The Man Who Lit Lady Lib­er­ty: The Extra­or­di­nary Rise and Fall of Actor M. B. Curtis

Richard Schwartz

  • Review
By – December 3, 2018

The jump­ing-off point for this biog­ra­phy of the Jew­ish Amer­i­can actor M.B. Cur­tis is a rel­a­tive­ly minor inci­dent in his life: When the Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty was first unveiled in 1886, no funds had been appro­pri­at­ed to light the statue’s torch; Cur­tis inter­vened to pick up the tab. The stat­ue must have had per­son­al import to him, Cur­tis hav­ing immi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States from Hun­gary at the age of six.

Read­ing between the lines of Schwartz’s spare account of this episode, we may sur­mise that Curtis’s act was moti­vat­ed by some­thing more than sim­ple patri­o­tism: Appar­ent­ly, Cur­tis com­mit­ted to pay the statue’s elec­tric bill for one week only, dur­ing which time he and his com­pa­ny were play­ing an engage­ment close by, at New York’s Four­teenth Street The­atre. Schwartz does not tell us how much Cur­tis spent, but it’s rea­son­able to con­clude that his invest­ment paid hand­some dividends.

It’s tempt­ing to see Curtis’s career in par­al­lel with that of James O’Neill, whose son Eugene immor­tal­ized him as James Tyrone in his mas­ter­piece, Long Day’s Jour­ney Into Night. Cur­tis and O’Neill were almost exact con­tem­po­raries; both came to the U.S. as young chil­dren and went on to find fame, for­tune, and, in the end, a good deal of mis­ery by play­ing a sin­gle role through­out their careers — O’Neill as Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo, Cur­tis as trav­el­ing sales­man Sam’l of Posen” in a num­ber of flim­sy plays built around the character.

But Cur­tis left no issue, much less one whose tal­ent equaled that of Eugene O’Neill. Nor, appar­ent­ly, have suf­fi­cient mate­ri­als sur­vived to per­mit an in-depth treat­ment of Cur­tis as a man. We are told, for exam­ple, that he and his broth­ers all con­vert­ed to Pres­by­te­ri­an­ism as young men, but get no expla­na­tion. Sim­i­lar­ly, while a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the book is ded­i­cat­ed to an account of Curtis’s mur­der tri­al, it is vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble to dis­cern whether, or why, he was actu­al­ly involved in the crime. Schwartz does an admirable job of track­ing where Cur­tis went, and when, but comes up short when it comes to why.

Still, the book has val­ue for its explo­ration of the sig­nif­i­cance of Curtis’s sig­na­ture char­ac­ter, one of the first Jew­ish fig­ures in Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture to tran­scend com­mon stereo­types and stand on stage as a ful­ly-real­ized human being. Schwartz also pro­vides valu­able insights into the con­di­tions of Amer­i­can show busi­ness before the advent of radio, film, and tele­vi­sion, when build­ing a nation­al rep­u­ta­tion depend­ed on cease­less tour­ing with a sin­gle vehi­cle. The show didn’t have to change, because there was always an audi­ence who hadn’t seen it yet or was hap­py to see it again.

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

Discussion Questions