Cushman started out in opera, playing the Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, but within a short time she had ruined her contralto singing voice with roles too high for her natural range. So she turned to acting. Her first great role was as Lady Macbeth in New Orleans, and she went on to play a number of classical roles, including Romeo to her sister Susan Cushman’s Juliet. She was also for a time a theater manager and in 1844, moved to England where she became a great success, which only increased her fame when she returned to America in 1849. She later “retired” to Rome in 1852, where she set up a household of “jolly bachelor” women. By 1858, she was back touring in America.
Among her lovers were Rosalie Sully, daughter of artist Thomas Sully; journalist and sometime actress Matilda Hays, with whom she had a tempestuous relationship for 10 years; sculptor Emma Stebbins; and Emma Crow, daughter of Washington University founder Wayman Crow.
Cushman acted on stages all over America as well as in London, and she was a great supporter of female artists and writers. Before her health had deteriorated so that she could only give dramatic readings, her final known stage performances were in the same role she started out in: Lady Macbeth.