Wild Women of the West: Katherine Clemmons


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Katherine Clemmons

On February 17, 1894, the posh Chamberlain Restaurant in Washington, D.C., was filled to capacity with well-dressed guests enjoying the elegant ambiance and sumptuous food. Forty-eight-year-old William Cody was among the fashionably coiffed patrons. Wearing a tailored suit and tie, he was seated at one of the pristinely set tables. His long hair was combed neatly away from his handsome face, and his signature beard and mustache were trimmed and waxed. Katherine Clemmons, a San Francisco–born actress with soft, stunning features and a petite frame, sat across from William sipping a glass of wine and drinking in every word the showman said. It was obvious from the way he looked at her that the two were more than just dinner companions. They ate their meal and shared a bottle of champagne as a handful of musicians serenaded the patrons with a delicate, classical piece.

In the midst of the harmonious setting, Fred May entered. Fred, an acquaintance of both William and Katherine, walked across the eatery to their table. Fred and Katherine exchanged a flirtatious glance as ordinary pleasantries were exchanged. Sometime during the tense conversation that transpired among the three, William punched the man in the face and knocked him to the floor. The distinguished clientele sitting nearby halted their eating and quietly speculated about what had happened.

The waitstaff hurried to the table and apologized profusely for the disturbance while helping Fred to his feet. With a slight bow and broad grin to the other diners around him, William quickly tried to defuse the awkward situation. “Just a difference of opinion between gentlemen,” he told them.

In a few short moments, Fred was gently escorted out of the restaurant, and everything was as it had been before he entered the scene. Katherine took a quick look in the direction Fred had exited, not saying a word. She drank down the wine in front of her and poured herself another glass. William regretted the public incident. He anticipated that the altercation and the woman he was with would make the newspapers. Louisa’s suspicions that her husband was involved with Katherine would be confirmed.

Before the meal ended, William decided to return to Wyoming to avoid a potential scandal.

A year before the episode at Chamberlain Restaurant, Louisa had discovered William and Katherine’s relationship. In 1893 Mrs. Cody traveled to Chicago, where the Wild West show was on a scheduled stop, to surprise her husband with an impromptu visit. When Louisa arrived in town, she headed straight for William’s hotel. She did not give her name when she asked about Buffalo Bill at the reception desk. The clerk informed her that he would be happy to escort her to “Mr. and Mrs. Cody’s room.” Louisa was furious.

Neither William nor Katherine was in the room when Louisa arrived. The mere thought of her husband betraying her prompted Louisa to charge into the room. She overturned furniture, busted lamps and vases, and knocked items off the walls. When William later met with Louisa, he explained to her that his association with Katherine was strictly professional.

Louisa accompanied William to Wyoming, while Katherine remained in Washington. Katherine happily entertained the curious press with news of a theatrical production William was financially backing entitled A Lady in Venice. She boasted about her dramatic background, her starring role in the play, her relationship with Buffalo Bill, and the $50,000 he had invested in her career.

William met the outspoken, sometimes hard-drinking actress in London in 1887, when the Wild West show was making its first trip through Europe. The nightly show was attended by British kings and queens, Russian dukes, and Austrian princes and princesses. William and his troupe were enthusiastically greeted by royalty and commoners alike. Katherine Clemmons was one of the commoners. He was instantly taken in by her beauty and later referred to her as “the finest looking woman in the world.” Fully aware that she had dazzled the showman, Katherine told him about her aspirations for the stage. William thought she was well suited for such a career and offered her an advance of $50,000 to tour the English countryside in a play entitled Theodore.

Unfortunately for William, Katherine’s acting was not equal to her beauty. Her performances received poor reviews, and ticket sales suffered as a result. The loss of revenue and negative response did not change William’s mind about his ingénue. He was confident he could help make her a star.

Viola Katherine Clemmons was born in Palo Alto, California, in 1870. Her father died when she was very young. Katherine, as she preferred to be called, and her sister Ella May were raised by their mother and stepfather. He was employed by the Southern Pacific Railroad as a bookkeeper. Katherine first appeared on the stage of McGuire’s San Francisco Opera House in the mid-1880s. Cast in a series of Shakespearean plays, she had the desire but was a less than gifted performer. In an effort to learn more about the craft, she traveled to England to study theater.

