Monday, September 28, 2015
Owen Kildare (part 1)
Publishing these essays also helps me get my ducks in order when the story of a writer's career proves to be complex or confusing. This is certainly the case with Owen Kildare, an American author who penned an influential autobiography at the beginning of the 20th century that predated the confessional gangster biographies that began appearing a couple of decades later. It was filmed by Raoul Walsh's as Regeneration (1915), a key early movie in what became a cycle of gangster films, which, again, Walsh helped launch with Me, Gangster (1928).
But back to Owen Kildare—or Owen Frawley Kildare to give him his full name. His autobiography, My Mamie Rose. The story of my regeneration appeared in October 1903 from The Baker & Taylor Company, 38-87 East 17th Street, Union Square North, New York. It was an instant hit, telling the story of how Kildare, a child of the Bowery, overcame poverty to become a writer; in many ways it is the predecessor of the "misery memoir" which became popular in the mid-1990s. Kildare's tragic life story was published in the UK as Up From The Slums; or, My Mamie Rose by T. Fisher Unwin in 1904.
From his autobiography we learn that Kildare was born in the Bowery District of Manhattan Island and grew up in a top floor tenement on Catharine Street, raised by Irish foster parents. His biological parents had died: his mother in birth and his father three months earlier. His foster father, Patrick McShane, was a longshoreman between periods of "idleness" and heavy drinking; his foster mother, Mary (nee McNulty) was a housewife, struggling to keep even their small, cheap home together.
At the age of seven he left home after a scene caused by his failure to repay his foster parents for his first pair of shoes by collecting sufficient waste coal by the river. That night—it was in December—he slept in the open with another boy he had met in similar circumstances. With a borrowed five cent piece, he started as a street news-vendor in a local gang led by Timothy D. "Little Tim" Sullivan.
Being of athletic build and, by his own confession, being something of a brute, he earned a reputation as a fighter, which eventually led him to being offered opportunities in the boxing ring. He became a "floor manager" but after some years of success was caught up in attempts to clean up sporting establishments. Kildare's employer and several other were thrown into prison, and he found himself out of work, spending his idle hours sitting outside a public-house insulting passers-by.
In 1894 he met "The good angel to whose influence I owe my regeneration," a young school teacher named Marie Rose Deering whom he protected from being assaulted by a drunken friend. He gave up working in dives—over the years he progressed to become a bouncer for Fatty Flynn's, bartender at Steve Brodle's resort, manager of sporting ventures, dock labourer and freight handler—and tried to make an honest living as a baggage porter. Every day he would visit the teacher to learn how ot read, write and count. They fell in love and, eventually, they were to be married in 1900. A week before the ceremony, she died of pneumonia.
Recovering from the shock, Kildare tried to continue his "regeneration", but an accident permanently incapacitated him and the cost of operations and enforced idleness soon exhausted his savings.
He was living in an attic and working as a dishwasher for $3 a week when he discovered that the Evening Journal newspaper was offering a prize for a love story of less than 750 words; written on wrapping paper he found on the floor, the tale appeared three days after he submitted it. An autobiographical piece appeared in Sunday Press and further pieces appeared in the Sunday Herald and Sunday News. For the latter he penned a series of "Bowery Girl Sketches" which were signed "The Bowery Kipling".
As with Owen Kildare, the known facts about Leita Russell Bogardus raise a number of questions. There is no sign of her in early census records from around the turn of the century, prior to her marriage. According to Janet Beer (American Feminism: Key Source Documents, 1848-1920), Russell—whom she calls Leita Ouida Bogardus—married at 16; however My Mamie Rose was dedicated "To L.B.K." ... and who else could it be but Leita Bogardus Kildare? If that assumption is correct, the two were already married when the book appeared in October 1903 when—if we are to believe that she was born in December 1889—Leita was 13. Perhaps not surprisingly, obituaries and other resources skip over any mention of dates.
Leita described their courtship thus: she had then recently begun writing for newspapers under the name Leita Russell when Kildare sought her aid to write his autobiography. He met her only once more before they were married. "He never even courted me," said Mrs. Kildare. "I was in the Berkshires when I received a telegram saying: 'I am coming for you. I hope you will not be angry. I have never been denied anything.'"
Not knowing what he meant, she met him at the station. He hailed a carriage and they were driven to the home of a minister and, without even asking her consent, were married. Since then, she had aided her husband on all his work.
My best shot is that she is, in fact, the New York-born actress Leita Russell, who was boarding in Buffalo at the time of the 1900 US census, who gave her birth date as December 1883. This is, I'll admit, a guess but in its favour I did find a mention that "before her first marriage Mrs. Kildare made a considerable name in literary and stage work." [My emphasis] If I am correct, she was 19 when she married rather than 13, which sounds more plausible. Leita Russell was, shortly before the publication of My Mamie Rose, a member of the Columbia Theater stock company in 1902 where she played in such plays as "My Friend From India" and "Shall We Forgive Her"; one review commented on the "pleasing specialties" introduced between the acts, which included "Leita Russell dancing and singing popular songs."
The success of the book led to others: The Good of the Wicked and The Party Sketches (Baker & Taylor Co., Aug 1904), The Wisdom of the Simple (Fleming H. Revell Co., 1905), a novel, and My Old Balliwick (Grosset & Dunlap, 1906). The latter was a collection of essays and stories about New York tenement life from various magazines, including Pearson's, The Outlook, Success, the Saturday Evening Post, The Independent and the Christian Herald. The introduction was signed by Owen Frawley Kildare, Hartford, Conn. Kildare had also set up his own publishing enterprise based at 1451 Broadway, New York, in order to publish Letters of a Politician to His Son by John Gulick Jr., which was due for publication in July 1904 but may not have appeared.
A fifth book, Such a Woman, credited to Owen and Leita Kildare, with illustrations by Joseph C. Chase, appeared from New York publisher G. W. Dillingham Co. in 1911. In her introduction, Leita noted that "Owen Kildare was working on the manuscript of this book, in collaboration with his wife, Leita Kildare, when he became ill and was unable to continue the work. The concluding chapters were completed by Mrs. Kildare."
In fact, by the time the book was published, Owen Kildare was dead.
Which is where we'll pick up the story tomorrow.