Go to Destination: Scandal!

The Earlier D.C. 'Anonymous'

By Sarah Booth Conroy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, Feb. 5, 1996; Page C03
© The Washington Post

"Primary Colors" has incited the year's best whodunit game, but it wasn't the first novel by that world-famous writer Anonymous to mesmerize Washington. "Democracy, an American Novel," published in March 1880, was even more of a sensation.

The 1990s novel reflects the Clintons and their staff as seen in fiction's distorted fun-house mirror, and practically every author in town has been accused of writing it. To the Chronicler this all seems rather deja lu -- the feeling you've read it all before.

"Democracy" was the first Washington political novel to be an international bestseller and is still available in the Library of America edition. The guessing began with who-was-who in the intimate tale of capital corruption and became the most popular parlor game of the Gilded Age.

The heroine, Madeleine Lee, was a young New York sophisticate and a well-to-do widow. Like so many others, she came to Washington, the author writes, "to see with her own eyes the action of primary forces; to touch with her own hand the massive machinery of society; to measure with her own mind the capacity of motive power. She was bent upon getting to the heart of the great American mystery of democracy and government."

Of course, she went about it by setting up a salon on Lafayette Square, the best address in town, rimmed with elegant mansions. Mrs. Lee soon had her own politicians assembling every afternoon for tea and slander.

The character was closely based on Clover Adams, indeed well-known for her teas -- and p's and q's. Novelist Henry James said her salon "on the whole left out more than it took in." The same is true of what is known of her life and mysterious death in 1885.

Clover (nee Marian) was a witty woman of strong opinion, daughter of a doting and wealthy father. Her husband, Henry Adams, was a political journalist and historian, grandson and great-grandson of presidents. The Adamses, like Mrs. Lee, lived on Lafayette Square.

In the novel, Mrs. Lee considers marrying Senator Ratcliffe (think what you will of the significance of the name). Her intentions are honorable -- to reform society using her wealth and her wiles, the only means possible in those days when women were denied the vote. A young Southern politician poor but proud of his honor falls in love with the lady Lee and saves her from the senator's clutches by revealing his unethical deeds. Disillusioned, Mrs. Lee decides to leave the country.

In fact, the Ratcliffe character closely resembled James Gillespie Blaine, the Maine senator called "the Plumed Knight." He had indeed been accused of disreputable conduct. Letters implicating him were part of an 1876 railroad land grant scandal.

The fictional president was caricatured with a composite of Abraham Lincoln's western ways, Ulysses Grant's taste and Rutherford B. Hayes's mediocrity. The first lady was satirized for her "provincial morality." The real Mrs. Hayes forbade card games, billiards and wine in the White House and insisted female guests wear high-neck gowns and long sleeves.

The authorship of the novel was a more difficult mystery.

Suspicion pointed its accusing finger at all the major Washington social scribblers and political participants. The Adamses and their intimates, the so-called Five of Hearts -- John Hay, later secretary of state; his wealthy wife, Clara; and Clarence King, head of the Geological Survey -- were among the most popular guesses because of their reputation for wicked wit and slanderous satire. One oft-heard accusation was that they wrote it together as a tea-time game. Clover Adams, a talented early photographer, made pictures of each holding a copy of The Book.

Blaine, attributing the book to King, turned away from him in public. The senator also claimed that Clover Adams "acknowledged" writing it. Even her father and her aunts suspected her.

No one ever publicly acknowledged writing "Democracy." Its publisher, Henry Holt, attributed the book to Henry Adams in 1923, after his death. Did he?

I don't think so. After reading Clover's fascinating reports to her father in "The Letters of Mrs. Henry Adams," edited by Ward Thoron in 1936, I settled, at least to my satisfaction, the mystery of who wrote "Democracy" -- Clover. The solution took me a whole book: "Refinements of Love, a Novel About Henry and Clover Adams," now out of print.

In Rock Creek Cemetery, the Adams memorial, a mysterious, androgynous, bronze sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, still sits heavily on the uninscribed graves of Henry and Clover Adams.

Henry Adams, who hated the names the public called the sculpture, once wrote that the work was meant to "ask a question, not to give an answer." And he added a curse: "The man who answers will be damned to eternity like the men who answered the Sphinx."

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