The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty
by Richard Schwartz
The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty: The Extraordinary Rise and Fall of Actor M. B. Curtis portrays the success and suffering, the perseverance and dreaming, of a nineteenth-century immigrant who was catapulted overnight to the heights of stardom and riches in America. Curtis became the first American Jewish actor to portray a Jewish character on stage in this country, using his charisma and comedic talents to overcome common stereotypes and prejudices of the time. But Curtis’s influence spread beyond the stage. As an immigrant, he couldn’t bear to see the Statue of Liberty go unlit due to congressional deadlock immediately after its dedication, so he paid to have it lit himself. In addition to paying back the country that welcomed him and his family, Curtis had a dramatic impact on the mainstream culture of the day, so much so that Mark Twain asked him to star in a rare stage rendition of one of his books. Curtis then became a pioneer in the nascent silent-film industry, a producer, a real estate developer, a promoter, a hotelier, a benefactor, and a murder suspect. M. B. Curtis’s life encompassed the highs of celebrity and fame as well as the lows of failure, illness, and a faltering career. What defined him, however, was that he always followed his dreams even in the face of extreme adversity. Using New York and then San Francisco as his home base, Curtis and his wife toured the country to great acclaim in the 1870s until being in San Francisco almost ended his life.