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Gayler, Charles (1820-1892)

Actor, Editor, Journalist, Playwright

Born to a family of tradesmen in New York City, Charles Gayler began his career as a teacher before he moved to Ohio and worked as a journalist and editor. While there, he developed an interest in politics that led him to write songs and speeches for Whig Presidential candidate Henry Clay in the 1844 election. In 1846 he married Grace Christian, with whom he had eight children. While one source suggests that his wife was actress and fellow Pfaffian Getty Gay (Rawson 103), Thomas Butler Gunn indicates that Gay was Gayler’s mistress (10.34). According to Gunn, who describes Gayler's failed attempts to go home with a Mrs. Norris (nee Green), Gayler was not “constant to his mistress” (18.236).

A multi-skilled professional, Gayler edited the Cincinnati Evening Dispatch and later turned to acting in Shakespeare revivals and ultimately writing plays. His gold rush melodrama, The Buckeye Gold Hunters, was produced in Cincinnati in 1849. Flushed with this success, Gayler moved to New York and worked as a theatrical manager and producer of his own plays. His timely self-produced Bull Run, or the Sacking of Fairfax Courthouse opened on August 15, 1861 in the wake of the battle. He also wrote reviews for the Tribune (where Pfaff’s regular William Winter worked) and the Herald.

The bulk of his work consists of hundreds of comedies, operettas, tragedies, and melodramas. Called by James L. Ford “the father of American dramatists,” Gayler found success rooted in the New York theatrical scene, and some of his works use New York as a dramatic setting, such as Lights and Shadows of New York and his novel Out of the Streets, a Story of New York Life. His melodrama The Son of the Night: A Drama, in Three Days: And a Prologue (1857) was staged at New York’s Broadway Theatre in April 1857, and his popular Fritz, Our German Cousin opened at Wallack’s Theatre in 1870. Yet Clap mentions Gayler in a discussion of his appreciation for drama that isn’t necessarily “High Art” (Figaro 13 Feb. 1866), describing Gayler’s The Child-Stealer as an example of necessary “low comedy” (Miller 30). Gayler’s 1879 play Sleepy Hollow: or, The headless horseman: a comic pastoral opera in three acts adapts the fictional material of Washington Irving, a writer greatly admired by the frequenters of Pfaff’s.

Described by Thomas Butler Gunn as a “tall, burlylish man with an over-rich complexion...and plenty of self-esteem,” Gayler was a fixture on the Pfaff’s social scene (Sentilles). He was also a member of The Ornithorhyncus Club, a bohemian group which preceded the Pfaffians (Winter, Old Friends 308). Gayler was involved in several Pfaff’s-related publications as a writer or editor, including Momus and Yankee Notions. Gunn was critical of his editorial practices, calling him “an incompetent scissorist” who would tank Yankee Notions in six months (8.182). Gunn also writes that Gayler was to be Editor of an unnamed new publication which would be filled with “stealings” (plagiarized works and unpaid contributions (11.87). Paradoxically, Gayler was one of the men identified by Frank Bellew as "playwrights registering their dramatic works before the first copyright law went into effect" (Miller 52).

While his flowing beard often led visitors at Pfaff’s to mistake him for Walt Whitman, Gayler was a Pfaff’s regular long before Whitman arrived at the scene. A Brooklyn resident from Whitman’s neighborhood, as well as his predecessor at the Times, Gayler may have introduced Whitman to other Pffafians and inspired him with his career trajectory (Karbiener 13). Gayler’s relationship with Whitman appears to have soured, however, after Whitman replaced Gayler as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. In 1860, a magazine edited by Gayler (Momus) "contained some verse in which Leaves of Grass was called ‘pestilent...rotten and foul’ and the author the ‘dirtiest beast of the age.’" Gay Wilson Allen suggests that this was a "grudge attack" prompted by Whitman’s succession of Gayler at the Times. According to Allen, Gayler lived near the Whitmans on Myrtle Avenue and never forgave Walt for replacing him at the Times (242). Gayler is listed as one of the “few survivors of the old assembly” who still gathered at Pfaff’s in the 1870’s after the bohemians left (Parry 61; Stovall 308).

A biography, timeline, and bibliography of Gayler's works, written and compiled by Lyn Ribisi, is available here.