THE PASSIONATE PRINCESS
Pauline Johnson, now best known as the sweet Mohawk singer of schoolbook verse, was once the darling of the salons of Mayfair and the toast of western tank towns. Her vivid readings of her own poetry radiated a savage charm that sometimes made strong men weak
THERE ONCE was an Indian princess who sang in tones both fierce and tender of her people and the forest she loved. When she died they buried her under the tall evergreens at a place where the setting sun burns across the water, and her songs lived on.
Pauline Johnson was her name, as most Canadians know. Yet few know of the paradoxical woman of the world, a vibrant personality obscured now by the thirty-nine years that have passed since her death and by the rigid confines of the writing she left behind.
There’s a primitive beat of tribal tom-toms through her verse. Yet Pauline was once the darling of London’s sophisticated salons. At one Mayfair dinner party she so dazzled Lord Cecil Manners, a six-foot-three officer of the Guards, that he cried out, “Really, Miss Johnson, you are a most frightfully absorbing woman!”
In her books there’s the sound of paddles dipped in quiet Canadian lakes. Yet Pauline was a veteran trouper in a hurly-burly show business, playing the big cities and the rowdy tank towns. Once at a hamlet called Kuskanook in British Columbia (“It looked,” one of her contemporaries recalls, “like a bundle of matchboxes thrown against a hill”), she dressed behind a screen of Hudson Bay blankets and sprang upon a snooker table improvised as a stage in the town pool hall.
Through her verse flickers the picture of a woman of dignity and introspection. Yet Pauline was a tempestuous and often flamboyant person who liked to rock her audiences on their heels by sheer passion. Once, after a recital in Medicine Hat, she was delighted to overhear a small mild man whisper aside to his wife, “Wasn’t she savage! I wouldn’t like her for a wife.”
Her poetry is filled with a deep feeling of melancholy. Yet Pauline was outwardly an effervescent woman with an easy-come, easy-go philosophy. “Do you know what I’d do if I had only two dollars in the world and knew it would be my last?” she asked a friend. “I’d spend half on my body and
half on my soul. With one I’d buy a whacking good steak and with the other a dozen cut carnations. Then I’d die happy.”
Although her career did not begin until she was thirty, Pauline became one of the more dazzling exponents of an art as compelling at the turn of the century as television is today. It was the hey-day of the reciter. The parlors of the land rang with the sound of small boys crying Excelsior! In opera house and town hall the impassioned reading of prose and versewith gestures —was packing them in. From out behind the potted palms stepped a bizarre and dramatic company of roving thespians to play a capella upon the emotions of their audiences. And none left them as happily exhausted as the buxom princess in the buckskin gown.
Her thick curly black hair, worn usually in short bangs, her dark complexion, high cheekbones and smoky grey-green eyes gave her a disturbing exotic look. She had a fine full-bosomed figure with the walk of a dancer, a generous mouth and strong white teeth. Brave men went weak when she smiled.
Her voice was throaty and vibrant and in many an early tintype she looks as self-possessed in buckskin as she does in an hourglass London gown. One admirer called her “an aristocrat with the feeling of the wild.” Another called her “a perfect fit in a birch-bark canoe.”
Although she never married Pauline had many a love affair and several “engagements.”
“She was at her best in charm and looks at thirty-five,” one of her friends wrote with the delicacy of the times, “and, naturally, the finest type of man was at her feet.” Many of the literary lights of the day hurried from her concerts to their escritoires to send her love lyrics and Pauline frequently returned their sentiments. Recently a Vancouver woman who knew Pauline intimately in the last tragic days before her death spoke of these rhymed billets-doux. “They’ll start coming out of dusty trunks in attics one day,” she pro-
phesied, “and the world will thrill to them.”
Although Pauline was, in fact, half white and half Indian, her heart was always on the duskier side. Any well-meaning, but misguided, admirer who remarked about how “white” she seemed could expect a frosty stare.
“There are some who think they pay me a compliment in saying that I am just like a white woman,” she once told her friend Ernest Thompson Seton, then naturalist for the Manitoba Government. “But my aim, my job, my pride is to sing the glories of my own people.”
