Meet the Renowned Actress Kitty Smiley Cheatham

Posted by | February 23, 2011

Please welcome guest author J. Mark Lowe. Lowe is a full-time genealogist, author, and educator who researches primarily in original records and manuscripts throughout the South. His weekly local history article appears in the Robertson County [TN] Times. He is a Past-President of the Association of Professional Genealogists and is a Fellow of the Utah Genealogical Association. The following is Lowe’s first article in a new blog, “Kentucky & Tennessee Stories.” While this article’s topic is a bit far west for the normal AppalachianHistory.net piece, we feel Lowe’s blog will be an important one for our readers to keep an eye on, given his reputation in the field and breadth of historical/genealogical knowledge.

This week we read of a young lady with Robertson County, TN roots. Part of the Cheatham family, Kitty Smiley Cheatham became a famous actress. The following article was published in The Illustrated American, 12 Nov 1892.
Actress Kitty Smiley Cheatham

“The subject of our sketch this week is Miss Kitty Cheatham, a member of Mr. Augustin Daly’s excellent company of comedians, and a clever, hard-working, ambitious little actress. Miss Cheatham did not seek the stage and its many hardships because her head was turned by the silly notion so prevalent at the present day, that every society woman is a born actress and bound to succeed, nor was it because she was carried away by the false glamour of the footlights; but because reverses of fortune and the death of her father made it necessary that she should contribute towards the support of herself, her mother and sister, and thus become independent of the charity of relations.

“It was hard, indeed, for a young girl accustomed to all the refinements and delicacies that birth and riches could surround her with, to suddenly be compelled to join the great army of wage earners; but Miss Cheatham did not shrink from the ordeal, as she possessed indomitable pluck, great courage, and determination of will. Thus it was that, when a girl but seventeen years of age, she arrived in company with her mother, in the city of New York, from the South, to seek an engagement and to do battle with the world.

“Besides beauty Miss Cheatham is gifted with a sweet soprano voice, and it was but shortly after her arrival in New York that Colonel McCaull chanted to hear her sing, and immediately offered her a position in his then famous opera company. Miss Cheatham accepted, and made her first professional appearance with this company in Toledo, O., singing a small part in the Black Hussar. Her first appearance in New York was at the Casino. There she sang four months, and during the long run of Erminie delighted the large audiences with the clever and spirited way she played the part of Cerise.

“Her voice and musical training soon secured for her the leading roles in Falka and other operas.

“It was while singing at the Casino that Miss Cheatham suddenly determined to abandon comic opera and adopt comedy. No sooner was her decision made than, armed with a letter from Mr. Henry Watterson, of the Louisville Courier Journal, a life-long friend of her father and a steadfast friend of Miss Cheatham, she called upon Mr. Daly, and a day or two afterwards signed a contract with that gentleman to appear at his theatre.

“This happened just four years ago, and since that time, under Mr. Daly’s careful tuition and vigorous school of training. Miss Cheatham’s talents have rapidly matured, and the theatre-going public of New York will recall with pleasurable appreciation her many successful achievements at this house. Miss Cheatham has also on several occasions been suddenly called upon to play Miss Rehan’s parts, which she has always done most acceptably.

“Miss Cheatham is a native of Nashville, Tenn., and is the daughter of the late Col. Richard Boone Cheatham, twice that city’s mayor [her mother was Frances Ann Bugg.] Gen. Richard Cheatham, who was long in congress, was her grandfather, and Gen. Frank Cheatham, of Confederate fame, is her cousin. She is also a connection by marriage of Prince Yturbide, Maximilian’s adopted son.

“On her mother’s side she is connected with ex-Governor Trousdale of Tennessee and ex-Governor Foote of Mississippi.

“Both on account of religious and social reasons Miss Cheatham’s family were much opposed to her going upon the stage. They were strict Presbyterians and looked with holy horror upon all things theatrical.

“Although not of a theatrical family, Miss Cheatham was born an actress, and nothing delighted her more, when a little girl, than to dress in her mother’s clothes and hold impromptu entertainments with her young school friends, upon which occasions, however, she always insisted upon playing the leading roles.

“Devoted to her art, Miss Cheatham, with an expressive, pretty face, a graceful figure, intelligence, and taste in her favor, has every reason to hope that by patience and hard study she will reach the head of her profession.”

Kitty Cheatham was a Christian Scientist and a close friend of Mary Baker Eddy. She also spoke out on political matters. She undertook an opposition to the Star-Spangled Banner as our national anthem just prior to World War I. She published two collections of her songs, Kitty Cheatham: Her Book in 1915, and A Nursery Garland in 1917. Her repertoire included over 1000 songs in nine languages. Cheatham died on January 5, 1946 in New York City, and was buried in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Nashville.

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