Ada Clare and the Bohemian Tidal Wave

In the 1800s, the French mistook an influx of Romani gypsies and wandering tribes of minstrels, unfrocked priests and monks as Boiohaemum from the Kingdom of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) and branded them Bohemians. It was like Columbus thinking he met up with inhabitants from India when he touched ground in the New World. From its inception, the term bohemian was misunderstood and misapplied.

By the 1830s some struggling writers and artists in Paris adopted the Romani gypsy identity as rootless nomads. Their unconventional lifestyle was taken as a model for revolution from social restraint. French novelist and poet Henri Murger would record the exploits of the Bohemians of Paris’s Latin Quarter in a series of semi-autobiographical vignettes that he collected into a successful play, La Vie de la Boheme (1849), and an equally successful book, Scenes de la vie de Boheme (1850). The free-thinking, free-loving lifestyle portrayed intrigued many. Within a decade there would be self-identified Bohemians all over the world. Paris would become the Mecca of the Bohemian expatriate artist movement in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Ada Clare

No one would ride this Bohemian tidal wave that would impact cities and reverberate around the world more than American actress and writer Ada Clare.

Ada Clare was born Ada Agnes Jane McElhenney in 1834 in South Carolina on her wealthy family’s cotton plantation on Toogoodoo Creek. She took the pseudonym Ada Clare, after a Dicken’s character in Bleak House, who was like her orphaned. Refusing to play the part of the Southern belle and plantation mistress, Ada left home at nineteen to earn her living as a prolific essayist, poet, actress and short story writer in Greenwich Village. Ada first won a following as a columnist in magazines and newspapers and became a celebrity in the New York demimonde. At 21, she became a Paris correspondent for The New York Atlas and The Spirit of the Times. New Yorkers were astonished to read in their press sparkling and worldly letters written from Paris by such a young girl, who proudly boasted of her “youth without guidance.” She later wrote for the Tammany Hall publication The New York Leader.

Men about town lauded her physical charms as much as her intellect, and the reputation of a ravisher was hers till her death.

While pursuing a career as a writer, she also sought out acting roles on the stage, appearing in The Hunchback in August 1855, followed in the next two years by Love and Revenge, The Wife, Hamlet, The Marble Heart, Jane Eyre, and The Phantom. Although her earliest performances were not outstanding, her notices improved. She would later perform before 2,000 people with great actor and Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth at the Academy of Music in Cleveland.

Ada boldly revealed, in some articles, her consuming passion for the famed international heartbreaker and concert pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Not long after her return from Paris, Ada gave birth to an illegitimate son, believed to be sired by Gottschalk. Respectable women at the time were not supposed to have sexual desires much less express them in having sex outside of marriage. Rather than following the pre-existing cultural scripts of the fallen woman, Ada declared that she would not be a suicidal Victorian heroine who takes her own life after being seduced and abandoned. Ada not only openly raised her child born out of wedlock, but used her newspaper column to trumpet her views about sexuality. Ada flouted the conventions of the dominant culture by flaunting her affairs and her fatherless child; by staying out late, cavorting with saloon keepers and showfolk; by smoking cigarettes in public and by wearing a short hairstyle.

Henry Clapp

Back in New York, Ada met American writer Henry Clapp, Jr., who experienced Bohemia first-hand in Paris the same time Ada lived there. Together they attempted to recreate the Bohemian Latin Quarter. They gathered together a tantalizing group of artists, writers, performers and other discontented souls who they sought to impregnate with their passion for irregular living. In no time Clapp and Clare were given the monikers “King and Queen of Bohemia” by members of the press from New York to San Francisco.