Those who knew her only as a poised and gracious poet were sometimes startled when the Indian in her broke surface. She once paralyzed a man friend in a moment of exuberance while canoeing by leaning over the gunwale, low to the water, and loosing a bloodcurdling Mohawk war whoop that had her escort’s scalp crawling.
On another occasion, returning to Canada from London, she was engaged in conversation at the captain’s table by an American dowager who complained bitterly of her experiences in England.
“Why,” said the woman, “when I asked for ice water they looked at me as if I were a North American savage!”
“That,” said Pauline coldly, “is exactly the way they looked at me.”
“Was your father really an Indian?” asked the dowager unhappily. “You don’t look the least bit like it.”
“Was your father a white man?” demanded Pauline.
“Why, yes, of course.”
“I’m equally surprised,” said Pauline.
During interviews with newspapermen she almost always championed the Indian cause. “Put a pure-blooded Indian in a drawing room and he’ll shine with the best of you,” she told an English reporter. A month later in Boston where, the Globe recorded, “she was lionized by the Hub’s brightest literary set,” Pauline was crying angrily, “Cultivate an Indian, Continued on page 54
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A MACLEAN'S FLASHBACK
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let him show his aptness and you Americans say he’s an exception. Let a bad quality crop out and you’ll stamp him immediately as a savage.”
Curiously, Pauline herself experienced none of the injustices known to her race.
She was born March 10, 1862, on the Six Nations reserve along the bank of the Grand River about twelve miles south of Brantford, Ont., into a family as unusual as any in Canadian history.
Pauline’s father, Chief George Henry Martin Johnson, was a full-blooded Mohawk of the Wolf Clan. As a young man George was selected to be interpreter for an Anglican missionary, one Rev. Adam Elliott, and fell promptly in love with the missionary’s sister-inlaw, a delicate shy girl named Emily Howells.
The parents on both sides objected bitterly to the match, but George and Emily married in spite of the opposition (Chief George wore a pale lavender waistcoat and grey gloves with his new black suit) and soon they were the reigning aristocracy of the Six Nations reserve.
On an estate beside the Grand River the bronze chief and his pale bride built the curious, yet imposing, two-story mansion called Chiefswood, the back and front of which were identical. The story went that the newlyweds, disagreeing on whether the deep shuttered French windows should face the river or into a grove of walnuts and oak, compromised by facing them both ways. It was probably the only Indian home in North America boasting a piano and a silver tea service.
The Johnsons christened their fourth child Emily Pauline and she took the Mohawk name of Tekahionwake, meaning “the smoky haze of Indian summer.” Pauline was an active precocious child who wore her long jet hair in braids and outraced the boys in her birch-bark canoe.
From the beginning she loved poetry and at four memorized effortlessly. When her mother asked what gift she wished brought back from Brantford Pauline would reply, “Verses, please.” At six she was composing odes to her cats and dogs.
The Toast of Toronto
Her formal education was slight and she did not go beyond primary school (even in later years her spelling was often phonetic), but before she was thirteen, she’d read the complete works of Scott and Longfellow and was biting into Byron and Shakespeare.
Chiefswood was on the itinerary of many visiting celebrities and American tourists, whose arrival was the signal for Chief George to get out of his black suit and into full Mohawk regalia, and the dark vivacious girl quickly developed a poise beyond her years.
She sold her first poem to Gems of Poetry, one of the “little magazines” published in New York. Soon she was appearing in others, including Saturday Night and the Week, a Toronto magazine edited by a promising young writer named Charles G. D. Roberts.
Pauline was twenty-two in 1884 when her father died. Chiefswood was closed down and the remnants of the family moved to Brantford. Here, at amateur recitals, she began giving dramatic readings of her verse. The turning point in her life came in 1892 when the Young Liberal Club of Toronto decided to hold an authors’ even; ing at which Canadian writers would read their own prose and verse.
Frank Yeigh, the club’s president
and a former Brantford boy, asked Pauline if she would appear. After first declining because “I haven’t a thing to wear,” she accepted the offer. Her older sister Evelyn made her a simple white dress and Pauline journeyed to Toronto “frightened to death.”
