I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Names are important. A good nickname can set the tone for your whole life. Kathleen Eloise Rockwell Warner Matson Van Duren is a catchy moniker, if you’re a character on a soap opera, but it doesn’t exactly scream, “Old West!” No. Capturing the heart of the Old West required Kathleen Eloise Rockwell Warner Matson Van Duren to have a nickname with pizzazz, and “Klondike Kate” really fit the bill.
Today, as you might have guessed, we’re going to talk about the life of Kathleen Eloise Rockwell Warner Matson Van Duren and how she came to be known as Klondike Kate, the Belle of the Yukon. As fate would have it, her life was a little bit of an Old West soap opera. But, first, I have a confession. Drat it all! I am now finding myself with odd cravings for both a Klondike Bar and Yukon gold potatoes. I should really eat before I sit down at my computer.
She Wasn’t in Kansas Anymore
Before she started collecting last names, Kathleen Eloise Rockwell was just a girl born in Kansas in either 1873 or 1880, depending on the source. Her family relocated to Spokane, Washington, where Rockwell spent most of her early years. Her family lived in a mansion, but her life was not exactly as it appeared to outsiders. Despite the elaborate digs, her family had financial woes. Young Kathleen wasn’t content to sit around learning how to become a lady when being a tomboy was so much more fun. In a last ditch effort to tame her wild spirit, her mother and stepfather sent her to boarding school, where she was promptly expelled. Education and obedience weren’t really her strong suit, but her life was about to take a turn for the better!
When Kathleen’s mother divorced her stepfather, Kathleen and her mum moved New York. What was an adventure seeking-young woman to do in New York, in the 1890s? Why, break into show business, of course! She had dreams of becoming a showgirl. She wanted fame. No matter how hard she knocked, the doors of New York weren’t opening to her. So, in 1899, she left the Big Apple for snowier pastures.
What Would She Do to be a Klondike Star?
Going to the Klondike was one thing. Being allowed in was something else. There was a gold rush going on and the Mounties were acting as the gatekeepers. The Royal Canadian Mounties weren’t letting women ride down the Yukon River. If you’ve ever seen the episode of “I Love Lucy,” where Lucy was trying to get into show business, you know that giving up was not an option for Kathleen. Nope. In true Lucy Ricardo fashion, Kathleen disguised herself as a man and kept going.
Kathleen tap-danced her way across Alaska and into the hearts of the gold miners. It was in Dawson City where Kathleen joined the Savoy Theatrical Co. It was the big time! The Savoy Theatrical Co. had a full orchestra and 173 performers. The crowds loved her. They loved her so much that they named her Klondike Kate. Klondike Kate performed her famous flame dance and the miners tossed gold nuggets at her in gratitude. She was tap-dancing and singing her way to riches, earning up to $750 a night! In terms of constant dollars, that is $20,000.00. Yes, per night!
Soap Opera Digest
Klondike Kate was in Dawson City when she met the love of her life, Alexander Pantages. You will note that Pantages is not one of the last names included in her soap opera name, but the two did have a love affair worthy of a soap opera. Pantages was a Greek immigrant who was working as a bartender when he met the beautiful showgirl. But the bartender had greater ambition than learning how to mix the perfect Moonshine Spritzer. He had aspirations of becoming a theater owner.
Pantages sweet-talked Kate into leaving the Savoy and headlining at his new theater, the Orpheum. The fine print with that arrangement was that Kate also funded the venture. It must have been a good investment because the pair began buying theaters in the Pacific Northwest. They were known for their shrewd business dealings. By, “shrewd,” I mean that they were known for swindling miners. The thing with dealing with a swindler is that you can’t trust that he won’t swindle you, as well. Klondike Kate was right in her distrust of Pantages. He ended up robbing her of a fortune and marrying another woman.
Dress for Success
By the early 1900s, Klondike Kate was ready for a change. She ended up in Brothers, Oregon, where she homesteaded 320 acres. Up to that point, the only seeds she had ever known were seed pearls, but she managed to stay on the claim for the required five years. And she did it in style! Klondike Kate may not have been on an actual stage anymore, but the world was still her stage. She wore the Parisian gowns from her showbiz days to work in her garden. Maybe she knew the old adage about dressing for the job you want and not the job you currently have.
A Kate by Any Other Name
It was during this time that Kate began collecting last names. She married Floyd Warner while she was still homesteading. They sold the land shortly after earning the title. Kate and Warner divorced and Kate moved to Bend, Oregon. She was easily accepted in Bend society. Her charitable work and winning personality earned her the nickname of “Aunt Kate.” During the Great Depression, she is said to have made gallons of soup to feed the homeless.
At some point, she married a miner from the Yukon named John Matson, who had been crazy about Kate since the time she had Klondike in front of her name. It was an idyllic marriage. Matson continued living in the Yukon and Kate stayed in Oregon! While Kate never again achieved the fame of her heyday, she did enjoy making public appearances. During the 1940s, she even spent some time training Hollywood starlets. That marriage lasted as long as Matson did. He died in his cabin thirteen years after they wed.
She married her final husband, William L. Van Duren, at the age of 71. Van Duren was a former beekeeper and accountant and a longtime friend of Kate’s. The two made their home sweet home in Sweet Home, Oregon. In 1954, Kate Van Duren appeared on an episode of “You Bet Your Life,” hosted by Grouch Marx. She remained Mrs. Van Duren until her death in 1957.
As with any soap opera, there are dozens of smaller storylines that could be examined. We could talk about the confusion of some people thinking Klondike Kate was a prostitute. That’s because three women actually called themselves Klondike Kate and two out of three were prostitutes. We could talk about the fact that Alexander Pantages, later ended up the defendant in a highly publicized rape trial. Oh, yes, there are many, many great subplots to this story. But, for now, I’m still really hungry and I’m ashamed to tell you what I would do for a Klondike Bar.