I’m wrapping up my posts on nineteenth-century courtesans. All quotations are from Susan Griffin’s The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of their Virtues.
Klondike Kate, born Kathleen Rockwell, was a famous courtesan who struck it rich during the Klondike gold rush. She was also known as “the honest courtesan” for her good nature and sense of fairness with her patrons. She said, “I was never a gold digger. The men threw their gold at my feet when my dances pleased them” (160).
“Her dance was famous. She would begin in the center of the stage, statuesque and still, with over two hundred yards of gauze wound tightly around her, as if she were wrapped in a cocoon. The audience was made up mostly of miners who came into Dawson to stake their claims or refill supplies, hopefully taking a night of luxury and leisure before they would return to rough camps in the muddy fields and hills . . . . [S]omehow with uncommon grace Kate would unwrap herself nightly, suspending two hundred yards of diaphanous fabric in the air while she danced” (160-61).
“It was not just a strip show she offered. Though along with her audiences he found her very appealing, the owner of the theater hired her because she was a good choreographer. And she also had, he said, a ‘French flair.’ She was talented at evoking fantasy” (161).
Kate was born into a relatively luxurious life, but when her stepfather lost all of his money and subsequently died, it threw Kate and her mother into poverty. “It was to prevent her mother from working in a shirtwaist factory that Kate began to look for employment herself. But at sixteen the only job she could find was in the chorus line at a Coney Island honky-tonk” (161).
She eventually moved up to the Yukon when the gold rush happened. “At first she avoided the saloons where women were expected to take customers to the upstairs bedrooms. But once she became famous and had a private room of her own upstairs, she did not hesitate to accumulate her own fortune this way. And like all the showgirls in the northwestern saloons, she would sit and drink with miners after the shows. She excelled here, too. Almost as famous for her sympathetic ear as for her magnetic performances, she was gracious as well as graceful” (162).
“During her first year in Dawson alone, she accumulated $30,000, a small fortune then” (162).
According to Wikipedia, when the gold rush died out, she moved to Oregon and bought a large farm, where she worked the earth wearing her vaudeville clothes and dance slippers. She had a few brief marriages, but most of them didn’t work out. She became a staple of her community again, but this time through her charitable work, not through her dancing. She was such a dynamic fund-raiser for charities that the local populace started calling her “Aunt Kate”. She made friends wherever she went.
Eventually she found work training young starlets of the ’30s and ’40s in Hollywood before dying in 1957.