User menu


Clare, Ada (1836-1874)

Actor, Journalist, Novelist, Poet

Ada Clare (whose given name was Jane McIlheny) was born in South Carolina. As Thomas Gunn, a contemporary of Clare, describes she "made an attempt – several attempts – to become a tragic actress, but despite any amount of puffery on the part of fellows who knew her (or wanted to know her in a scriptural sense) failed. She had money and aspired for 'fame' only" (Gunn vol. 11, 160). 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. Gunn notes that Clare was one of the most prominent women of Pfaff's circle saying "She [Clare], 'Getty Gay' and other Unfortunate Literary Females go down to Pfaffs with the men, sitting at the sacred round table, in the cellar &c. 'Ada Clare' sticks out everywhere in the columns of the 'Saturday Press'; she writes articles and the others praise them" (Gunn, vol. 12, 18-19). Clare's weekly column in Henry Clapp's Saturday Press was called "Thoughts and Things," in which she discussed a range of topics, from women's rights to the status of the American theater. Clare employed the pseudonym "Alastor." Another contemporary of hers, A. L. Rawson recognized the pivotal role she played 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). According to scholar, Justin Martin, "at Pfaff's, Clare brought a needed touch of refinement ot the proceedings...Clare acted as a kind of counterweight to Clapp's 'evil influences'" (66). Martin further argues that Clapp took a romantic interest in Clare, but that "she did not, however, return the sentiment" (68). 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.

In the later years of her career, Clare published a novel called Only a Woman's Heart, which was not received well by critics, which devastated Clare (Martin 257). In 1874, Clare turned back to acting and went on a tour of cities in upstate New York. At the show in Rochester, Clare started acting strangely midway through her performance. Later, it became known that she was stricken by rabies, and she died on March 4, 1874 at the age of 39 (Martin 259). 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).

(See also Gloria Rudman Goldblatt's biography, Ada Clare, Queen of Bohemia: Her Life and Times.)