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The Little White House
In the early months of 1881, in a boxy three-story mansion on Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., a small group of friends fell into the rhythm of meeting nearly every day at teatime for witty, often scathing conversation about the city that churned along around them. The Greek Revival structure where they met, white with a modest portico supported by Ionic columns, was known in the neighborhood as the little White House, and it faced that other more imposing White House just across the square. The smaller residence was rented by Henry Adams, whose grandfather and great-grandfather had inhabited the larger one, and by Henry's wife, Clover. The couple had just returned to Washington after eighteen months in Europe while Henry researched a history of the United States in the years when Jefferson and Madison were president. During the two winters of an earlier residence in the city, when Henry was working on a biography and a novel at a yellow house draped in wisteria a block east on H Street, Clover and Henry had stood back from Washington society, which then as now was all about job seeking and job keeping. They favored a smaller circle of friends selected for their ability to engage and amuse them. This exclusivity had caused their social stock, already fairly high given Henry's lineage, to rise; an invitation to either of the H Street houses was valued in proportion to the difficulty of achieving it. Even senators were sometimes snubbed, although Henry James probably goes too far when in his story "Pandora" he has a character based on Henry Adams say, "Hang it . . . let us be vulgar and have some fun -- let us invite the President." Adams himself said, "Socially speaking, we are very near most of the powerful people, either as enemies or friends."
The inner circle within this wider group of friends consisted of one other couple, John and Clara Hay, and one bachelor, Clarence King. When they could, the five of them met each day at five o'clock during the winter of 1881, and would often share dinner and then talk well into the evening. John Hay was ending a brief term as assistant secretary of state, and Clara, the daughter of a rich businessman from Cleveland, was living in town with him that winter. Hay had first come to Washington two decades earlier as a young man, employed as personal secretary to the new president, Abraham Lincoln, and had resided in the White House until the assassination. In the intervening years he had worked in the diplomatic corps in Europe, written editorials for the New York Tribune, published several books, including a popular collection of poems, and begun a massive biography of Lincoln that would occupy him for a decade. After his marriage to Clara in 1874 he moved with her to Cleveland to help her father tend to his millions. When Hay went to Washington for the State Department job in 1879, he left Clara and their young children behind, and took a room at Wormley's, a comfortable hotel on 15th and H streets.
There Hay fell in with another resident who was an acquaintance from New York, a brilliant scientist, explorer, and writer who at the age of thirty-seven had already done enough living to fill several lifetimes. This was Clarence King. He was in Washington serving as the first director of the United States Geological Survey, which had been established by Congress in 1879 after intense lobbying by King and his friend John Wesley Powell. Hay and King were soon together all the time, meeting for breakfast and attending social functions in the evenings. Before long the two of them and a third man, General Francis A. Walker, the superintendent of the tenth national census then under way, rented a house at 1400 Massachusetts Avenue, which Hay referred to as the "bachelor castle." They kept a private dining room at Wormley's, where the food was much better than at home and where, according to one man who sometimes joined them for lunch, "I doubt whether there ever was table-talk more brilliant than that to which we listened in that room."
King basked in the admiration of the other four members of the group that gathered at the Adamses' house that winter, who were drawn not only to his table talk but to his charm, wit, and intelligence. "No one is as good company," Clover wrote to her father. Henry, who had known King for a decade, had also taken a serious interest in his scientific pursuits, and through King was drawn into what Adams's biographer Ernest Samuels calls the "scientific renaissance" taking place in Washington at the time. Even Clara, the one member of the group who was not dazzlingly verbal, must have admired King, given his admiration for her. He was not often drawn to women of his own class, but he found the handsome Clara "calm and grand," a person who represented "the best of the 19th century." So close did the five of them become that winter that they began to call themselves the Five of Hearts, a little joke but also an acknowledgment of their mutual affection and of the exclusivity of their club. The name evoked some jealousy and even a nasty rumor or two among the other residents of Lafayette Square. But within the group the name was a bit of harmless whimsy, soon reinforced by notepaper with the five of hearts engraved on it. King took the joke to its extreme when in 1885 he gave Henry and Clover a china tea set, complete with heart-shape cups, teapot, and a double-heart sugar bowl. Each piece carried the face of a clock whose hands showed five, teatime, the hour when the gossip would begin.