Clapp started America’s first Bohemian paper, The New York Saturday Press, in 1858. Ada Clare joined the publication a year later, and, as Clapp’s consort, presided over parties, dinners, poetry writing contests, and intellectual discussions at a licentious saloon called Pfaff’s and at a literary salon at her brownstone on 42nd St. Pfaff’s was the Andy Warhol factory, Studio 54 and the Algonquin Round Table all rolled into one. Habitués included remarkably talented and eccentric non-conformists like psychedelic drug pioneer Fitz Hugh Ludlow; the brazen poet and male-impersonating actress Adah Isaacs Menken, world famous for her “Naked Lady” routine; satirist George Farrar Browne; playwright John Brougham; artist Elihu Vedder; legendary actor Edwin Booth (brother of assassin John Wilkes Booth); trailblazing stand-up comic Artemus Ward and American bard Walt Whitman. Ada’s lover Louis Moreau Gottschalk would visit when he performed in New York during his world tours. This coterie became America’s first self-described Bohemians. These Bohemians, like their French counterparts, dedicated themselves to a life centered around artistic production and defined themselves and their community in relation to their antithesis, the bourgeois, the social climbing, respectable middle class.

Clapp’s Saturday Press was New York’s answer to Atlantic Monthly. What started as a literary magazine eventually became a countercultural zine with a mix of poetry, stories, radical politics, and an enthusiastic spirit of personal freedom and sexual openness. Clapp published Walt Whitman’s poetry when no one else would. Whitman contributed his poignant poem about Lincoln’s death, “O Captain! My Captain!” for the November 4, 1865 issue. Horace Greeley, the founder of the reputable New York Tribune was a contributor. Mark Twain made his literary debut when Clapp published the short story, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog.”

Bohemianism in America

French journalist Alphonse de Calonne wrote about the topography and citizenry of the mythical land of Bohemia. In his 1852 work Voyage au pays de Boheme, Collone wrote, “The land of Bohemia is a sad country, bounded on the North by need, on the South by poverty, on the East by illusion, and on the West by the hospital. It is irrigated by two inexhaustible streams: imprudence and shame.”

San Francisco Bohemians at the Bohemian Grove

This was not the kind of Bohemia that Clare and her court wanted to create. These Yankee Bohemians did not want to be associated with the gypsies and the decidedly grungier faction of their Bohemian conglomerate. In his Harper’s Monthly short story “The Bohemian” (1855), Fitz-James O’Brien’s title character Philip Brann remarks, “When I say I am a Bohemian, I do not wish you to understand that I am a Zingaro. I don’t steal chickens, tell fortunes, or live in a camp. I am a social Bohemian, and fly at higher game… I am clever, learned, witty, and tolerably good-looking. I can write brilliant magazine articles… I can paint pictures, and what is more, sell the pictures I paint. I can compose songs, make comedies, and captivate women.” Ada also didn’t want her Bohemians to engage in overt debauchery and rabid irreverence. She disassociated herself from wanna-be artists who, “took pleasure in keeping [their] boots and [their] cheese in the same drawer.” To Clare, the incarnation of the highest type of a “Bohémienne,” was a Frenchwoman that she met who led a life, “unconventional yet moral, free yet unselfish, artistic yet comfortable.”

Clare later spread her Bohemian message to San Francisco when she traveled west as an actress, literary celebrity and Pfaffian emissary to the coast. During her time there, Ada contributed articles to The Golden Era, a weekly edited by local legend Bret Harte, as did several other if her Pfaffian friends: Artemus Ward, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, Mark Twain, Charles Henry Webb and Adah Issacs Menken. In that publication, Harte took part in many satirical doings under the persona “The Bohemian.”

The New York press wept at the thought of losing their Ada Clare, the Queen of Bohemia

Harte instinctively saw California’s infinite possibilities as a vastly original civilization with its own unique history and habits—-a singular fraternity of Spaniards, Mexicans, Chinese, Europeans, Australians, Indians and Americans living “free from the trammels of precedent” on the far edge of the world. Harte, gay poet Charles Warren Stoddard and Bohemian Club librarian Ina Coolbrith formed the “Golden Gate Trinity,” and worked extensively with the literary journal Overland Monthly.

These Bohemians would bring a fresh spirit to American writing, drawn from the new world being formed in the Far West. If the old guard of American literature was genteel, moralistic, grandiose, then these Bohemians would be ironic and irreverent. They would prefer satire to sermons, sensuality to sentimentalism. They would embrace the devilish sense of humor that flourished in the communities of the frontier. They would break the literary monopoly of the East.

Charles Warren Stoddard

In 1864, Charles Stoddard gained great notoriety by accompanying New York’s so-called Queen of Bohemia, Ada Clare, on a sightseeing trip in Hawaii.

