Early in the twentieth century, three children of poor Jewish immigrants stagger beneath the grueling promise of the American Dream.
Nate Cohen, the pint-size, angry son of an alcoholic San Francisco prizefighter and Bohemian mother, becomes a parttime criminal. Working at a restaurant, he hurls bacon grease at an anti-Semitic employee and flees the city. As Ned Christianson, he cooks on cattle ranches in Northern California and Wyoming. After sleeping with a rancher’s daughter, Ned joins a Wild West show.
Kayleh Rubenstein, a red-headed tailor’s daughter, becomes the child vaudeville star Clara Robbins. Her Uncle Henry (Zeev) manages her then sells her contract to a vaudeville star who abuses her and, when she finally resists, destroys her career. Clara descends into liquor and morphine.
Jake Orlinsky, a New York orphan, performs as the child-magician Joseph Hartwig in a saloon below a brothel. After losing his job, he picks pockets and entertains on the street. Harry Houdini briefly befriends him. Following a fatal run-in at a New York nightclub, Jake escapes to California.
The three young performers, all hiding their Jewish identities, meet at San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Clara and Joseph have a brief affair. All go south to Los Angeles, ultimately seeking careers in silent films.
Through the ex-gunfighter and lawman Wyatt Earp, Ned and Joseph are hired for a western—and get fired. Clara becomes the kept woman of a series of Hollywood executives and is raped at the home of Fatty Arbuckle. A murder prompts Ned and Joseph to leave Los Angeles. A suicide sends Clara north.
They reunite in San Francisco where two violent events lead to tragedy and redemption.