Phillip Carlyle, the character played by Zac Efron in The Greatest Showman, is a convenient foil for Barnum’s ambition in the film, a pair of feet on the ground while the showman’s head remains in the clouds (not to mention a convenient bank account). But was he a real person?
Short answer: no. White-tie Phillip and his society connections certainly reflect some of the upper-crust norms of the antebellum period in America (particularly the classism of elite theater), but Barnum didn’t have a high-society ace in the hole.
He did have John Greenwood, Jr., though.
Greenwood was Barnum’s right-hand man at the American Museum in New York: a loyal and ingenious talent scout, manager, agent and accountant who kept the trains running on time and had his boss’ implicit trust. (He also shared Barnum’s Bethel origins, perhaps one reason for the depth of that trust.) In the middle 1860’s Greenwood undertook various international trips to seek out new acts for the Barnum marquee, including travel to Constantinople to seek out one of the fabled “Circassian beauties” of Western Asia (and, if he could swing it, that horned woman would be great, too). Mark Twain was one of Greenwood’s travel companions in 1867, on the trip immortalized in Innocents Abroad.
Barnum leaned on his manager during his bankruptcy – in 1855, he had transferred ownership of the American Museum’s collections to Greenwood, who with partner Henry Butler continued to operate the Museum at full steam while Barnum worked to resurrect himself; and who was also then making payments on the building’s lease (the property was held in Charity Barnum’s name, leading Barnum to gratefully note that “Without Charity, I am nothing.”)
The men remained friends after Barnum repurchased the Museum’s collections from Greenwood and Butler, who continued to manage the property in the showman’s stead. Greenwood died in Germany in 1876, where he had been appointed U.S. consul by President Grant. Greenwood Avenue in Bethel, Connecticut bears his name today.
For more digging into the story and reality of The Greatest Showman, join us at the Museum this Sunday, January 28th at 2:00 p.m. for Fiction vs. Fact: The Real Story Behind the Reel Story with director Kathy Maher!