Good manners make this story delicate to tell.
It seems to call for silence.
We are standing at the Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Cemetery, one of Washington's deep mysteries. Hushed stillness feels appropriate. There are bones beneath our feet.
Here lies Henry Adams (1838-1918). The great-grandson of one president, the grandson of another, Adams was a writer, a poet and historian, a novelist, a scholar. He may have been the premier American intellectual of his time.
Beside him lies his wife, Marian Hooper Adams, whom everyone called Clover.
None of us will ever know why Clover Adams killed herself -- by drinking potassium cyanide, at the age of 42, in 1885. Or why she so arranged it that her husband found her body on a rug beside the fireplace. Or if she meant to wound his high respectability, his intense self-regard, or the elevated status of the Adams family -- all of which survive in the monument he built.
The Massachusetts Adamses are again in the news. David McCullough's biography of John Adams is locked on the bestseller lists. In October the Senate passed and sent to the White House a bill calling for the erection in Washington of a monument to President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, President John Quincy Adams and the other noted members of that most distinguished family.
Can a second Adams Memorial possibly exceed the majesty of the first?
When Henry Adams planned it, he selected for the job the best sculptor in America, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and the most fashionable architect, New York's Stanford White, and paid $20,000, then a major sum. He built it to his wife -- and he built it to himself, to his subtlety, his lineage and own flawless taste.
Presiding at the double grave, seated on a boulder, is a figure of cast bronze, a superior work of art.
It is not Clover Adams, but a meditating spirit, androgynous, unnamed.
Death is all around her.
Ugliness surrounds her, too, at least for the time being. The yew trees that enclosed her, that kept her from the world, that set her in a realm of dark, funereal beauty, are, for the moment, gone.
This capital is ruled by 19th-century monuments. The Washington is dominant: The city spins around it like a record round a spindle. The most moving is the Lincoln. Everyone who sees it experiences the power of the statue in that shrine. That somber seated figure -- by Daniel Chester French -- does what only very great statues do.
The hooded figure at the Adams grave, while something of a secret, is as great a work of art. The two seated figures resemble one another.
To reach the Lincoln Memorial one climbs a long and formal stair to a Greco-Roman temple. To reach the Adams memorial -- before the current restoration -- one wandered among trees to a kind of sacred grove. The statue there encountered is similarly uncanny. She, too, has the power to awe, command, remind.
Few sculptures in this city are comparably moving. Visitors fall still when they step into her presence.
She's been there for all who seek her for 110 years, but the seeking's been a quest. Rock Creek Cemetery, for one thing, is not in Rock Creek Park. Only pilgrims find her. Most Washingtonians don't even know she's there.
The statue is brownish bronze. It appears to be a woman. Everyone assumes this, though Adams kept insisting that it was not so. When President Theodore Roosevelt at a luncheon at the White House spoke of her as "her," he was imperiously corrected. "Should you allude to my bronze figure," Adams wrote to the president, "will you try to do Saint Gaudens the justice to remark that his expression was a little higher than sex can give . . . The figure is sexless."
Beneath a cowl-like garment the figure's shadowed eyes are closed. But the strong right arm is too erect for her to be asleep. A sort of wordless oracle, neither young nor withered, she seems to brood eternally. The cemetery called Rock Creek surrounds the oldest church in Washington (St. Paul's Episcopal Church, founded 1712), but nothing at the Adams grave -- no chiseled prayer, no cross, no reassuring sentiment -- hints at Christianity. The statue has no name.
The last time that I saw her -- this was only a few days ago -- her protection had been stripped away. The dark green walls are gone. Bare gravel surrounds her. The site feels trashed.
That desolation, thankfully, is only temporary.
The evergreens that hid her once, the 70 dark yew trees, have not been discarded, but saved and set aside. The soil around the grave site is about to be refreshed and drained. An Adams family trust has come up with the funds. The plans have been examined by Cynthia J. Mills of the Smithsonian Institution's American Art Museum, who wrote her dissertation on the monument, and knows more about its history than anyone else around. By Christmas, if the weather holds, and, if not, by early spring, the site will be restored.
President John Adams was a straightforward Boston Yankee. A diplomat, a lawyer, he was also a farmer who farmed. Henry, his great-grandson, was an Adams of another sort. He was thoroughly a snob.
His carefully screened friends -- Henry James, the writer; H.H. Richardson, the architect; John La Farge, the painter; John Hay, the secretary of state -- were all notable and learned. Accustomed as he was to the severe class system of England (where he'd spent much of his youth) and to the hauteur of Harvard (where he'd taught for seven years in what he called "laborious banishment"), Adams felt himself to be an aristocrat of the blood.
America, however, had no hereditary peerage. So he made himself an aristocrat of intellect instead.
Adams also made himself familiar to the powerful. A "stable-companion to statesmen" is how he once described himself. Much taken by the burdens and beauties of "tradition," he didn't like the messy present, or its people either. Adams was a kind of American pre-Raphaelite. High purity attracted him, and delicacy of soul. He disdained lesser mortals. Mercantile Jews he found especially repulsive. He knew his breeding to be excellent, and his line illustrious, but nowhere is the Adams name inscribed at his tomb.
Perhaps the man felt guilt, perhaps humiliation. But when confronted with the staining scandal of the suicide, he concealed his emotions behind flawless elegance. Standing at his monument one can't escape the feeling that its impeccable aesthetic was his main line of defense.
Stanford White, the architect who designed the statue's setting, the owl-winged bench before her and the austere plinth behind her, was an innovative classicist. Saint-Gaudens gave his seated bronze an almost Grecian beauty.