It began as a dreadful night. The cream of the Canadian literary world succeeded quickly in anaesthetizing the club members and Yeigh recalled that when Pauline’s turn came late in the program she faced “a somewhat somnolent audience.” She promptly woke them up.
“Pauline glided rather than walked to the platform,” Yeigh wrote later, “her dark eyes flashing nervously and her sinewy form, the essence of gracefulness, representing the acme of physical rhythm and motion. She never excelled that premiere performance.”
Her melodramatic reading of Cry From An Indian Wife, an Indian viewpoint of the Northwest Rebellion, was the hit of the show and earned the only encore of the evening. Two editorials appeared in Toronto newspapers within a week asking why her work had never appeared in book form.
Yeigh quickly arranged a return appearance and the recital was scheduled two weeks later in Toronto’s Association Hall. To prepare for the engagement Pauline returned to Brantford, canoed to a small island in the river near Chiefswood and there wrote The Song My Paddle Sings, still her best-known poem and a standard fixture in school texts for the past twentyfive years.
Rhymes on a Buffalo Robe
This second Toronto appearance proved that Pauline was a born trouper. While reciting the first verse of her newly written canoe song she forgot the words. A hush fell on the hall. Pauline thoughtfully pulled a rose to pieces while Yeigh, in the wings, buried his face in his hands. Then, so matterof-factly that one critic called it a piece of stage business, Pauline announced, “I’m sorry, I seem to have forgotten the rest. I’ll give you another.” In her dressing room later she told Yeigh, “I knew I mustn’t leave the platform and admit defeat.”
Yeigh suggested he act as Pauline’s manager in a series of recitals to raise money for an English pilgrimage in search of a publisher and in the next six months she gave one hundred and twenty - five “evenings” throughout Ontario. In the spring of 1894 she made the first of three trips to England.
It was a success from the beginning. London’s literati and leading hostesses sent their cards. Pauline was soon giving her recitals on what one writer called “the drawing - room circuit.” Some of these she shared with an American named Joachim Miller who called himself the Poet of the Sierras, wore the garb of a western prospector and carried a gigantic buffalo robe which he lay upon to read his poems, horizontally.
In her wanderings about London Pauline was often accompanied by Sir Charles Tupper, then Canada’s high commissioner. Sir Charles liked to recall one expedition they made to Whiteley’s department store where he wagered Pauline a new pair of gloves she could think of nothing to buy that Whiteley’s couldn’t provide.
Pauline stepped up to an imposinglooking floorwalker and said, “I wish to buy a William English Peterboro canoe.”
“Yes, ma’am,” replied the floorwalker urbanely, “Fourth floor up.”
Her first book of verse, The White Wampum, was published that year in
London by John Lane and the critics were kind. One called it “a new kind of poetry which jars and jangles.” Another wrote of her “poignant passion and pathos.” She had arrived.
When Pauline returned to Canada she began what was to be nine years of barnstorming throughout the eastern United States and nineteen times across Canada.
These were the so-called “gay Nineties.” There was a hunger everywhere for entertainment and an odd company of early-vintage vaudevillians roamed across Canada. There were singers, violinists, cartoonists, comedians and lecturers, interpreters of Browning, Scots comics, elocutionists and swarms of Swiss bell ringers.
One of this band was a short, handsome, lighthearted actor from Merrickville, Ont., named Walter McRaye, who had won no acclaim whatever as an unlikely “Boy Orator from New Jersey,” but soon became a favorite with the first public renditions of Drummond’s habitant poems.
Pauline met McRaye, who was fourteen years her junior, at the old Winnipeg Theatre when they appeared at the same recital in 1897. Later they decided to tour as a team and became inseparable companions.
With Daring Decolletage
In some towns committees would arrange in advance for “evenings” in the mechanics institutes, hut more often Pauline and McRaye would set up shop wherever they could. They performed in wayside dining rooms, billiard parlors, barns, grain elevators and once in an undertaking parlor where new coffins were used as seats.
