That Lincoln was gay or bisexual has never been substantiated, and the evidence is weak. As a young lawyer in Springfield, Ill., Lincoln shared a bed for several years with Speed, who rented space above his dry-goods store to cash-strapped boarders. It was common practice for men to share beds or rooms with complete strangers. There was nothing sexual about it, but rumors about Lincoln and Speed have always been out there.
The novel begins in 1839 and takes place mostly before Lincoln was president. It’s told from Mary and Speed’s perspectives, and both paint Lincoln as an uneducated, socially inept but kind man of few words. Speed, on the other hand, is a “dandyish” man who toys with women’s affections, behavior unappreciated at a time when women had few options beyond marriage. One such woman is Mary, panicked about “entering the vale of spinsterhood,” even though she’s only 20 when she travels from Kentucky to her sister’s home in Springfield with the “grim and single-minded resolve” of landing a husband.
In “Courting Mr. Lincoln,” Mary has a bright and inquiring intellect and a love for politics. She’s not the melancholy and difficult woman described in other accounts. Here, she’s sharp-tongued and witty, and she cringes when other women feign a lack of intelligence in front of men. It’s not love at first sight, but Lincoln woos her with detailed election results that feed her love of all things political.
The details of their courtship are lovely to read, but Lincoln’s time with Speed is much more riveting. In one scene, Lincoln and Speed are taking an evening walk when Lincoln throws his arm around his friend and says: “I do not lie, Speed. Meeting you was the greatest fortune that ever befell me.” Later that night while they are lying in bed, Speed asks, “Did you mean what you said?” Lincoln turns toward him and says, “Did I mean what, Speed?” It’s these ambiguous, open-ended scenes that make this book so arresting, yet it never teeters toward debunking or proving anything.
In other chapters, the men toast bachelorhood and brotherhood, but later in a conversation about marriage, Lincoln resignedly says: “This is what men do. Men who have reached a certain age.” When Bayard has Speed pouting over Lincoln’s relationship with Mary, Lincoln asks, “Is it this girl you object to? Or is it any girl?”
Lincoln is the novel’s anchor, but Speed is its most intriguing character. In a scene in which now-President Lincoln and Speed meet 20 years after the bulk of this novel takes place, the men make polite conversation until Lincoln plops himself down on Speed’s hotel bed and promptly falls asleep. Speed lays next to him and does the same. When they awake, Speed looks into Lincoln’s face and notices “the same downturn of lip and residues of salt, like tracks across a desert. Why, he thought, it was like watching a heart break twice over.”
Bayard offers readers no absolutes. At book’s end, who’s courting Lincoln remains an enticing mystery.
Carol Memmott is a freelance book critic in Northern Virginia.
Courting Mr. Lincoln
By Louis Bayard
Algonquin. 352 pp. $27.95