In obedient accordance with the wishes of their client, the monument they built had a curious double function. Its purpose was to elevate -- and also to exclude.
For a public work of art it told the public little. Cosmopolitan observers, people of the class Henry Adams cared for, would comprehend its subtle, understated message. Persons of the common sort would not know what it meant.
Adams, late in life, often visited the site, and noted their responses. Doddering old Civil War veterans from the Soldiers' Home across the street thought the statue cost too much. Clergymen, tut-tutting, found it anti-Christian, even atheistic. Brash newspaper reporters thought the statue needed naming. Many called it "Grief." Adams, characteristically, did not bother to correct them. That run-of-the-mill people did not know what they were looking at was for him a sort of balm.
Saint-Gaudens's hooded figure is no longer so inscrutable. What is obvious today, though often overlooked a century ago, is that she draws her somber message from two separate traditions. Her message is Greco-Buddhist. She combines East and West.
Her vocabulary is classical. Mature seated goddesses clothed in flowing draperies were sculpted on the Parthenon. The stonework's quiet details -- the laurel leaves, the wheat sheaves, the egg-and-dart designs -- are also Mediterranean borrowings. So, too, are the owl wings, which represent the night, and the wisdom of Athena. The statue's heavy cloak (Saint-Gaudens gave it texture by pressing roughly woven burlap into his wet clay) is a symbol of humility. All of this, in Adams's day, was widely understood.
The country at the time was dotted with new statues -- bronze generals on horseback, clear-eyed Union troopers -- which knowingly deployed similar devices.
Saint-Gaudens, in his many statues of the heroes of the Civil War, often gave his soldiers allegorical companions, Greek ones for the most part, clad in flowing robes. A gilded Winged Victory walks before his great equestrian image of William Tecumseh Sherman. Another goddess floats above the doomed African American volunteers of his great Robert Gould Shaw Memorial (the plaster for that sculpture is now fixed into a wall of the National Gallery of Art). As a weather vane to top the old Madison Square Garden he fashioned a Diana (whose lithe body he'd derived from that of Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White's young mistress). When the sculptor sought to visualize symbols of significance, classical goddesses came to mind.
But the statue at the Adams grave has a different pedigree. Her face, it's true, looks Greek, but her precedents are Asian.
Among the elegant Bostonians of the Henry Adams circle, the wisdom of the East was very much in vogue.
In 1882, William Sturgis Bigelow (Clover's favorite cousin) resigned from Harvard's medical school and departed for Japan where he immersed himself in Buddhism and lived for seven years. In 1883, Henry's cousin Phillips Brooks, the minister of Trinity Church, noted, only half in jest, that his Boston had gone Buddhist. Adams felt the call as well. In 1886, after Clover's suicide, he joined the artist John La Farge and -- describing himself as "a woe-begone Pagan searching [for] Nirvana" -- set off for Japan.
He did not wholly like the place. He couldn't speak the language. He found the women there "repulsive." Yet the notion of Nirvana -- of complete release from life and death, and all suffering, and passion -- flourished in his mind.
La Farge, his companion, was especially impressed there by the images he saw of the deity Kwannon, the bodhisattva of compassion. The "Eternal Feminine . . . absorbed in meditations of Nirvana" is how he described her. Adams felt her power, too.
The being on the boulder is no longer so inscrutable. Karate films, and koans, and many books on Zen, and writers as diverse as Jack Kerouac, Alan Watts and J.D. Salinger have combined to make a rough idea of trancelike meditation a staple of American pop culture.
But what the statue signifies was less apparent to the public a century ago. That she boggled most American minds was what Adams had expected. "None felt what would have been a nursery-instinct to a Hindu baby or a Japanese jinrickshaw-runner," he observed with satisfaction. And, of course, he would not tell them what he had had in mind.
But once he put it in his diary -- where, writing for himself, he called the monument "my Buddha grave."
And once he put it in a poem:
Life, Time, Space, Thought, the World, the Universe
End where they first began, in one sole Thought
Of Purity in Silence. It's easy to wish they'd left the site alone. But they really had no choice.
The landscaping provided has always been a problem. Cypresses were planted first, but pretty soon they died. The rhododendrons that came later proved leggy and ungainly. Hollies were tried next -- American hollies first, Foster's hollies later -- but they were not satisfactory for a variety of reasons. The way their rapid, prickly growth closed in the approaching paths made the site a mugger's dream. And then the hollies' bulging roots threatened to do damage to the statue and the bench.
Japanese yews were planted next. Their color seemed correct, their scale satisfactory. Then they, too, began to die.
Earlier this year the yews were lifted one by one. With their root balls wrapped in burlap they were placed in good black earth at the cemetery's edge. That's where they're growing now.
Their absence made it possible to restore the entire site. The Adams graves will not be touched; neither will the statue or the bench. But much work will be done, and the clay that was killing the yews will be dug away.
A slightly darker river-washed gravel will be placed above the graves. The stairs that lead one in will have to be rebuilt. The crumbling concrete coping stones, now leaning every which way, will be replaced by lengths of Quincy granite set on proper footings. Quincy, pronounced "Quinzy," is the homesite of the Adams family; the handsome rough-hewn boulder on which the Saint-Gaudens statue sits is of Quincy granite, too.
The topsoil will be preserved, and improved with loam if needed. New drainage pipes will be installed, encased in gravel envelopes. And then the yews will be returned.
"That ought to do it," arborist John Snitzer says, "at least for a while. She'll be enclosed by green again. The yews will do just fine. They ought to live 200 years."