Both King and Hay served as emissaries to the other three from the world that their salon held at bay, the daily give-and-take of Washington politics. King, especially, as the head of a government bureau, had to keep up his contacts with members of Congress, whose yearly appropriations, and the meddling in his affairs that went with them, were necessary to his success. Because Wormley's, owned and run by the black son of a former slave, was considered to be the best hotel in Washington, congressmen and cabinet officers often lived there; it was a place where backroom deals were made, including the compromise in 1877 that made Rutherford B. Hayes the winner of that contested presidential election. All of the five friends knew important cabinet officers, foreign diplomats, and the more interesting sort of congressman, and for all their aloofness they were familiar with the inside of the other White House. As Ernest Samuels puts it, "President Hayes was the first of a long line of Presidents with whom Adams was to endure an intimacy of sorts." King would go regularly to Mrs. Hayes's Saturday receptions at the White House, where the Marine Band played, and at the insistence of the First Lady, known as "Lemonade Lucy," no alcohol, not even wine, was offered. But the guests would include a slew of legislators King needed to see, or such potentates as Treasury Secretary John Sherman or Interior Secretary Carl Schurz, who had helped King get his job and was now his boss as well as his friend. It would all make entertaining chatter for the others at 1607 H Street, the little White House across the square.
For much of the summer and fall of 1880, King had been out west, mixing public and private business while trying to recover from a wicked combination of illnesses of the body and the spirit -- fatigue and depression on top of a recurring malaria mixed with dysentery that caused him to drop thirty pounds, at least temporarily. When he returned to Washington in early 1881, he had given up the bachelor's castle, and there were no rooms available at Wormley's. Rather than share a room at the hotel, he moved in with the Adamses at 1607, where there were six bedrooms and two baths on the second floor, and where six servants looked after the three of them.
Downstairs, the house was a model of Victorian elegance. Carpenters had built bookshelves for Henry's library, and plumbers, painters, paperhangers, and other workmen had spent two months in the fall preparing the house for the Adamses' fifteen wagonloads of furniture, objets d'art, paintings, and Oriental rugs. (The preparations included one highly unsettling event. One of the painters, a German whom Adams scolded for not doing a better job, "lost his temper with Henry," Clover wrote, "saying he 'couldn't please him.'" Both of the Adamses tried to calm him down and thought they'd succeeded. But later that day he went home and cut his wife's throat with a putty knife.) But the rest of the workmen proved sane enough to finish the job, and the walls were hung with drawings by Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Raphael, and others. In the library, beneath the thirteen-foot ceilings, were an oil painting by Constable, a Turner watercolor of the Rhône River Valley, two Joshua Reynolds portraits, and forty-four other watercolors. Two Turners were among the oils in the dining room, and thirty-two prints graced Henry's study. There were Japanese vases on display, as well as Oriental bronzes and porcelains, and rugs from Shiraz, Kashmir, Kurdistan, Bokhara, and elsewhere. Potted palms added another touch of Victorian exoticism.
King held court in the drawing room, where dark red leather armchairs, small enough to be comfortable for the diminutive Henry and Clover, were arrayed. At five feet six, King was the tallest of the five. He was a handsome man who had been a beautiful boy, and in spite of his recent illnesses his hazel eyes held the liveliness and confidence of one who had always been adored by those around him. His short-cropped blond hair was receding and he had a beard trimmed low off his sun-darkened cheeks. Although he retained much of the physical strength that had made him a famous mountaineer in his youth, he had lost his athletic build. Now he was gaunt from his recent illnesses, but generally he carried extra weight that even good tailoring could not hide, a girth which in that age gave King the look of a prosperity he could not always claim. Too many nights of sleeping on the ground out west had begun to make his joints creaky with arthritis. When he spoke, his voice was soft, but his talk could make a room go silent around him.
Like any other form of performance in those days, conversation was an art that died at birth, and unlike a concert or a play it left no score or script to hint at what the experience of hearing it must have been like. The few snatches of his talk that friends wrote down consisted mainly of puns, for which King had a propensity. None of these witticisms travels the years very successfully, but then not many puns succeed on the page as well as they can in conversation. One of the better surviving examples of King's spontaneous wit comes from the summer of 1883, when he was in England visiting one of his literary heroes, the art critic John Ruskin, who happened to be selling off his famous collection of Turner paintings. Because King had charmed Ruskin so thoroughly, the older man took "King to his heart and poured lyric toffy all over him," according to John Hay. Ruskin offered King the chance to buy either of the two best Turners remaining in his collection. King bought them both, saying, "One good Turner deserves another."
