User menu


Clare, Ada (1836-1874)

Actor, Journalist, Novelist, Poet

Ada Clare (whose given name was Jane McIlheny) was born in South Carolina. She received a small inheritance upon her parents' deaths, which she used to travel to Paris. In the city of lights, she spent time with pianist and composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who may have been the father of her son Aubrey. Clare arrived in New York in 1858 and scandalized the populace as an unwed mother preaching the doctrine of free love and introducing herself and Aubrey as "Miss Ada Clare and Son" (Lalor, "Whitman" 136). As Emily Hahn notes, "she refused to be ruined" and participated fully in the literary life of the city by frequenting Pfaff's where she organized literary contests, took it upon herself to remember members' birthdays, and collected funds for community celebrations (3). William Dean Howells remembers her as "a young girl of a sprightly gift in letters, whose name or pseudonym had made itself pretty well known at that day" ("First Impressions" 64). To Walt Whitman, Clare "represented the ideal of the modern woman: talented, intelligent, and emancipated" (Lalor 136). In Whitman's "Street Yarn" he describes her as "A lady -- slender and elegant -- in black from head to foot; pure white complexion, pale, striking chiseled features, perfect profile, abundant fair hair; abstracted look, and rather rapid, purposeful step...a perfect beauty; questionless, of decided talent;...a persevering and energetic votary of the mimetic art. Possessed of some wealth, great personal attractions, no inconsiderable share of intellect and cultivation,..." (qtd. in Lalor 136).

Clare was a central part of the Bohemian lifestyle in New York. A group of Bohemians, the West 42nd Street Coterie, often gathered at her home. Clare, the "queen" of the Bohemian circle at Pfaff's, provided a congenial atmosphere for the Pfaffians during her Sunday night receptions. She played a pivotal role in maintaining the Bohemian society during this time: "Ada Clare was magnetic in addition to her mental brightness and store of maternal treasures inherited from her family, and with her wealth and beauty she attracted the higher grades of men and women" (Rawson 103).

Her experiences in Paris and New York led her to the Bohemian lifestyle. She defined a Bohemian as a "cosmopolite, with a general sympathy for the fine arts, and for all things above and beyond convention" (Hahn 27). Clare used her own unconventional affair with Gottschalk, which ended badly, as material for many of her poetic and fictional works, like the novel Only a Woman's Heart, which appeared in 1866 to mixed, and even hostile, reviews.

In addition to acting in New York City, San Francisco, and parts of the Southern United States, Ada Clare also wrote a weekly column for Henry Clapp's Saturday Press. In "Thoughts and Things" she discussed a range of topics, from women's rights to the status of the American theater. Clare also employed the pseudonym "Alastor." In addition to the Press, she also published in Atlas and, during her time in San Francisco, she contributed to The Golden Era, a weekly edited by Bret Harte.

After the disappointing reviews of her novel, Clare joined a stock company of actors in Memphis, adopting the stage name "Agnes Stanfield" while touring in Tennessee. She married a member of the company, J.F. Noyes, with whom she had another son, but the child died in infancy. Clare also lost her first son, Aubrey, before he reached adulthood. Clare herself died in 1874 as the result of complications from the bite of a rabid dog, which she incurred while visiting Sanford and Weaver's dramatic agency in New York. Though her wounds seemed to heal, she became delirious a few months later during a performance and died that same night.

Fellow Pfaffian William Winter wrote Clare's obituary in the New York Tribune as well as a poem called "Ada" which was admired by Wilkie Collins (Parry, Garrets 36). The young poet Charles Stoddard, whom Ada traveled with in Hawaii and California, eulogized her by writing, "The queen is dead; but who shall cry 'Long live the Queen!' in her stead? Are there no more queens of Bohemia, I wonder, and is the Bohemia of that day a thing of the past, dead and gone forever?" (qtd. in Hahn 35). Howells stated that her fate "out-tragedies almost any other in the history of letters" ("First Impressions" 64). Whitman also expressed sorrow over her death, writing to a friend that he had been "inexpressibly shocked by the horrible and sudden close of her gay, easy, sunny, free, loose, but not ungood life" (Lalor, "Whitman" 137).