Ada stayed a few days in Hilo. She attended church and was appalled by the “hellfire and brimstone” style of the minister. His American congregation was a “dejected, morose, and sullen looking group,” and Ada thought even the natives in Hilo looked like they were afraid to smile.

Stoddard was drawn aside by missionaries in charge, and assured, in a low voice, that Ada Clare was an unspeakable person; that he must avoid her as he would the shadow of sin; and that, “she was at that moment on the Island of Hawaii consorting with the goddess Pele who dwelt in the sulphurous depths of the greatest living volcano in the world and that the two were no doubt in their natural element.”

Their attempt to ostracise Ada Clare failed miserably. She first won over Dr. Robert Crichton Wyllie, the Foreign Minister of Hawaii, who had close connections to the Royal family. His sponsorship of Ada resulted in an invitation for her to attend court at the royal palace. She was soon sitting with Wyllie next to Dowager Queen Emma’s royal pew during Sunday service at the Anglican Church. The missionaries that warned Stoddard against Clare begged her to procure her photograph and autograph for them.

Charles and Ada had an intimacy as friends that had a hidden dimension: they were both “outsiders” because their sexuality went against what was acceptable in their social and religious milieu. Ada flaunted her sexuality and was open about being the unmarried mother of her child. In Hawaii, Stoddard was free to openly frolic with young Kanaka boys. Many Bohemians, like Stoddard and later Aimée Crocker who sought sexual liberation, found refuge in Colonial outposts in the Pacific as well as Africa, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean Islands.

The Bohemian Club

After the first wave of Bohemians established the idea of bohemianism in the city, a group of journalists, artists and musicians formalized the concept by founding the Bohemian Club in 1872. An impressive list of legends became members including Ambrose Bierce, Joaquin Miller, Jack London and photographer Arnold Genthe. Early visitors and honorary members included Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Edwin Booth and Sir Henry Irving. Robert Louis Stevenson and Oscar Wilde’s visits to the club in the late 1870s and early 1880s decisively shaped the Bohemian movement in San Francisco. Aimée would meet both of them, Wilde in San Francisco and Sacramento, Stevenson in Samoa. She would party with Mark Twain on Broadway years later.

Aimée also met member Charles Stoddard in the early 80s and became close friends. Many of her friends were members: writer/reporter/publishers Edward C. MacFarlane, Harry Dam and Jerome Hart; painters Benoni Irwin, Theodore Wores, Charles Rollo Peters, Joseph Strong, Julian Rix and Jules Tavernier; club presidents Paul Neumann and J.D. Redding; and singer/performers Frank Unger, Clay Greene, Donald de V. Graham and her second husband Harry Gillig. Several of her male cousins would later become prominent members as would her first husband Porter Ashe.

The Bohemian Club struggled mightily to establish its ties with “real bohemianism” exemplified by Ada Clare. When the club halted the inclusion of females as bona fide members of the club and when it was taken over by successful pillars of the community, bon vivants, sportsmen, and mere appreciators of the fine arts, there was a backlash from the less well-off but more talented members.

This West Coast Bohemia was a valuable quasi-utopian mirage. At its best, it was a Bohemian/bourgeoisie bouillabaisse that forged friendships between artists and patrons and kept alive hopes for a more collective, multifaceted existence. At its worst, the club was ground zero for white male exclusivity, a leisure class, ultra-elite subculture with restrictive no hoi polloi/no girls allowed policies. It eventually became an enclave of privileged men, the ultimate insider institution—and a grotesque parody of the original Bohemia that inspired the name. Today the Bohemian Club is most often characterized as a playground/think tank for powerful far-right conservatives the world over.

While Aimée couldn’t be a flophouse Bohemian, she was outright banned from admission to join these California Bohemians in spite of her many affiliations and qualifications. It was this closed community, this reckless boy’s club chauvinism that Aimée Crocker boldly infiltrated and eventually overthrew…

Two years after the Bohemian Club was formed, Ada Clare turned back to acting and went on a tour of cities in upstate New York. At a show in Rochester, Clare started acting strangely midway through her performance. Later, it became known that she was bitten by a dog and stricken with rabies. She died on March 4, 1874 at the age of 39.