Perhaps the closest thing to hearing the rhythm and tenor of King's speech comes in Henry Adams's novel Esther, in which the character George Strong is closely patterned on King. In it, Esther has decided to marry a clergyman, although she suffers from the religious doubt of that post-Darwinian time. Strong is a scientist, a professor of paleontology who, like King, has spent years in the field as a "practical geologist." He represents the new religion of science. Esther begins a crucial exchange between them:
"Will you answer me a question? Say yes or no!"
"That depends on the question, Mistress Esther! Old birds are not to be caught in old traps. State your question, as we say in the lecture-room."
"Is religion true?"
"I thought so! Cousin Esther, I love you as much as I love any one in this cold world, but I can't answer your question. I can tell you all about the mound-builders or cave-men, so far as is known, but I could not tell you the difference between the bones of a saint and those of a heathen. Ask me something easier! Ask me whether science is true!"
"Is science true?"
"Then why do you believe in it?"
"I don't believe in it."
"Then why do you belong to it?"
"Because I want to help in making it truer. Now, Esther, just take this matter coolly! You are bothered, I suppose, by the idea that you can't possibly believe in miracles and mysteries, and therefore can't make a good wife for Hazard. You might just as well make yourself unhappy by doubting whether you would make a good wife to me because you can't believe the first axiom in Euclid. There is no science that does not begin by requiring you to believe the incredible."
"Are you telling me the truth?"
"I tell you the solemn truth that the doctrine of the Trinity is not so difficult to accept for a working proposition as any of the axioms of physics."
Esther is a novel of ideas, and those ideas, like its dialogue, belong of course to its author. But it is also a roman à clef, and many of the characters in it are closely drawn from people Adams knew, including Esther herself, who in her religious doubt resembles his wife, Clover. When Adams describes Strong as "an intelligent man, with a figure made for action, an eye that hated rest, and a manner naturally sympathetic," we can take it as a description of King. If a novel of ideas is to succeed, as Esther does, its characters can't just be cartoons of the ideas themselves. In this sense, King was a good model for Strong, a man whose science fills him with doubts rather than with certainties. King himself was fervently religious as a boy and young man, but after his education at the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale and his entry into the country's intellectual elite in the years after Darwin's On the Origin of Species had seeded religious doubt in the minds of thinking people, King's religious beliefs became less dogmatic. In the novel, Esther asks Strong if he believes in God. "Not in a personal one" was Strong's reply. "Or in future rewards or punishments?" Esther continues. "Old women's nursery tales!" he says. King himself continued to make references to God throughout his life, as in an important speech he gave at the Sheffield School in 1877, when he speaks of "He who brought to bear that mysterious energy we call life upon primeval matter." As King's principal biographer, Thurman Wilkins, puts it, "King's final theology, whatever it was . . . enabled him to face death calmly and without fear."
Given his promise, his courage, his intelligence, his energy, and his optimism, King was for many of the people who knew him an exemplar of the best aspects of America after the Civil War. John Hay would call him "the best and brightest man of his generation," and Adams said of King that "men worshipped not so much their friend, as the ideal American they all wanted to be." King crossed the continent for the first time at the age of twenty-one, in 1863, and after the war the nation itself followed him, pouring into the West, especially after the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. When he arrived in California, King went to work for a major geological survey of the state then under way. In his several years with the survey he was, as far as history knew, the first man to climb some of the highest peaks in the Sierra Nevada, and he named several of them. On these climbs, King and a companion would scale sheer cliffs of rock or ice, leap across precipices, lower one another down level by level with ropes, sleep through freezing nights without so much as a blanket -- holed up under outcroppings or in small caves or clinging to bare rock that held a bit of the sun's heat. They would often go for several days, expending tremendous amounts of energy to climb, with only a few biscuits in their pockets for nourishment. King also crossed deserts, survived a killer snowstorm, swam a raging, rain-swollen river, and viewed stupendous sites of natural beauty, from Yosemite, which he was the first person to survey, to the Shoshone Falls of the Snake River, to the Pacific as seen from mountaintops a hundred miles inland. He was a close and at times bemused observer of the people who were establishing California in the decades after the Gold Rush, and of the rough, often deadly communities in which they lived.
