Maywood, Augusta (1825–1876)

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Maywood, Augusta (1825–1876)

First American ballet dancer to win international renown . Name variations: Augusta Williams. Born in 1825, probably in New York City; died in Lemberg, Austrian Galicia (now Lvov, Poland), on November 3, 1876; daughter of Henry August Williams (an itinerant actor) and Martha Bally (a former actress); married Charles Mabille (a dancer), in 1840 (separated 1848); married Carlo Gardini (a physician, journalist, and impresario), in 1858 (separated 1864); children: (with Mabille) Cecile Augusta Mabille (b. 1842); (with Pasquale Borri) Paul Maywood (b. around 1847); one who died young (b. 1864).

Selected roles:

The Mountain Sylph (New York, 1838); La Tarentule (Paris, 1838); Le Diable boîteux (Paris); Giselle (Vienna); Uncle Tom's Cabin; La Dame Aux Camélias; Faust (Milan, 1848); L'Araba (Milan, 1853).

Although she was the first American ballet dancer to achieve critical acceptance in Europe, where xenophobic cultural prejudices still ran high during the 19th century, and was for a number of years a darling of the ballet world, Augusta Maywood died in obscurity, after a life that was iconoclastic above all else. The daughter of two traveling English actors, she was born in 1825, probably in New York City. Her mother Martha Bally divorced her father and married another actor, Robert Maywood, who gave both Augusta and her sister his surname. Robert became the manager of the Chestnut Street Theater in Philadelphia, the city in which she grew up. Hoping to profit from their children, the Maywoods enrolled Augusta in ballet lessons, where she showed great promise early on. Her stage debut in 1837 launched a media sensation in the city. She was forced into a rivalry with another child prodigy, Mary Ann Lee , with whom she had studied. Both made their New York debuts the following year, and in the spring of 1838 Augusta and her mother sailed for Paris on one of the first steam-powered ocean liners.

In Paris, she began classes with ballet teachers affiliated with the Paris Opera, and easily won a small role there. She made her Paris debut in November 1839 in Le Diable boîteux, which starred Fanny Elssler ; Theophile Gautier wrote of her that "there is something brusque, unusual, fantastic … which sets her quite apart." After being cast in other Opera productions, Maywood was on her way to a promising career there when one day in 1840 she simply vanished. Her mother enlisted the help of her teachers, the Paris police, and even the newspapers to discover her whereabouts. They soon learned that Maywood had run off with another dancer from the Opera, Charles Mabille, who by dressing as a woman had gained entry to the Maywood apartment when both knew her mother would

be out; they had fled the apartment with Maywood hidden underneath his skirts. Although they had planned to marry in England, the underage Maywood had no passport and could not cross the border. Both were arrested. Mabille was jailed, but at the request of his father no charges were pressed, and the young couple accompanied Maywood's mother to Ireland, where they were married a short time later.

Maywood and her new husband lost their contracts with the Opera because of the scandal, and resigned themselves to dancing on the stages of lesser cities across Europe, including Lisbon and Marseilles. In 1842, Maywood had a daughter, Cecile Augusta Mabille , with Mabille, but she left them in 1845 and relocated to Vienna, where she began a successful engagement at the Kaerntnertor Theater. In 1847, however, she received a personal request from Empress Maria Anna of Savoy to quit the stage, since it was apparent that the unwed ballerina was pregnant. (Her second child Paul Maywood, who was probably the result of a liaison with another dancer in the company, Pasquale Borri, was placed in a foster home after his birth.)

After briefly dancing in Budapest, Maywood went to Milan in 1848 and made her debut at La Scala, where she won enormous acclaim and steady engagements. Five years later, she was named La Scala's prima donna assoluta, the company's highest honor, for her interpretations of classic ballets such as Giselle and La Gypsy. After Harriet Beecher Stowe 's 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was first staged in the United States, Maywood quickly devised a ballet version; she also danced the role of Rita Gauthier (Alphonsine Plessis ) in the first Italian production of La Dame aux Camélias. She was the first woman to tour with her own company of dancers and technicians, which made performances run much more smoothly than was usual on tours, and booked many of her own touring performances. A legitimate star in Europe, she consistently avoided returning to the United States. Her step-father sometimes fed items to American newspapers that printed the sad tale of how much money her parents had invested in her training, and how she had gone off to Europe to lead a dissolute life and left them poverty-stricken.

Divorce was technically illegal in France, and Maywood was still married to Mabille, who had quit the stage and taken over his father's popular Parisian amusement park and entertainment complex, the Bal Mabille. They were involved for a time in a bitter legal battle he instigated to ensure that he would not be held as the father of her son Paul Maywood (who otherwise might inherit his assets). After Mabille's death in 1858, Maywood retired from the stage and married Carlo Gardini, a doctor, literature professor, one-time American consul in Italy, and impresario. Now in her early 30s, she moved to Vienna with her new husband and founded a school of ballet there. The marriage fell apart, however, when in 1864 Maywood gave birth to a child whom Gardini knew was not his. The infant died on the same day that Gardini departed. For a time, Maywood lived near Lake Como in Italy, and continued to teach at her school, achieving great success through the accomplishments of her pupils. Nonetheless, when during a visit to what is now the city of Lvov in Poland she contracted smallpox and died on November 3, 1876, the news attracted little mention in the European cities that only decades ago had feted her, and was not even reported in America.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Migel, Parmenia. The Ballerinas from the Court of Louis XIV to Pavlova. NY: Macmillan, 1972, pp.179–193.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan