An Amazing Glimpse of the Gilded Age

John Hay
John Hay

I started The Letters of Mrs. Henry Adams as a kind of project to try to find out why Mrs. Adams, nee Marian Hooper, tragically took her own life. Perhaps we’ll never know.

While her death may remain a mystery, her life, as we see it in her letters to her father, is a fascinating glimpse of life in the Gilded Age. One reason I’ve found the letters so captivating is her lively wit and insight — and she meets all the interesting characters or her era: Lily Langtry, pal of Oscar Wilde and the Prince of Wales, Isabella Stewart Gardner [benefactress of the Gardner Museum in Boston], who once paid Paderewski $60,000 to play for a tea party with one other  guest: her friend Fanny Peabody.

Marian and Henry Adams were great pals with Mr. and Mrs. John Hay, Lincoln’s personal secretary and later Secretary of State under McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, and Clarence King, first director of the US Geological survey, who exposed the Great Diamond Hoax of 1872.

The story of the Diamond Hoax is a good one. What I like about it is that General, later Massachusetts Senator Ben “Spoons” Butler, whose face still appears on chamber pots in New Orleans because of his orders to  occupying Union troops there, seems to magically appear whenever anyone needs land grants or special legislation. It was in my study of the life of Ben Butler that I first learned the word ‘egregious.’

The Adams had a popular salon in Washington and they entertained so many notable figures of the age.

Clarence King
Clarence King

Then there’s Democracy, the anonymous novel which rocked Washington around this time, with its behind the scenes depictions of power and greed. Henry Adams wrote it, but it was commonly attributed to John Hay and Marian Adams, and lots of other people. They joked about it all the time.

And everybody had to guess whom the characters represented, except for James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the State of Maine, with whom the Adams had a longstanding beef. You can’t miss him. He’s the venal corrupt senator.

After Adams’ death, the publisher finally named him as the author.

Did I mention that Henry James and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. were family friends? Far from being just a bunch of personal reminiscences, this book is an excellent historical resource, and I’m grateful that the nieces of Marian Adams decided to make these letters available to the public to show what a delightful person she was.