Given our checkered history of only outsiders being arrested for prostitution and government officials being recalled for being too cozy with the sin-dustry, our only and erroneous image of this era is "Klondike Kate" - lovingly called "our destitute prostitute" (a misnomer by most accounts) or "Aunt Kate" during her 30 years in Bend, where she retired after a life of adventure in Yukon. "She was an entertainer of heart and generosity, she supported the fire department and the hospital." explains Joan Massey in defense of Kate, convincingly because Joan is dressed in exquisite all-white 1920s garb, a flapper with feathered hat and silken overcoat despite 90 degree high desert heat.
Joan reenacts Klondike Kate at over 10 local schools each year, telling tales of this legendary woman and singing era songs like "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "The Girl in Flames" (a song/dance combo that Kate once famously performed until 3am and couldn't remove her swollen feet from her shoes after). Bringing clarity to a local woman as idolized as she is misunderstood is Joan's goal, adding that defining Klondike Kate and her time for Bend's youth can be challenging, "The kids have to be in third grade or above, so they know where Alaska is... "
Stories do conflict, and having at least three women calling themselves "Klondike Kate" by the early 1900s (two known as professional prostitutes) does confuse. But our Kate is the original. A redhead with curves to die for, Klondike Kate dressed in Parisian gowns and expensive jewelry, the headliner everywhere she went yet also admired for offering a kind ear to a miner's sob story.
"Never nude, colorful and timely," is how Massey describes the dancing that made Kate a legend in the Yukon, starting in Whitehorse tap-dancing, then burlesque and singing in Dawson, with sourdoughs serenading her with "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" while tossing gold nuggets at her feet, earning the nickname the "Darling of Dawson."
"She gathered up the gold thrown at her feet; she was a wealthy woman in those days." says Joan Massey with a smile that fades upon mention of Kate's men. Klondike Kate is reputed to have earned and lost two fortunes in her lifetime, only aided by a string of men who promised her marriage but took her every penny instead. Kate headed south, opening a theatre-store in British Columbia before homesteading east of Bend, near Millican, by 1914.
Her fortune gone and nearby stream drying up, Klondike Kate moved into Bend and built a cabin at 231 Franklin Avenue, featuring a large front porch, lava rock foundation and fireplace. During the height of Bend's boom and brothels, it is apt that the "Queen of the Yukon" would settle here, helping during an influenza outbreak in 1918 and befriending the voluntary fire department. "Klondike Kate Awards" are still presented by the Bend Fire Department to people "who are not members... yet who have made significant contributions or volunteered resources."
A few years ago, while channeling Klondike Kate at a retirement home, Joan Massey was struck to see a man weeping; he said he was once Kate's postman and so touched to see her once more.
A truly liberated woman, adventurer and entrepreneur, hero and harlot, Kate had few peers yet many friends. Klondike Kate married one last time, at 71 years old, marrying longtime friend Bill Van Duren. The two moved to Sweet Home, where Kate died in 1957, specifying that her ashes be scattered across the high desert. Like too many early landmarks in Bend, Klondike Kate's cabin was later felled under the cover of night, another local landmark lost to the march of time and relegated to fading memories.