William was introduced to Katherine at Earl’s Court Exhibition Grounds in London after she had attended one of his shows. The two saw each other often, and when he returned to the United States, Katherine sent him letters through Annie Oakley and Annie’s husband, Frank Butler. Katherine gave the Butlers the impression that William had frequently corresponded with her and had sent her numerous telegrams as well. He denied the claim in a letter to Frank written on January 27, 1891. “She is too swift and dishonest for me,” William reported. “Those were all lies about her getting letters and cables from me. Would like to know what she done in London and . . . who was the favorite she smiled upon there.”

He protested at first, but his impression of Katherine softened after reading her letters. He was too attracted to her uncompromising ambition and drive. His interest in her further heightened after he learned that she was an accomplished horsewoman. Acting as Katherine’s agent and manager, William purchased the play The Lady of Venice for her. He sent her to the Boston School of Oratory for more theatrical training and made plans for her to open in New York.

The story of The Lady of Venice centers around a young woman who disguises herself as a man and subsequently has to fight a duel to defend her honor. Before Katherine’s transformation in the play from female to male, she wore an array of exquisite dresses. Critics praised the gowns and the set design but were not as complimentary about her portrayal of the main character. One New York newspaper columnist wrote that Katherine had a “beautiful profile and a lissome figure, but was devoid of acting ability.”

William was so enamored with Katherine that he disregarded the press’s comments and doubled his efforts to help her. He established a theatrical business for her aptly named The Lady of Venice Company and then hired Sherman Canfield to co-manage the actress’s career. Sherman was an exceptional promoter, and William believed he would do a good job for Katherine. Shortly after Sherman accepted the position, William sent him a telegram congratulating him on the decision. Dated September 19, 1893, the telegram read: “Delighted with your work. Whoop her up all week. Wire tonight. Don’t spare any money to continue success.”

After opening in New York, the show moved on to Boston. However, Katherine continued to get bad reviews, which affected ticket sales. Sherman informed William that the play was suffering financially. William wired more than $6,000 to boost the sinking Lady of Venice Company, but the production continued to lose money. More telegrams were sent to update the showman on the play’s decreasing attendance. William wired more funds, but money failed to promote nonexistent talent.

Katherine wasn’t as bothered by the criticism of the show and her acting as she was of being separated from William. He was either busy with his own production or on a hunting trip. She conveyed her sentiments in a telegram to William sent in September 1893. The telegram read: “Play roasted. Company roasted. I more than roasted. What will you take for your interest?” William joined Katherine in Boston for the continuation of the play’s run, but the material did not fare any better there than it had in New York.

William sent a wire to Sherman, who had gone ahead to make preparations for Katherine’s next stop in Chicago. The October 11, 1893, telegram was desperate: “Loss in Boston will be six thousand. Must have explanation and satisfaction or twenty-first finish.” Sherman decided to reduce the salaries of the players to cover the cost of the performance in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the next stop of the show’s run. William instructed the manager to pay off any extraneous cast and crew and then move on without them. “Abandon false ship,” his telegram read, “don’t want you aboard when storm strikes. You’ve been too true a friend.” William invested another $500 into the play, but it only prolonged the inevitable. By the end of October, he decided to close the run of the production.  

After William had facetiously renamed the troupe “The Lady in Ruin Company” and spent more than $80,000 trying to secure a place in the theater for Katherine Clemmons, the play officially reached an end. The curtain rose on the last performance in Washington, D.C., in mid-March 1894. The following month Katherine ended her relationship with William. Disappointed by the close of the play and frustrated by Cody’s frequent and long absences away from her, she chose to move on without him. News of their parting was reported in the April 22, 1894, edition of the Nebraska State Journal.

Katherine Clemmons and William F. Cody “Buffalo Bill,” have parted in both senses of the word. Miss Clemmons has a very pitiful little tale of woe about Mr. Cody losing all personal interest in her and Katherine says she won’t have a manager who does not give personal attention. She says Mr. Cody shamefully neglected her during her Fifth Avenue engagement and did nothing whatever for her beyond paying $40,000 worth of bills. Miss Clemmons feels very badly, but she should remember that Colonel Cody’s services have been long and faithful. . . . He has stood by her and never drawn his purse string. . . . Colonel Cody has hired first class companies, leased big theatres, bribed the critics and lavished annual fortunes upon Miss Clemmons, yet her failures have been as many as there were seasons. . . . It is no wonder that even Colonel Cody’s “personal interest” is beginning to wane. If Miss Clemmons’s fancy were for purchasing diamonds or buying up old castles or titles, or any other inexpensive fads, Mr. Cody would gladly gratify her, but the stage is all together too expensive as an amusement.

