Entertaining Women: Actresses, Dancers and Singers in the Old West, by Chris Enss, TwoDot, Guilford, Conn., and Helena, Mont., 2015, $16.95
Surprise! Chris Enss has written an entertaining book about 19th-century entertainers who appeared out West and wore dresses—well, at least some of the time; sometimes they wore pants (especially the actresses playing male roles), and sometimes they wore considerably less (for example, Adah Menken, the “Frenzy of Frisco”). Of course, Enss’ latest is no surprise. She is prolific, having written more than two dozen books on similar topics, including such titles as The Lady Was a Gambler: True Stories of Notorious Women of the Old West, Love Lessons From the Old West: Wisdom From Wild Women, The Doctor Wore Petticoats: Women Physicians of the Old West, Frontier Teachers: Stories of Heroic Women of the Old West and Hearts West: True Stories of Mail-Order Brides on the Frontier. This go-around the Old West actresses, dancers and singers get their due, though of course they were all born elsewhere and also entertained in the East and sometimes in not-so-wild Europe.
Along with the story of performer Menken, whose shorts and form-fitting costumes were considered scandalous in the 1860s, 13 other female entertainers get chapters to themselves. The titles are intriguing enough. A sampling: “Catherine Norton Sinclair—The Talented Divorcee”; “Leslie Carter—The Passionate Player”; “Charlotte Cushman—The Actress in Trousers”; “Catherine Hayes—The Irish Prima Donna”; “Lillian Russell—The American Beauty”; and “Helena Modjeska—The Polish Phenomenon.” Each tale hits several high notes, often when Enss quotes from period newspapers. For instance, the Humboldt Register published an account by Sam Clemens (Mark Twain) of Adah in action: “I went to see her play Mazeppa, of course. They said she was dressed from head to foot in flesh-colored ‘tights,’ but I had no opera-glass, and I couldn’t see it, to use the language of the inelegant rabble.”
San Francisco and other California Gold Rush communities pop up repeatedly, as many of these women performed at such places, where entertainment was at a premium. Actress Laura Keene, credited in 1855 with “revitalizing theatre in the Gold Country,” became far more famous for her association with John Wilkes Booth, the play Our American Cousin and one particular performance at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.