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Keene, Laura (1826-1873)

Actor, Theatrical Manager

Though much of her early life, including her real name and exact date of birth, remains in shadow, Laura Keene is thought to have come from a well-to-do background. She was widely read and spent time in Turner’s studio during her childhood. After performing with Madame Vestris’ company, Keene journeyed to New York in 1852 at the invitation of James W. Wallack. She became the leading lady of his theater and enjoyed great success.

In 1853 she undertook the management of the Charles Street Theatre in Baltimore. From there she moved to San Francisco and the Metropolitan Theatre, and then to Australia where she toured with Edwin Booth. By 1855 she had returned to New York and opened Laura Keene’s Varieties, becoming the first powerful female manager in New York. During this period, Keene maintained a professional relationship with Edward G. P. Wilkins--his first dramatic effort, My Wife’s Mirror was performed at Varieties--which ended soon after her performance in The Siam Light Guard. He became more critical of her acting and accused her of preferring to stage foreign dramas because she could use them free of charge (T. Miller 56). Wilkins "launched a campaign to expose what he called ’filibusters’--plagiarized scripts which kept being passed off as originals" (57). In the February 12, 1857 edition of the Saturday Press he chastised Laura Keene for "presenting three such pieces in one month" (57). He concluded by saying, "filibuster as much as you please, ladies and gentlemen; success is nothing but success. But full houses will not buy literary reputation for borrowed plumes" (qtd. in T. Miller 58).

In 1856 she moved to Laura Keene’s Theatre where she both acted and managed the company, producing clever comedies and inspiring actors like Dion Boucicault and Edward A. Sothern. Their anecdotes about her later led William Winter to write in his reminiscences on nineteenth-century theater that Keene’s temper "was tempestuous and violent" (Old Friends 193).

Keene’s name was immortalized when, during her company’s play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, President Lincoln was assassinated. Following the tragedy, she managed to continue working; she undertook management of the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia in 1869 and then journeyed west. Among her many projects at this time were editing a magazine Fine Arts, writing plays, lecturing, and acting. She died in 1873 leaving behind two daughters from her first marriage to Englishman John Taylor. She had remarried to American John Lutz later in life (Rourke).