In one Ontario town where they gave a benefit concert to buy a wooden leg for the town constable, Pauline’s dressing room was a barber shop. Another benefit in aid of an unbuilt Methodist church was put on in the town saloon and Pauline assured her audience that “the end justifies the means.” They played six nights a week and in one memorable week made appearances in four different provinces. They were stranded for six days aboard an icebound ferry to Prince Edward Island and at Port aux Basques, Nfld., goats ate the playbills off the boards.
Pauline wore an Indian costume in the first half of these recitals and appeared later in svelte floor-length evening gowns with a daring décolletage. At one Godforsaken pin point on the prairie she noticed a shabby man in the audience with tears flowing down his cheeks and hurried to him after the recital.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen a woman dressed like that since I left England,” the man sobbed.
The Indian costume (now in Vancouver’s museum) consisted of a beaded buckskin dress trimmed with ermine skins, native-wrought brooches made from silver coins, a necklace of cinnamon bear claws given to Pauline by Ernest Thompson Seton, bracelets of
wampum beads, a tall eagle feather in her hair and, hanging gruesomely from her waist, two cured scalps.
One of these was the forelock of some unhappy Huron. The other had been presented to her by a chief of the Blackfoot tribes. Pauline, with her affinity for the macabre, had admired this particular item at an encampment in southern Alberta and, through an interpreter, had attempted to buy it from the ancient chief. The chief was offended at the offer and the interpreter explained hurriedly that Pauline herself came from a long line of scalpers.
The old man turned then and said gallantly, “Give this to the daughter of fighting men whose eyes are like the dawn.”
Pauline’s second collection of verse, Canadian Born, was published in 1903 and three years later, now an established poet, she returned to London accompanied by McRaye and bearing letters of introduction from Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
Once again it was a personal triumph. With McRaye she appeared in Steinway Hall and the critics wrote of her “fiery eloquence.”
She had tea on the terrace of the House of Commons, was feted at exclusive dinners, made the rounds of the theatres and music halls, admired a gaunt young man named Will Rogers who talked out of the corner of his mouth and played with a lariat, met Somerset Maugham and Swinburne, one of her idols then nearly seventy.
At one dinner party she was introduced to Sir Arthur Pearson, then publisher of the Express, and soon she was writing articles of Indian life for his newspaper. It was in this way that she met Chief Joe Capilano, the greatest of her Indian friends and a man who had a profound influence on her later life.
They Danced Until Dawn
Back in Canada, Pauline and McRaye continued their grueling onenight stands from coast to coast. Their most memorable trip was an eighthundred-and-fifty-mile excursion following the old Caribou Trail north into British Columbia.
At Ashcroft they hired a stage coach for two hundred and fifty dollars and engaged a fabled driver named Buckskin Billy Halton, known as the best whip in the west. For Pauline it was all a wonderful lark. “I slept like a baby, laughed like a child and ate like a lumberjack,” she wrote.
The response was spectacular. At Barkerville, in a hall rented for four dollars, they took more than seven hundred dollars in two nights and at Pauline’s suggestion McRaye invited all the male members of the audience for a drink in Kelly’s Saloon. The round of whisky came to sixty-seven dollars.
At Lac La Hache they arrived to find that there’d been no advance notice of the recital and Buckskin Billy
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sent out couriers. Soon a stream of ranchers, miners, farmers, Indians and halfbreedc came riding in across the sagebrush hills. Admission was a dollar for whites and fifty cents for Indians. When one patron of the arts protested, “Me no white man, me half and half,” Buckskin Billy charged him seventyfive cents.
It was at Lac La Hache, too, that an impromptu concert was arranged in McKinley’s barroom to be shared with Premier Richard McBride who happened along on a pre-election junket.
She and McRaye recited from eight until ten. Then Handsome Dick, with a red kerchief about his neck, appealed for votes until midnight. The handsome couple then led the grand march for the dance to follow, and when a fiddler known as Old Man McCarthy broke into Birdie Fly In And Out Again the Premier and the Mohawk Princess set a pace that lasted until dawn.
Again in 1907 Pauline and McRaye went to London and, on their return, toured the Chautauqua circuit as far west as Boulder, Col.