William was sad when his affiliation with Katherine ended. Public discussion about their affair was far from over, however. Branded a “wearisome actress” and a “money driven opportunist” by theatrical critics and disappointed Buffalo Bill Cody fans, Katherine sought the attention of multimillionaire Howard Gould. Howard was a yachtsman, an auto racer, and a globe-trotting chum of European royalty, who had a weakness for actresses. The fledgling starlet and the son of a prosperous New York financier were married on October 12, 1898. For more than nine years, Howard lavished expensive jewels and clothing on Katherine. He also purchased thousands of acres of undeveloped land in Sand Point, New York, to build a new home for her.

For a while the Manhattan society pages praised Gould and Clemmons’s union. Katherine’s background was reinvented to make for better reading. Where she was born, the professional training she received in the arts, and the famous followers who supposedly bolstered her career were all a fabrication. The reporters also claimed that the couple were “ecstatically happy.” That too was a falsehood. The marriage became rocky shortly after they wed. Katherine sued Howard for a divorce on May 13, 1907. The details of their sordid troubles were revealed in the Covington Sun Newspaper on April 16, 1908.

That portion of the public which has been waiting so patiently for the oft-delayed washing of the family linen of the Howard Goulds is about to have its reward. Before Justice Dowling Mrs. Gould’s attorney, Clarence J. Shearn, made a motion to have the issues framed for trial by jury on the ground that they were of such a nature that no judge could care to pass on them first.

Sounding a note of self-pity as he surveyed the miserably unhappy life he had led since he had married Katherine Clemmons, Howard Gould told of the many humiliations to which he had been subjected.

There are allegations of the deepest import to the wife of the millionaire, however, in the answer. Gould charged that not only before but after he married Katherine Clemmons she was guilty of improper conduct with Colonel William F. Cody.

There are charges of Mrs. Gould’s fondness for intoxicants, beginning, as alleged, with two or three cocktails before breakfast, a pint of Hock at luncheon, brandy highballs and unlimited supplies of champagne at dinner, whereby on one occasion, it is alleged she fell from her chair to the floor.

Mr. Gould alleges that his marriage was the result of fraud and misrepresentation on the part of his wife. He says that Mrs. Gould, prior to the marriage, asserted that her relations with Colonel Cody were exclusively of a business nature, whereas they were meretricious. He swears that during 1887, 1889 and 1892 his present wife lived with Cody in London, Paris, Chicago, Nebraska, Virginia and New York.

News of Katherine and William’s affair was made public during the Codys’ divorce case in 1905. The Goulds’ long, drawn-out divorce case kept Katherine and William’s names in newspapers across the country for close to two years. The image of the heroic buffalo hunter and family man was tarnished in many followers’ eyes.

The Goulds’ divorce was finalized in early 1909. Howard was ordered to pay Katherine $36,000 a year in alimony, the largest sum a court had ever ordered to be paid. She responded to the settlement by saying, “It’s hard to dress well on less than $40,000 a year in Manhattan.”

On November 4, 1910, Katherine again made the news while residing in Lynchburg, Virginia; the divorcee claimed that someone was trying to kill her. According to an article in the New York Times, Katherine reported that three attempts had been made on her life.

Mrs. Katherine Clemmons Gould, former wife of Howard Gould, came here the Lynchberg Hospital last night from her country home, Blue Gap Farm, to receive medical attention for what she thought was poisoning. The physician found no need to treat Mrs. Gould and no evidence of poisoning. The former Mrs. Gould drove here during the night behind a team of mules which she lashed all the ten miles of the journey. Greatly excited, she summoned a physician and said she had eaten “queer-tasting food.” She raved wildly. The physician, after examination, said she had taken no poison and that her trouble was merely extreme nervousness.

Katherine Clemmons died on October 13, 1930, in Lynchburg, Virginia. She was sixty-seven years old. She left $11,000 in cash to her sister Ella May as well as $80,000 in real estate.


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