Katherine Gould's 'Drunken Orgy' and the Perils of Social Climbing

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In 1909, as well as now, much of the concern aimed at women's drinking reveals a fear that alcohol will alter them beyond recognition.

main  Wikimedia Commons Henri_Alexandre_Gervex_-_Une_soirée_au_Pré_Catelan_-_1909.jpg

So there I was in the back room of a small local history museum in North Dakota, watching the frail-looking director heft large bound volumes of early-20th-century newspapers on and off the shelf. My friend and I were on the trail of a confusing 1909 event in a tiny community on the Great Plains that formed the centerpiece of a family story she wanted to untangle. The details of that event are not at all relevant here, because this is a story about something else and the role serendipity often plays in research.

As the museum director flipped through the volumes, I noticed another headline: "Mrs. Gould's Life At Home, Drunken Orgy." And below that: "Coachman, Carpenter, Footman, Maid, Florist and Clerk All Relate Instances When Mistress Was Intoxicated and Profane." My friend, who knows I also work on the history of alcoholic women, met my glance; she had seen it too. Because I feared distracting the museum director, whose help was essential to us, I said nothing but scribbled down as much information as I could so that I might pursue Mrs. Gould another day.

As I later learned, this article was part of widespread coverage of the divorce proceedings of Howard Gould, son of railroad magnate Jay Gould, and Katherine Clemmons, an actress. News stories that reported the trial in great detail were reprinted in regional newspapers such as the one I saw in North Dakota (that headline, for example, also appeared in the Los Angeles Times on June 17, 1909). While the reference to "Intoxication" had caught my eye, not to mention "Drunken Orgy," I discovered as I read more about the case that Mrs. Gould's drinking was presented as part of a cluster of characteristics and behaviors, including her background and class status, her actions toward servants, her (in)ability to manage money, her alleged pre-marital and extra-marital associations, and even her wardrobe. Not surprisingly, I cannot conclude from existing evidence whether Mrs. Gould was actually an alcoholic. But I can analyze this news coverage for what it tells us about early-20th-century attitudes regarding women's alcohol consumption, social class, marriage, and respectability.

220px-Gould-Howard_00.jpg Much of the news coverage centered on how a woman of obscure background could appropriately inhabit the social milieu of the Gould family. Some confusion apparently surrounded the details of Katherine's early life, including such basic elements as her name (complicated by her mother's remarriage and Katherine's use of a stage name during an acting career) and age. Her husband's attorneys and some reporters suggested that any such inconsistencies could be taken as a sign of her lack of trustworthiness and her dubious origins. Katherine's remarkable beauty, described in many accounts, and some success on the stage put her in a social setting where she had the occasion to meet Howard Gould. The two had a long courtship, since his family disapproved of her as a prospective wife and their censure could have limited Gould's inheritance. Katherine and Howard were finally wed in 1898, but the marriage lasted less than a decade, with the two living separately for several years before formal proceedings began.

A central issue in the trial was the amount of alimony that Gould would pay Katherine, and that, in turn, rested in part on whether he officially "deserted" his wife or whether he was justified in leaving her due to her "habits." Much of the coverage thus focused on her behavior, including her drinking. Testimony came from acquaintances who had observed Katherine's alcohol consumption at parties and other events, as well as from servants who provided considerable detail about the amount she drank and under what circumstances. Interestingly, no commentators seemed to expect total abstinence; the issue was whether she drank too much, beyond the bounds of what could be considered ladylike. Although there were some accusations that she engaged in inappropriate contact with men other than her husband (including "Buffalo Bill" Cody, who had supported her early stage career), this issue did not receive the attention I would have expected. There were some hints that she and Gould had traveled without adequate chaperones prior to their marriage, which perhaps helped neutralize this issue. Moreover, any allegations of sexual impropriety were not explicitly or consistently linked with her drinking.

Instead, the picture that emerges in the press coverage is that of a woman who could not manage her emotions or her desire to consume, and this failure on her part was understood in class-based as well as gendered terms. The main charge against her was excess. She could not supervise servants in a controlled manner, but lashed out with profane language -- and the accusation of profanity seemed to be just as damning as an indictment for adultery. She bought elegant clothes, which she insisted was necessary in her (new) social position, but accumulated huge debts which Gould ultimately refused to pay. Indeed, I can easily imagine Katherine as the subject of a modern-day reality show, where the camera follows her on shopping sprees. If she had been born to this way of life, the coverage suggests, she would not have had to try so hard and would have intuitively understood what boundaries should not be crossed.

Descriptions of Katherine's drinking habits and her behavior when intoxicated underscored the transformative power of alcohol, which can work in multiple directions. Much of the concern aimed at women's drinking then, as well as now, reveals a fear that alcohol will turn them into something else, will alter them beyond recognition. In Katherine Gould's case, the opposite was true, due to the sense that she was an imposter-at least in class terms. Accusations of drunken excess were so damaging to her because the alcohol threatened to dissolve the veneer of respectability she wore, just like her lavish wardrobe. Peel those away, and the real -- and unacceptable -- Katherine would be exposed.

Images: 1. Wikimedia Commons; 2. ADHS.


This article originally appeared on Points, an Atlantic partner site.

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Michelle McClellan is an assistant professor of history at the University of Michigan. Her research is focused on alcoholism and women.

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