Biographies & Memoirs


FRIDAY, APRIL 14, 1865 


9:00 A.M.

John Wilkes Booth walks slowly down the hotel corridor, momentarily at a loss for words. He has come to say good-bye to his beloved Lucy. He struggles to think of a way to break off their secret engagement and intimate that he might never see her again. Even though their relationship has been all but dead since Newport, of all the terrible things he must do today, what he is about to do next breaks his heart like no other.

The Hales are living in the National Hotel, on the corner of Pennsylvania and Sixth. Booth lives in the same hotel, room 228. Lucy does charity work for the Sanitation Committee and even rode to the front lines of nearby battlefields to visit the troops. It’s well known that her father wishes her to marry someone powerful and well connected. For Lucy to not only slink off to the room of an actor but also agree to marry him would enrage Senator Hale. So while the relationship has slowly become more public, she and Booth have kept their pending nuptials a secret.

It’s nine A.M. when Booth knocks on her door. He wears a ring she gave him as a keepsake. Booth has the eccentric habit of kissing the ring absentmindedly when out drinking with friends, and he does so now, as he nervously waits for her to answer. This will be the last time he’ll see her for quite a while—perhaps forever. Lucy’s father has been appointed ambassador to Spain, and the entire family will accompany him abroad. Booth plans to escape to Mexico after shooting Lincoln and then perhaps sail to Spain for a clandestine visit with Lucy if all goes well.

But how to say good-bye? How to make the next few moments as touching and romantic as any farewell should be, while also not letting her know he’s leaving and why?

Their relationship began in 1862. Booth became enchanted after glimpsing her in a crowd and sent Lucy an anonymous Valentine’s Day love letter. This was followed shortly afterward by another missive, revealing his identity. If its intended effect was to make twenty-one-year-old Lucy swoon, it worked. Booth was at the height of his fame and good looks, delighting women across the country with his performance as the male lead in a traveling production of Romeo and Juliet. One actress even tried to kill herself after he rebuffed her advances.

But Lucy Lambert Hale was not in the habit of throwing herself at men. So while Booth might have had the upper hand at the start, she made him work hard for her affection. The relationship simmered for two years, starting with flirtation and then blossoming into something more. The pair became intimate. When he was on the road, Booth was as faithful as a traveling thespian could be, which is to say that he made love to other women but considered them second to Lucy in his heart.

Booth is not the sort of man to mean it when he says, “I love you.” For the most part, women are the objects of his own gratification. But Lucy has long treated men the same way, holding them at arm’s length emotionally, basking in their charms, and then discarding them when someone newer and better comes along. In each other, Booth and Lucy met their match.

But they are also opposites in many ways. She comes from a more elite level of society, one that does not consider acting a gentlemanly career. She is an abolitionist, and he is most certainly not. He professes a heartfelt belief in the southern cause, while she is the daughter of a ferociously partisan northern senator. The engagement is doomed.

Booth has not seen Lucy since their ill-fated getaway to Newport. They haven’t so much as exchanged letters or passed each other in the hallway, even though they live in the same hotel. He has no idea how she will react to his visit.

A servant answers the door and ushers him inside the suite. Lucy appears a moment later, the unfinished business of their argument hanging between them. They both know that it’s over. Nothing more needs to be said, much to Booth’s relief. They make small talk, skirting the obvious issue. And then it is time to say good-bye. Before leaving, Booth asks Lucy for a photograph so that he might have something to remember her by.

She steps out of the room and returns with a small portrait of her face in profile. Her hair is pulled back off her forehead and her lips are creased in a Mona Lisa smile. Booth thanks Lucy and gives her a long last look. He then turns and walks out of the Hales’ suite, explaining breezily that he is off to get a shave, wondering if he will ever make it to Spain to see Lucy again.

Lucy Hale in the photograph she gave John Wilkes Booth


As he walks back down the hallway, the sound of the closing door still echoing in the corridor, he admires the picture and slips it into his breast pocket, next to the pictures of four other women who have enjoyed his charms. The life of a narcissist is often cluttered.

The pictures will remain in Booth’s pocket for the rest of his short life.

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