell was as fiery and opinionated a woman as I have ever met. Ben, peering out from behind the camera offered her an encouraging smile until, seeing my countenance of dissatisfaction, disappeared under the operators hood. I turned my attention on her.
"Miss Mitchell, it is always a pleasure when you grace us with one of your sittings but could you kindly refrain from using such strong language, madam. We have a long standing policy towards the use of any form of profanity here at our studio."
She thought for a moment and it was then her expression softened and that famous smile that all of American manhood found so appealing and unable to resist settled itself shyly on her beautiful face. Tenderly remorseful, she apologised. "Oh Mr. Gurney, I am sorry. It's just that..." And as quickly as it was extinguished, the fire in her eyes returned.
Seeking to reason with her I enquired into who could cause her so much grief. Surely the man was an admirer of hers and thus within her abilities of persuasion?
She looked at me, seething. "Lincoln." The word emanated through clenched teeth.
There was a time, dear reader, when our martyred and dear president was not as popular as he is today. In fact, in 1863, the year of this particular visit by Miss Mitchell to my studio, he was very much despised and Miss Mitchell was among the many who felt similarly.
"Miss Mitchell, while my religious upbringing has taught me the futility of war..." She interrupted me. "Mr. Gurney, he wants to destroy the south! To free the slaves! What little we have left of morality and honor will..." raising her arm and swinging it down emphatically "...come crashing down like Rome!"
For those of you unfortunate to have never seen Maggie Mitchell perform, let me point out, she was magnificent. As splendid a stage actress as there ever was. Her timing was flawless and she could add improvisation to any scene asked of her. Like most men, I found her charming. Like few, I grew weary at her many moods and often never could tell if she was affecting or sincere.
Attempting to assuage her I reminded her "But Miss Mitchell, our president is a great admirer of yours! He has said it thus, himself!" "Surely,..." I am interrupted once more.
Arms crossed, turning up her nose she admits to me "Mr. Gurney, I could care not a fiddle for his attention!" "He's a tyrannical lout!" "A...a...a buffoon!"
Shaking, I turned and closed the door to the operating room.
"Madam!" "May I remind you..."
Peering at me, she lowers her voice to a conspiratorial whisper "and I am not the only person who thinks he should be done thru." Her thoughts get the better of her and, as though she's become the only person in the room, her eyes trail off, settling upon the golden sunbeams filtering in through the skylight.
Speaking to herself alone now she smiles and whispers the name. "Wilkes."
|Maggie Mitchell carte de visite, J. Gurney & Son|
New York Public Library Photography Collection