Clover Adams

Many years ago I was visiting the Augustus St. Gaudens Historic Site in Cornish, New Hampshire, when I turned a corner and saw a sculpture of a shrouded figure, which I immediately recognized as Mrs. Henry Adams. I didn’t know that Henry Adams had commissioned St. Gaudens to sculpt a memorial to her; I just knew they were friends. And I don’t think it’s actually a likeness of her, just a depiction of grief. Still, I knew. “That must be Clover.”

Marion “Clover” Hooper Adams has been, along with Ernie Pyle and Dwight D. Eisenhower and Grace Metalious, a recurrent theme in this blog whom you can read about here and here and here and here. Most recently I blogged about a book by Patricia O’Toole called The Five of Hearts about Henry and Clover and John and Clara Hay and Clarence King who were all pals in Washington in the 1880s.

I knew that Mrs. Adams had taken her own life, and that Henry Adams had left her out of his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams. She had been, like so many remarkable women, written out of history.

Then I found a volume of her letters, most of which were written to her father, and found a wonderful, witty, life-loving woman. Clearly this was what her nieces wanted when they had the volume published. Maybe what drew me to her was the affection for her father that is so evident in these letters — like the love we cannot mistake in the correspondence of Aaron Burr with his daughter Theodosia.

I guess I’m particularly partial to clever women who love their dads.

As I was reading Clover’s letters, I kept thinking that this was a story that needs to be told, although several of the characters, especially her husband, didn’t want to tell it. John Hay, when he was asked if he was going to write his autobiography, said his life was more an “oughtnottobiography.”

Then I was walking through Barnes and Noble and saw a book entitled Clover Adams by Natalie Dykstra and I snatched it up like a hungry trout. Here it is, the whole story, so sad, so tragic, yet so inspiring. Here is the woman whom Henry James called his “Voltaire in petticoats.”

Here are her mother, the beautiful poetess, who died of consumption when Clover was five, and her dear Aunt Sue, who took her own life when Clover was nine, and her dear Aunt Caroline Sturgis Tappan, who had an “erotic friendship” with Ralph Waldo Emerson, whatever that means. She had a summer place in the Berkshires called Tanglewood, now the summer home of the Boston Symphony.

Here are her cousin Robert Gould Shaw, commander of an African-American regiment made famous in the movie Glory, and her friend Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose art collection became the Gardner Museum in Boston, and of course, her kindly father, Robert Hooper, best friends with Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., “The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table.”

Clover and Henry host the most fashionable salon in Washington and meet all the notables of the time. William Tecumseh Sherman reenacts his march through Georgia on their dinner table using the silverware to denote the enemy divisions, and then sweeps them away to the delight of the assembled company.

This is where Henry found material for his famous novel Democracy, published anonymously, exposing the corruption in American politics, which was a favorite book of the Prince of Wales. The scholarship is suberb. All I can say is, “Read it.”