Sunday, October 17, 2010

"A Thing of Beauty and a Boy Forever..."

"Another veteran of Pfaff's beer cellar arrived for an appearance at Maguire's Opera House. New Orleans-born actress Adah Isaacs Menken (real name: Dolores McCord) had just completed a wildly successful two-month engagement in San Francisco. Mark Twain, during his stay in the Bay City, had reviewed two of her shows, Mazeppa and The French Spy, for the Enterprise. The first, based on the Lord Byron poem of the same name, showed off Menken's best assets, her lush, well-rounded figure. Called "the most perfectly developed woman in the world" and "the Great Unadorned," the actress upheld her title by wearing flesh-colored tights and a scanty loincloth, which Twain compared to a diaper. He found her "a finely formed woman down to her knees," but judged her acting to be a little busy: "She pitches headforemost at the atmosphere like a battering ram; she works her arms, and her legs, and her whole body, like a dancing-jack...In a word, without any apparent reason for it, she carries on like a lunatic from the beginning of the act to the end of it." As for her performance in The French Spy, Twain considered it "as dumb as an oyster," although he conceded that "she plays the Spy, without words, with more feeling than she does Mazeppa with them."

"It is doubtful that Menken had read Twain's review when she arrived in Virginia City on February 27, 1864, with her full entourage in tow. This included her manager, her road company of actors, several horses, nineteen dogs, her third husband, humorist Robert Henry Newell, alias "Orpheus C. Kerr," and her beautiful blond friend from bohemian New York, Ada Clare, for whom Menken was planning to write a new play. Clare, in company with Menken, had formed the distaff portion of Walt Whitman's drinking circle at Pfaff's beer cellar. Her real name was Jane McElhenney, and she had relocated to New York from Charleston, South Carolina, to trod the boards. She was rather less successful at that undertaking than Menken - critics found her too thin, in both voice and body - but Whitman considered Clare "gay, easy, sunny, free, loose, but not ungood." As for Menken, the Good Gray Poet had been best man at one of her weddings.

"As usual, Menken was a sensation both on stage and off. She toured the Comstock Lode, boiling an egg in the scalding subterranean waters and accepting a two-thousand-dollar silver bar engraved with the vaguely suggestive name of the Menken Shaft and Tunnel Company. She boxed a couple of rounds at the Sazerac saloon with local bon vivant "Joggles" Wright - her second husband had been heavyweight champion John "the Benicia Boy" Heenan - and became an honorary member of Fire Engine Company No. 2, which gave her a red morocco best signifying her membership in the clan.

"Between visits to the various bars, gambling dens, and hurdy-gurdy parlors along C Street, Menken performed The French Spyand Mazeppa. The audience predictably favored her less-clothed performance in the latter show; one wag complained that her penchant for performing male roles in drag ensured that she would remain "a thing of beauty and a boy forever." The Virginia City Union, reviewing her performance, got in a gratuitous if satisfying dig at its rival, reporting that "Mark Twain is writing a bloody tragedy for her...which will excel Mazeppa in many respects. It is to be called 'Pete Hopkins, or the Gory Scalp.'"

-Roy Morris, Jr.
Lighting out for the Territory

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Friday, October 15, 2010

Red Bandana

He was mean, redneck mean. He worked hard for it. He was just a little guy, little banty rooster and tanned a deep dark red, dragged his feathers state to state. He used to say he was part Cherokee, said he was Welsh, said his granddaddy rode with Mosby for the Confederacy but he used to say a lot of things. He looked more Irish than anything, with blond curly hair, flattened nose, bandy little legs. Those white trash blue eyes, washed out eyes. Took you in before you could hide. He bore maybe a passing resemblance to a young Merle Haggard and he told that to everyone he met.

He’d show up drunk. He’s show up with his shirt off and this stupid red bandana tied around his neck. He’s show up swigging bourbon out of a Styrofoam cup, all pissed off and looking to start something. Those eyes would scan the place, just daring somebody to meet them. And, Brother, you’d be well advised to look away.

He fought dirty. Of course he did, a man that size. Man that scared. Voice used to fall down to nothing when your mom would pull up in the driveway. But he remembered, always would. Catch you later outside the bathroom and smack you in the back of the head just to let you know you were noticed. And you were always noticed.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Bill Cody, 1917

William F. Cody lay dying of kidney failure at his sister's house in Denver. He was 71 years old and his kidneys were shot, his own blood was turning against him. Family and friends surrounded his bedside, praying and witnessing. Touching the paper-thin skin of the old man's hand. It seemed like an unlikely way for him to go, they all agreed. He had seen his brother thrown to his death in Iowa, seen his father stabbed by Confederate sympathizers in Kansas. He fought Mormons in Utah and Souix across the plains, he knew his way around a gun.

He killed 4000 buffalo for the Transcontinental Railroad, sold their meat the the workers along the way. He prospected for gold in California, drove stagecoaches and rode for the Pony Express, acted as scout for Russian aristocracy. Nobody knew what was true and what wasn't anymore. He didn't know himself. He turned it all into a show and he took it around the world. He gave command performances for presidents and royalty, claimed "Wild Bill" Hickok and Kaiser Wilhelm II as personal friends. Queen Victoria presented him the cherrywood bar that still stands in his hotel in Wyoming. I ate breakfast in that same bar when I was just a kid. Smothered my pancakes in syrup.

He slipped in and out of consciousness for the better part of three days, and finally died on January 10, 1917. Word of his death was published on the front page of the next day's newspaper, between a Pueblo farmer who avenged his brother by killing his murderer, and an Indianapolis "negress" who made a fortune selling an ointment to straighten kinky hair.