Posted on March 10, 2009

A Strange Double Life

James MacGowan, The Ottawa Citizen, March 8, 2009

Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line, by Martha Sandweiss, Penguin Press; $31

When Martha Sandweiss sat down to research the life and times of Clarence King, it took her 10 minutes to find out she had struck gold. She knew going in that King, a prominent 19th-century Ivy League-educated geologist, author and explorer, who counted U.S. Secretary of State John Hay and the writer Henry Adams among his friends, had an enormous secret he was keeping from his high-society friends.

What she didn’t know, but quickly found out, was that this secret prompted him to live two lives: the first, as the first director of the United States Geological Survey, a gregarious friend of powerful people, who occasionally dined at the White House; the second, as a black Pullman porter named James Todd who was married to a black woman named Ada Copeland.

“I’m the first person to figure that piece of it out,” Sandweiss says from her Amherst, Massachusetts home. “What people knew before was only that the famous Clarence King had a 13-year relationship–whether it was a marriage or not–with this African-American woman and that they had several children together.”

Sandweiss, a professor of American studies and history at Amherst College, had been urging her students to look into the story of King’s secret marriage, propelled by the indignity she felt upon reading a 1958 biography of King that barely mentioned Ada, or dismissed her as an undignified aberration. None of her students took her up on it, and this aspect of King’s life kept gnawing at her. When she finally sat down and discovered his dual identity–thanks to the recent digitization of American census records–she decided this was a story she would write herself.

The result, Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line, is a staggeringly researched, absorbing and page-turning account of a stunning deception carried out by a complex man who believed that miscegenation was where the future of the white race lay. As Sandweiss writes, King believed mixing the races “would improve the vitality of the human race and create a distinctly American people.”

“I would say two things about his racial views,” Sandweiss says. “One, his sort of romantic racialism and his fascination with ‘primeval women and women of colour’ is somewhat distasteful to me. But his other views about race were truly radical. There’s that extraordinary piece he writes three years before his marriage to Ada in which he says there can’t be an American style–he’s writing about some architectural designs for Grant’s tomb–until there’s an American people, which won’t happen until there’s no more English and German and Negro and white. That kind of thinking in 1885 was almost unimaginable.”

Odd then that he would hide his marriage, but King, who was born in 1842, was a very smart man and knew his influential white friendships and his career would never survive such a revelation, a fact borne out after his death in 1902 when his relationship with Ada was discovered and hushed up by those friends who felt they were serving the best interests of King’s reputation.

As for Ada, she believed her husband had left her a trust fund–in a deathbed confessional letter to her, King revealed his real name, but it’s unclear if he revealed his race, his profession or family background as well. In any event, he died penniless–Hay took it upon himself to buy her a house and send her a monthly stipend, all of which he did anonymously. When Hay died in 1905, his family continued the payments, all, Sandweiss writes, “to prevent Ada from speaking about her relationship to their famous friend.”

All of this ended in 1933, with a court case instigated by Ada in a bid to get what she thought was the entire amount of the trust fund. Sandweiss thinks that by this time–and there is much in this book Sandweiss has had to deduce, given the scarcity of material about Ada’s life–she likely had a pretty good idea that her husband was not black. “The ferociousness with which her husband’s defenders attack her and seek to prevent her from finding the source of her money, I think had to begin suggesting to her that he was a white man and that he had very powerful friends.”

But how, one may well wonder, could a fair-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed man be considered black? In this day and age, when even Barack Obama is thought by some to be not black enough, thinking that King is anything but white seems absurd.

“That was one of the most interesting things for me as I worked on this book,” Sandweiss says. “His Pullman porter’s coat was probably a warrant for his black identity,” she points out, adding that Pullman only hired black men as porters.

“But I also think the whiteness of his skin was the best proof that he was black. I mean, why would anybody who looked like that claim to be a black man unless he really was? It carried no social or political privileges with it.”

At the time, to be defined as a Negro, you only needed to have one black great-grandparent, so you could, in fact, be very light-skinned and be classified as black. This is obviously what Ada must have thought, but by the time she died–in 1964 at the astonishing age of 103–Sandweiss believes she knew all of her husband’s secrets. “If she hadn’t already figured it all out, she surely would have during the trial in 1933.”

If this story reminds readers of The Human Stain, Philip Roth’s novel about a half-black, half-white man passing as white and Jewish, you’re not alone. Sandweiss thought of it frequently during the four-and-a-half years she spent writing Passing Strange, especially with the number of times she had to fill in historical blanks.

“That was absolutely an inspiration for this book. I admire that book so much, how Roth gets inside of his character’s heads and imagines their motivations. Certainly many times working on this book I wished I was a novelist so I could narrate with a kind of a magnificent omniscience what’s really going on here.

“But I’m not a novelist, and I’m certainly not a brilliant novelist like Philip Roth. I’m a historian who lives and dies by her footnotes. This is a history book.”

And a fascinating one at that.