By Gayle Converse and Pat Miller
A woman with ties to several historic sites in Alexandria has been described as “the wife of three husbands,” “the star of the American stage” and “the most perfect actress America has ever seen.” This is in an age when most women actors were considered damaged goods.
Anne Brunton was born in England in 1769 – one of 14 children in a theatrical family. In 1785, when Anne was 16 years old, she made her stage debut at the famed Covent Garden in London.
After finding fame playing ingénue roles, Anne married poet and amateur playwright Robert Merry in 1791 or 92 – over the protests of his family. Despite Robert’s career path, the stage was considered an undistinguished and disreputable career for a woman. The marriage was a socially advantageous match, although Anne’s husband soon spent all of his inheritance.
In 1793, when Anne was 27, she received an offer from Philadelphia theatre manager Thomas Wignell to come to the United States. The Merrys embarked for the new nation, arriving in New York City in 1796.
Anne’s first leading role at the New Theatre in Philadelphia, later the Chestnut Street Theatre, the first U.S. theatre built solely for paying customers, was Shakespeare’s “Juliet.” After having been billed as “the leading actress at Covent Garden” Anne found success in America. Contradicting stereotypes of the time, she won respect through her business acumen, talent, philanthropy and impeccable manners.
According to Office of Historic Alexandria Museum Educator Kristy Huettner, “(Anne) shot to stardom at Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street Theatre. Her position as the most celebrated actress in the United States was solidified immediately.”
Between 1796 and 1800, she played Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Upon opening at a Georgetown Theatre in 1799, the Georgetown Centinel of Liberty proclaimed Anne “unquestionably, the best serious actress to have ever graced the American stage.”
On Christmas Eve 1798, Robert died in Baltimore. When Anne was 33, she married the man who had invited her to America – Philadelphia theatre manager Wignell. The marriage was short-lived however, and Anne became a widow for a second time when her new husband died seven weeks after their wedding. Anne gave birth to their daughter, Elizabeth, later that year.
Anne’s professional success continued. She had become co-manager of the Chestnut Street Theater when married to Wignell and continued to co-manage until her death. In 1800, the Philadelphia Gazette reported due to great demand, groups of tickets for Anne’s performances were selling for as much as $50. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, $50 in 1800 is equivalent in purchasing power to approximately $1,182.58 today.
In 1803, Anne married fellow actor William Warren in Baltimore. The Warren company played the circuit and the family, including a pregnant Anne and daughter Elizabeth, arrived in Alexandria in 1808 for Robert’s production at a theatre on Cameron Street. The couple had arranged to rent a house in the city. As they awaited the delivery of furniture for their rental, the Warrens stayed at the nearby City Hotel, which is now part of Gadsby’s Tavern Museum at the corner of North Royal and Cameron Streets.
Thirty-nine year old Anne never lived at her Alexandria rental home – she died in her City Hotel guest room on June 28, 1808, now known as Gadsby’s Tavern.
Huettner explains, “Anne’s husband was busy preparing for their theatre company’s summer presentation of “The Country Girl” just up the street when Anne fell ill, eventually delivered a stillborn son, rallied temporarily, and then was cast into a feverish delirium from which she never recovered.”
Childbirth claimed the lives of many women of every social class in the 18th and 19th centuries. Anne is buried in the churchyard of Christ Church in Alexandria.
The obituary in the New York Commercial Advertiser described Anne as having “unrivaled excellence in her profession and unsullied fame.” Anne Brunton Merry Wignell Warren used the footlights to pave the way for women in business and the arts. The first actress of eminence to cross the Atlantic – considered the most revered actress of her day – her final curtain was here in Alexandria. Bravo, Anne.
The writers are founders of Alexandria Celebrates Women, a nonprofit that highlights influential women throughout the city’s history. Contact them at AlexandriaCelebrates Women@gmail.com.