Sunday, September 5, 2010

Gilded Girls Women Entertainers of the Old West by JoAnn Chartier and Chris Enss

This book makes me think of the song "Life Upon The Wicked Stage Ain't Ever What a Girl Supposes;" from the musical "Show Boat." In it's pages we are introduced to fourteen actresses, some still well known today others remembered primarily by historians, but all of whom brought a taste of glamor and dramatic flair to the dusty and rugged Old West. They braved the primitive conditions and privations to tour the Gold Rush boomtowns, mining camps, and burgeoning new cities and were rewarded by grateful miners, starved for entertainment and female beauty and charm, and were showered in gold and admiration.

We meet Maude Adams, who began her career before she was even one year old and died at the ripe old age of 81, wealthy and esteemed as one of the best actresses in America. Maude was a level-headed woman who kept her feet on the ground and her head out of the clouds, and believed in keeping her private life private, and thus avoided many of the pitfalls of celebrity that, then as now, provide fodder for the gossip magazines.

And on the other side of the coin is Mrs. Leslie Carter whose very name aired her dirty laundry in public. After a bitter and scandalous divorce involving adultery, this vengeful red-headed woman decided to take the only thing her husband left her with and drag it through the mud--his name. In this era when the word "actress" was still often regarded as being synonymous with "whore" this was indeed a slap in the face to the industrialist millionaire who had to see his name emblazoned on theatres and playbills for many years to come.

We also meet "The Naked Lady" Adah Isaacs Menken, the mixed race beauty who soared to fame because of her daring "nude" (actually a flesh-tone body stocking) horseback riding scene in the play "Mazeppa." But while fame blessed her, personal bliss eluded her, the men in her life always wanted Adah to give up her career and settle down and serve them as a dutiful wife and homemaker. She died tragically at the age of 33 after a stage-related injury.

Lillian Russell, the buxom blonde with the "roses and cream" complexion, the fashion icon of the 1890s with her plumed picture hats and rigorously corseted curvaceous hourglass figure, also makes an appearance in these pages. She was another star who, while she shone brightly on the public stage, lived a private life shadowed by tragedy, including the death of her baby boy when his stomach was pierced by a pin by his nanny while changing his diaper.

There is also the vivacious violet-eyed, red-haired "Flame of the Yukon" Kate Rockwell whose notorious "Flame Dance" with yards of red chiffon drapes attached to a stick for her to twirl, wrap herself, and whirl in, made her an overnight sensation.

The eccentric Sarah Bernhardt is also accorded a chapter. Her madcap manic-depressive life made headlines wherever she went. She slept in a coffin as a dress rehearsal for her final role--death--and was best known for her portrayal of the doomed consumptive courtesan "Camille." An avid public eagerly lapped up her flamboyant lifestyle, her lovers, jewels, menagerie of exotic pets, and wild adventures. She didn't even let the amputation of a leg slow her down and went on to entertain the troops in World War I, and even portrayed Queen Elizabeth I in a silent film in the infant days of Hollywood before her death in 1923.

"The Jersey Lilly" Lillie Langtry also gets a chapter. Lilly was a professional beauty and belle of British society who became the darling of artists and photographers before she parlayed her beauty into a stage career on the advice of her friend Oscar Wilde. Though it was her liaison with the Prince of Wales that ensured her lasting fame.

And those who have read Susan Sontag's historical novel "In America" will instantly recognize Polish diva Helena Modjeska, the famous tragedienne who shot to stardom in such roles as "Camille" and "Adrienne Lecouvieur." She and her husband and a select group of companions left Poland in pursuit of the American Dream, hoping to found a Utopian commune under the blue skies and golden sun of California, but when proved to be a colossal flop, Helena hastily learned English and set out for San Francisco to become a star all over again in a country where no one had ever heard of her. And succeed she did, in whatever language Helena was born to be a star. She would later go on to portray the Shakespearean heroines with Edwin Booth (brother of the notorious John Wilkes Booth who assassinated President Lincoln) as her leading man.

Anyone interested in theatrical history or the lives of interesting women, I think, will enjoy this book. It is, like the other works of Ms. Chartier and Ms. Enss short in pages it introduces the reader to some fascinating figures. I admit, when I first got the book I was a little disappointed that there were no chapters on Lola Montez and Lotta Crabtree, however, I soon learned that the author chose not to include them as they were prominently featured in another book, With Great Hope, about women of the Gold Rush, which you can also find reviewed on this blog.

1 comment:

librarypat said...

I have several of their books and will have to add this one to the collection. Thanks for letting me know about it.