But now Pauline was forty-five. She was losing not only her dark beauty, but some of her vitality. On the long train trips only the ebullient faithful McRaye could break her introspective moods. The woman he called “a well-beloved vagabond who loved any trail, old or new” was ready to settle down.
They played their last “evening” together in a little opera house in Kamloops. Then Pauline packed the old Saratoga trunk she’d had from the beginning, took the train to Vancouver and began the last tragic chapter of her life.
She had grown to love Vancouver in more than a dozen appearances there and when she wrote friends from the city the letters were marked, God’s Town. She moved into a hall bedroom in a west-end rooming house and devoted herself to her writing, hoping that she might make a steady income with nature stories for boys’ maga'zines.
It was hard going and in the tradition of poets Pauline was always on the lip of poverty. In the best of times money had slipped through her fingers and her income was pitifully small. Her verse and prose had appeared in some of the leading periodicals of the day, including Harper’s Weekly and the Smart Set, but they paid only in prestige. For The Song My Paddle Sings, Pauline received three dollars. When Rod and Gun accepted a poem called the Train Dogs and sent her a cheque for seventyfive cents she returned it to them with a sardonic note of sympathy for their “apparent poverty.”
It was at this time that Pauline began writing her fanciful Legends of Vancouver with the help of Chief Joe Capilano who lived on the Squamish reserve across the Inlet from the city.
In their long walks together Chief Joe spun his yarns about the meaning
of landmarks such as Stanley Park's | Siwash Rock and Pauline would embellish them with her own imagination in the tradition of one Indian storyteller improving on another.
“You can say anything you like about Indians,” she told one of her editors, “because their history has never been written down.” The legends appeared in the Sunday magazine section of the Vancouver Province and she was paid seven dollars for each article.
Pauline had been in Vancouver only a short time when her health broke down and she learned that she had cancer. It was then, one of her intimates said, that she gave her finest j performance.
Although often in severe pain and under opiates, thin and ashen in color, she continued to write and to give occasional recitals in the city. Her love of Stanley Park became almost a religion and after Chief Joe’s death in 1910 she walked alone along its trails. “It’s the only way to chase the gloom away,” she told a friend. “Get out, no matter what the weather.”
A contemporary recalls seeing her “leaning over the guardrail near Siwash Rock while the tide was out, always alone, stoic and curiously dignified, watching the gulls.”
Pauline was desperately hard up in 1912 when she entered a private hospital and a group of her newspaper and Women’s Canadian Club friends formed a friendship pact and arranged for publication of the legends.
Within Sight of the Siwash
When the redoubtable McRaye arrived to be with her at the end, he discovered that the collection was selling slowly, bought up all the unsold copies and sent them to the friends they’d made in their tours, suggesting they send their cheques directly to Pauline. On his visits to her McRaye would open her mail and pin the cheques above her bed while she slept.
He was with her when she died on March 7, 1913, three days before her fifty-first birthday.
Pauline had often expressed the wish to her friends that she might be buried in Stanley Park near Siwash Rock and this was carried out. Her ashes were buried at Ferguson’s Point under the evergreens and within sight of the curious tufted rock that had fascinated her.
Copies of the legends and Flint and Feather, a complete collection of her : poems published that year in England, were placed with her ashes in the urn. Subsequently the Women’s Canadian Club erected a drinking fountain of stones taken from the shore of the park.
On one heavy boulder is carved the profile of the Mohawk Princess.
Today four slim volumes hold all the writing she produced. They are the legends; The Moccasin Maker, a collection of stories of her mother’s life written in a semi-fictional style; The Shagganappi, a group of boys’ stories; and Flint and Feather, which contains fewer than a hundred poems.
More than fifty thousand copies of this collection are in print according to the Musson Book Co. which first published it in Canada in 1917. It is in its nineteenth edition and still sells a steady thousand copies each year.
There is no epitaph on the simple monument in Stanley Park, but a poet friend wrote perhaps the most apt description of Pauline Johnson in these lines:
A Princess, Poet, Woman, three in one,
And fine in every measure of the three, if