Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Klondike Kate

Kate Rockwell didn’t have your average love story. She was born in Kansas in 1876 though she changed the year of her birth as she aged. Her parents divorced and her mother remarried many times, giving Kate a wariness of marriage.

She had red hair, violet eyes, long black eyelashes, and a poster girl figure. Her voice was husky and her face a delicate oval shape and she oozed sex appeal. Kate was also talented and graceful. Her “pixie stare” was so full of sweet innocence and raw sex that few men could resist her. It was her love of fun that won them all over and her mesmerizing “flame” dance.
photo from Wikipedia

The dance was perfected in the Klondike after she’d worked as a chorus girl in New York and in vaudeville in Seattle.  While in New York she fell in love with comedian Danny Allmon.  He planned to join her in Seattle but didn’t make it across country before she headed north.

Her first act in Alaska was wearing a crown of candles and skipping rope. It was in a saloon called Louvre, the only place in Skagway where an entertainer didn’t have to also entertain upstairs.

It’s said that Kate wanted to cross the Chilkoot trail but the Mounted Police would turn women back, saying it was too harsh for them. When they also stopped women from going down the Five Finger Rapids, she dressed like a boy and jumped aboard a scow as it was pulling away from the dock and waved at the Mounties. She took this boat to get to Whitehorse.

She learned of Danny’s death while working at the Savoy in Dawson. He was on his way to join her when he suffered a brain hemorrhage.  She saved his obituary and photos all her life.

Kate knew how to wow the miners and was continually offered more and more lucrative jobs at the establishments around the Klondike. The owner of the Palace Grand Theater recognized Kate’s choreographic skills and helped her develop her legendary Flame Dance. During this dance she kept 200 yards of chiffon airborne for the length of a song. She twirled, leaped and waved the cloth to the roars and applause of the crowds. She made $200 a week for performing this dance one a night.  And would usually earn another $500 a night getting men to dance with her and buy drinks.

photo from Klondike Kate Website
Men also gave her gold and money to “listen” to them. It is rarely said that she bed the men. She was such a beautiful performer and good listener that they gave her money just to talk with her. And she was benevolent, lending down-on-their-luck miners a grub stake.

Kate claimed to make more than $30,000 her first year in Dawson. While she never claimed to be a gold digger, saying the men threw money at her feet as she danced, she never denied she might have bedded one or two. But she was discreet until she met Alexander Pantages.

Alexander was as determined to succeed as Kate. He was slightly taller than her with a swarthy complexion, sensuous mouth, deep-set, brooding eyes, and black hair that shone. He was proud of his barrel chest and graceful, well-muscled chest.  He didn’t drink or smoke and took great care to be clean and tidy.  He spoke little due to his Greek accent, but Kate found that accent charming.  He was fluent in several languages but couldn’t read or write. And Kate felt she would never meet anyone smarter.

Kate met Alexander at one of the saloons where he was a bartender. With his own growing bank account, Alexander courted and won Kate. They lived openly together, her working at the Monte Carlo as the headliner and Alex using his money to open more theaters and bring in class acts. But Alex had a vision of owning a chain of theaters and it wasn’t long until he lost everything and was living off of Kate’s income.

In 1900 when Alex opened the Orpheum, Kate was one of his investors and left the Monte Carlo to star in her lover’s show. She was told by a friend she was a fool to, “fall so hard for a foreign ‘patent-leather kid’ who will love her, take her gold, and leave her.” The venture with the Orpheum paid off and Kate and Alex were happy.  She became focused on Alex. “Alex Pantages and I laughed, danced and worked hard during those months at the Old Orpheum. We opened it together and it became the brightest spot north of the International Boundary Line. In the spring we’d go picking poppies together on the banks of the Klondike. And we’d make plans for the day when we would later marry.”

It’s believed Kate bore a child with Alexander. She made a brief visit to the states and later took over the care of an infant, stating it was a child from a young tubercular girl who died during birth.

In the spring of 1902, seeing that the gold was dwindling, Alex was ready to take his idea of a chain of theaters to the lower states. But Kate didn’t want to leave Alaska. She’d grown to love the land and the people.

Alex moved to Seattle and Kate remained in Dawson.  Alex sent letters to Kate (having someone close to him write them as he still couldn’t write) telling how much he still loved her. He begged her to write more often and grew frustrated with her romance with alcohol.  It appeared he wanted to reconcile more than she. In one letter he wrote, “Always think of Papa and kiss me in your dreams. I shall ofttimes think of your dear face wishing I might kiss it to satisfy my desire.”

When Alexander finally resigned himself that she was not to be wooed back, he became frustrated that she was purchasing and building a good portfolio while he was struggling to get investors in his project.
Alexander married vaudeville violin player Lois Mendenhall in 1905. And when contacted by a Seattle Times reporter Alex denied knowing Kate Rockwell. To which, Kate sued for damages of $25,000 not for money she invested in his enterprises but for breach of his promise to marry her. It was settled out of court. Some say she received $5,000 and other accounts say $60,000. Whatever the payoff it didn’t stop the pain Kate felt for the betrayal. She admitted, “For days I was despondent.” Then she received a letter from another dancer she worked with in Dawson. This girl had her own men problems but her words worked to snap Kate out of her doldrums. “Don’t throw your life away because of one man. Don’t make yourself something he will always be glad he was rid of. Make yourself something he will wish he had kept.”

