Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life
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The hidden story of one of the most fascinating women of the Gilded Age
Clover Adams, a fiercely intelligent Boston Brahmin, married at twenty-eight the soon-to-be-eminent American historian Henry Adams. She thrived in her role as an intimate of power brokers in Gilded Age Washington, where she was admired for her wit and taste by such luminaries as Henry James, H. H. Richardson, and General William Tecumseh Sherman. Clover so clearly possessed, as one friend wrote, “all she wanted, all this world could give.”
Yet at the center of her story is a haunting mystery. Why did Clover, having begun in the spring of 1883 to capture her world vividly through photography, end her life less than three years later by drinking a chemical developer she used in the darkroom? The key to the mystery lies, as Natalie Dykstra’s searching account makes clear, in Clover’s photographs themselves.
The aftermath of Clover’s death is equally compelling. Dykstra probes Clover’s enduring reputation as a woman betrayed. And, most movingly, she untangles the complex, poignant — and universal — truths of her shining and impossible marriage.
convulsions and lockjaw. As Henry wrote to a friend, her last days had been “fearfully trying.” She was thirty-eight. When Henry returned to Quincy, his parents preferred not to ask him too much about Sister Lou’s last days—as Mrs. Adams said to Henry, those days were “too awful to dwell on.” Fourteen months later, in mid-November 1871, Henry’s father was called back into public life by President Grant, who appointed him as arbiter for a dispute between the United States and Great Britain. It
spring of 1876, Clover had been so sick she couldn’t sleep or swallow and had difficulty breathing, frightening Henry out of his “wits for a week,” as Henry confessed to Gaskell. He feared diphtheria. But this bout of illness was an exception. Clover typically didn’t languish in bed for long. What Clover enjoyed most was listening to a good story and seeing, for herself, the fascinating human scene. She often had a front-row seat. Early on in their life in Washington, she and Henry had driven by
work on his research into Jefferson and Madison in the archives, but these institutions were closed until October 1, so Clover and Henry had some leisurely days together—“We have quiet mornings to study, noon breakfasts, and Bohemian dinners.” She already knew French from her lessons at the Agassiz School and had started learning Spanish in preparation for travels in Spain. Henry James came by every day at six-thirty, after which they dined out and attended the theater several times a week. On
are introduced by the geologist, George Strong. They begin as friends, talking of art and science, politics and faith. When her father dies of heart failure midway through the narrative, Esther feels “languid, weary, listless. She could not sleep . . . She could not get back to her usual interests.” Her friends and family fear a breakdown. In mourning, she sees only one person besides the members of her family: Stephen, who takes charge and, shortly thereafter, proposes marriage. Esther accepts,
niece in-wish who took care of Henry in the last years of his life, remembered that no one ever heard Henry calling Lizzie by any name other than “Mrs. Cameron.” Henry never again so openly expressed his romantic longing for Lizzie as he did in the long letter written after their failed rendezvous in 1891. In his later letters to her, readers can sense a lump in his throat, a holding back, a self-denial demanded by decorum, which he both despised and obeyed. He had worried aloud that such