Ada Gwendolyn Gates was born horsey, which is not to say it was a natural progression for her to wind up a blacksmith. There were white debutante’s gloves on her hands before calluses, and in between she sang in the original cast of Hair, acted with Pacino and road-managed for Joplin and Dylan. So her new job in L.A. might seem comparatively dull, another passing fancy. But to Gates at 36 it is a calling that makes her feel sane and fulfilled for the first time.
Toting a 125-pound anvil in her pickup truck, she shuttles between the Flintridge Riding Club near her home in Pasadena and racetracks like Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. Unlike Longfellow’s smithy who “earns whate’er he can,” Gates will gross about $45,000 this year and net $33,000. She deserves it. “This job is hard on your back,” she says, straightening up and drying her iron-hard forearms on a leather apron. “The horses really jerk you around.” She forged her own tools and more than 20 different kinds of shoes, including one corrective set for a one-ton Brahma bull. “I’m particularly proud of that job,” says the 135-pound ex-deb.
Ada began riding on the family’s Long Island estate at age 4. Her father was John Gates Sr., a Corning Glass executive and designer for Steuben. Her mother was Evelyn Byrd Dows, whose ancestors helped develop the American steel industry and who herself founded a ready-to-wear line, bearing her name, in a boutique that is now Halston’s studio.
Ada hated “every minute” at the Foxcroft School in Virginia, so she transferred to Miss Hewitt’s Classes in New York, where she became desperately weight-conscious (“two orange pills and a green one for supper”). Her finishing continued at Briarcliff Junior College before she and a cousin took a boat trip up the Amazon, where Ada fell for their Basque guide and followed him fecklessly to Spain. “Then I came home and went out with hundreds of men to try and forget,” she admits. “It was all a blur.”
She almost broke through as an actress. She quit Hair pre-Broadway because, she figured, “This is never going to play.” She appeared opposite Al Pacino and James Earl Jones in an Off-Broadway workshop called Peace Creeps, and in a Martin Scorsese short, Five Will Get You Ten. In rapid succession, Gates then road-managed several of impresario Al Grossman’s rock acts, suffered a nervous breakdown, saw a series of shrinks, went back to college at Columbia and made the dean’s list. The next stop was waitressing in Colorado. Finally she bought a horse—and could find nobody to shoe it except a cowboy who arrived drunk. “I said, ‘You’re not going to touch my horse!’ ” she recalls. “I did it myself.”
That proved so challenging that Gates enrolled in a college for horseshoers near Tulsa, Okla.—likely the first student who paid tuition from a trust fund. “My mother hit the roof,” she laughs, “and my father was speechless.” It was worse than Foxcroft at first. “I had never picked up a hammer before in my life,” she claims. “The teacher did everything to make me quit: swore at me, made me do all my shoes over and over, threw a snake at me. He said he was trying to make me tough enough to survive. I ended up loving him for it.”
Gates flunked the six-hour exam for entry into the AFL-CIO horseshoers union in 1977, but passed the next year. Her brothers accept her now, and their only negative feeling is probably jealousy of her year-old relationship with Harry Patton, 56, international vice-president of the union. Has he showed her any favoritism over other members of the local? “He answered my questions,” says Gates, “but I got my own work.”