Kate tried to turn her life around but catastrophe after catastrophe seemed to follow her. And Alexander was on the road to success. His good fortune sent her into a nervous breakdown and doctors ordered her to get away and forget. Her mother had property in Bend, Oregon and Kate bought it from her mother and moved there.

In 1929 Kate was subpoenaed as a prosecution witness against Alexander who was charged with raping a seventeen-year-old actress. Kate couldn’t believe his appearance and burst into tears when he admitted the days in Alaska had been happy ones.  He was sentenced to fifty years before Kate even had a chance to be called as a witness. He was acquitted two years later but the ordeal caused a heart attack and loss of finances. His wife was charged with manslaughter while driving drunk and Alex only lived five years after he was released.

After Alexander died she had two suitors and ended up marrying a longtime friend and Yukon miner, Johnny Matson and after his death she married an Oregon accountant.

This is not your typical romance. Reading about this brave, intelligent woman, I don’t see her romance being with one man but rather with the adoration she received from the hordes she entertained in Alaska. In 1931 at an annual stampede in Portland, Oregon over one thousand Alsaka-Yukon Pioneers from the Klondike era toasted Kate Rockwell.  The master of ceremonies said, “To us she was laughter and beauty and song.”

As part of the Sweethearts February Romance Month at the blog, I’m giving one commenter, who leaves a way to contact them, an ebook of Gambling on an Angel

Blurb for Gambling on an Angel
Letha Harrison and her younger sister are following their mother's dying request to reunite their family that was separated by the violence of their abusive, alcoholic father. The only thing Bas Slocum cares about is his saloon—until he meets an angel wearing a Temperance ribbon.

Source: Good Time Girls by Lael Morgan


  1. What a riveting story. Poor Kate seemed destined to be one of those larger than life people whose strengths were overcome by her weaknesses. But she always seemed to bounce back, didn't she? What a book of fiction of this would make.
    Thanks for sharing this.

  2. I've heard of Klondike Kate but knew nothing about her. She sure led a dramatic life. Thenks for sharing her story, Paty.

  3. Linda, She did bounce back didn't she? But boy did she have bad luck in the love department.

    Hi Lyn. She was an over the top character.

  4. Fasinating story. I tweeted.

  5. What an interesting story. In some ways, Kate had an awful run of bad luck, but I have to say she really knew how to have a fantastic, adventurous life.
    Your book sounds just as interesting. I liked the temperance pin. LOL
    starcriter at yahoo dot com

  6. What an interesting story. She must have been all muscle dancing that way. lol. Thanks for sharing.

  7. My goodness, I sure didn't know all of that about Kate. Interesting history lesson and sad too. She was never truly happy for very long.

  8. I really enjoyed reading about Kate. This is such an interesting story.

  9. What an amazing story of resilience, looking for love, and being true to herself. Thanks so much for posting!

  10. Paty, what a sad story. At least she was happy for a while, and she did make money. She must have been a very charismatic person. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Thanks, Ella!

    Sarah, She was a very optimistic person and kept her eye on the goal of being famous.

    Robin, I agree! At times she'd do three and four sets a day!

    Linda, I think she was one of those people that had to be in the center of attention. I don't think any of them are every truly happy.

    Hi Cynthia. I first learned about here when I moved to Bend, OR. I've been fascinated by her story ever since.

    Melissa, You're welcome!

    Caroline, From all accounts she was a very charismatic woman.

  12. I liked this quote: “Don’t throw your life away because of one man. Don’t make yourself something he will always be glad he was rid of. Make yourself something he will wish he had kept.” An amazing woman.

  13. Paty--what a wonderful story about Klondike Kate. I'd heard of her name, but not her life story. I had no idea she was truly very pretty. Her life was so different from her peers--it makes you wonder what drove her to be so different. It's sad her love life wasn't as grand as she deserved.
    Very good, and thanks.

  14. What an interesting life Kate led. It wore me out just reading about it. She would make a great story for one of us to adapt. It was fun reading about her.

  15. Gerri, I liked that quote too!

    Celia, For a woman who craved love and acceptance on stage, she did have a hard time getting it off stage.

    Paisley, I've had an idea for a character like her in a book that is in the back of my mind. She isn't the main character but a secondary one that is the mentor to the heroine.

  16. Indeed, not a romance, but romantic in its way. Excellent post, Paty! Another of those real-life brave and resilient women of the west..

  17. Tanya, that's what I thought! Thanks!

  18. Robin, You are the winner of Gambling on an Angel. Please email me at patyjag(at)gmail(dot)com with the ebook format you would like.


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