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Color Blind
The secret life of a famous 19th-century surveyor and social figure.

Review by Annette Gordon-Reed
Sunday, February 22, 2009

PASSING STRANGE

A Gilded Age Tale of Love And Deception Across the Color Line

By Martha A. Sandweiss

Penguin Press. 370 pp. $27.95

If you drop the name Clarence King to almost any group of Americans today, it is unlikely they will have heard of him. This was not always so. During the final decades of the 19th century, King strode across the national scene as the scion of a prominent family and a Yale-trained geologist who mapped the American West. When he published a collection of vivid essays about his exploits, "Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada," the book was an instant hit. King gained further fame when he exposed a fraudulent scheme to sell interests in diamond fields whose purported value was greater than all the silver and gold in Nevada's celebrated Comstock Lode. By proving that the fields had been artificially "salted" with precious gems, he halted investments in the project, forestalling the economic bubble that would certainly have formed around it. For this he was nicknamed the King of Diamonds. "We have escaped, thanks to God and Clarence King, a great financial calamity," one newspaper editorial said.

King often inspired such talk. He was a close friend of the writer Henry Adams and the diplomat John Hay, both of whom thought him the most talented man of their generation. Although he was born in Newport, R.I., to an old and distinguished family -- a paternal ancestor came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637 and his mother could trace her ancestry back to signers of the Magna Carta -- King had little money for most of his life. Instead, he cobbled together income from government appointments, writing projects and loans from rich friends to support himself as a gentleman scientist.

But there was another side to King that neither the public nor his glittering friends knew, a side that Martha A. Sandweiss explores with great sensitivity, insight and painstaking research in "Passing Strange." The title of this immensely fascinating work provides a broad hint: King lived a racial double life. It would be hard to imagine a man more "white," meaning a man who was more thoroughly steeped in the privileges available only to whites of his class during the Gilded Age. But he was also secretly married to Ada Copeland, a black woman who had been born a slave in Georgia. Even more astounding, she knew nothing of his life as Clarence King. Indeed, she did not even know that he was Clarence King. From the day they met in Manhattan in 1887 or 1888 until 1901, when King died, she knew him as "James Todd." When they married in 1888, she became Ada Todd. And when their five children were born over the next 13 years, their last name was Todd, too.

"Passing strange" -- Sandweiss's play-on-words meaning both exceptionally odd and passing for black -- captures the situation precisely. King invented an ingenious identity, posing as a light-skinned Pullman porter. Why a porter? First, it was well known that Pullman hired only black men as porters and waiters on the company's trains. So his wife and neighbors assumed that if the fair-complexioned, blue-eyed, blond-haired James Todd worked as a Pullman porter, he must be black. Second, the job provided an explanation for his frequent absences from home. And finally, stable employment was a way to attract young Ada. Clarence was 18 years older than she. He knew that she, like other black refugees from the South, was struggling. A Pullman porter would be able to provide a decent life for her and any children they might have -- and over the years, that is what he did.

"Passing Strange" is ultimately a book about a couple, and Sandweiss has used her formidable skills as a researcher to reconstruct as much of their lives as possible. This was necessarily an uneven task. Much more is known about Clarence King than about Ada Copeland. Sandweiss succeeds admirably, however, in piecing together a portrait of a young woman who achieved stability in a domestic setup that would seem unendurable in today's world. One must remember the times and what Ada escaped when she came north and met her James Todd, under circumstances that remain mysterious. Perhaps the most powerful feature of this book is the way Sandweiss evokes the terrifying racial landscape of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Georgia of Ada's childhood was, quite simply, a deadly place for blacks. Terrorism was the order of the day; whites killed blacks almost at will. When schools were set up to teach black children to read, white townspeople occasionally burned them down. After enduring such a place, living with a somewhat wayward husband, who nevertheless loved her and provided for her, would seem rather easy.

Raised by an abolitionist mother and grandmother, King romanticized blacks and believed, Sandweiss says, that racial mixing would "improve the vitality of the human race and create a distinctively American people." But his society friends lived by the racial order of the day. Although Adams and Hay were not the kind of men to burn down schools for black children, they might have cut their dear friend out of their lives had he been open about his relationship with a black woman. Instead, King strained mightily to hold on to the two worlds that he loved, terrified to lose either one.

This story does not have a happy ending. King died penniless, wiped out by disastrous investments and poor career moves. There followed a long and very public court battle over a mysterious trust fund that he had supposedly left for Ada and their children. But King's talent for friendship stood him in good stead. His friends bought a house for Ada and provided the family with a monthly stipend, all anonymously; racial decorum had to be maintained. And, as Sandweiss notes, King's early biographers played along by pretty much writing Ada Todd out of her husband's life and treating their relationship as a distasteful lapse on his part. It was, of course, more than that. It was a tragedy, because all King wanted was to marry the woman he loved while maintaining the respect and amity of his white family and friends. That was too much to ask of his time. ยท

Annette Gord on-Reed is the author of "The Hemingses of Monticello."

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