Much of this King wrote about in the early 1870s in articles for the Atlantic Monthly, which were collected in 1872 in a book called Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada. The book tells one of the last adventure stories of America's own youth, the final chapter of its exploration; it was popular in its time on both sides of the Atlantic and is still considered to be a classic work of nature writing. But during the decade of 1863 to 1873, King did more than wander the Sierra Nevada and write well about it. Soon after reaching the West, King conceived the idea of leading an important scientific expedition of his own. By 1867, when he was only twenty-five, he had convinced Congress to fund what would grow into one of the great scientific projects of the nineteenth century, the Fortieth Parallel Survey, and to put him in charge. King assembled a team of leading scientists to study the geography, geology, paleontology, biology, and meteorology of the Great Basin, focusing on a hundred-mile-wide swath along the path of the transcontinental railroad from the eastern half of Wyoming across the Rockies to the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, more than eighty thousand square miles in all. The survey took five years to complete, and the seven volumes reporting on its findings appeared throughout the 1870s, culminating in King's own important scientific work, Systematic Geology, which used his observations for the survey to explain the whole subject of geology as understood at the time. This work helped establish a new paradigm of the western adventurer in the second half of the nineteenth century -- the scientist-explorer, who seeks knowledge rather than territory or riches. In 1872, King became a national hero for exposing a scam involving the faked discovery of a diamond field in northwest Colorado, within the parameters of the Fortieth Parallel Survey. The exact location was secret, but King found it and proved that the land there had been salted with diamonds -- that uncut stones had been buried with the intention to deceive. If not for King, thousands of people could have lost millions of dollars by buying stock in the venture, and his expose; made his name familiar to newspaper readers across the country and in London.
King was cast again as a representative figure -- the objective man of science standing up against the forces of greed. But his story would turn out to be much more complicated than that. In the years after the diamond swindle expose;, King would, as Adams puts it in his famous autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, begin "to seek his private fortune in the west." King started in ranching and ended in banking, but for most of the second half of his life he was as avid as those drawn in by the diamond hoax for riches dug from the earth. Even while serving as the director of the U.S. Geological Survey he made trips to Mexico in search of gold and silver mines that could be bought and exploited with new mining methods. As Adams puts it late in The Education, King "had played for many millions . . . but the result was still in doubt, and meanwhile he was passing the best years of his life underground." King was not literally down in the mines much, of course. But he was often on the back of a burro looking for the next mine -- the one that would make him rich. Or he was in Boston, New York, or London raising more investment money from his increasingly skeptical friends.
One way of looking at the whole course of King's life is to see it as divided between the two things that replaced religious certainty in America after Darwin, those two new secular religions of the second half of the nineteenth century: science and greed. Before the diamond hoax, King devoted his life to science; after it, he increasingly devoted himself to wealth. But the two halves were not neatly divided, because King tried to exploit his scientific achievements and reputation to make a fortune. In the country at large, science and greed were also joining forces, not only in extracting the mineral wealth of the West, but in crisscrossing the continent with railroads and telegraph lines and building cities overnight where dusty settlements had stood. The forces of science and greed struggled within King, who had an aristocratic disdain for commerce even as he pursued it. If he didn't lose his soul as a result, then he certainly put it at risk.
In his biography of John Wesley Powell, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, Wallace Stegner refers contemptuously to King's willingness "to go whoring after Mexican gold mines." When King quit the U.S. Geological Survey in March of 1881, he told President Garfield that he was leaving to resume his scientific career. Stegner writes, "His scientific work after 1880 is negligible, even trivial, and his days and nights after the survey were obviously not spent over scientific books. He quit the Geological Survey because he frankly wanted to be rich." But Stegner overstates the case, wishing to make his man Powell look better at King's expense. Stegner's view comes out of his own time and place, that of a twentieth-century western environmentalist who quite rightly deplored what the combination of science and greed had done to too many of the magnificent landscapes of the West -- as well as to the people who had first inhabited them. But King lived in what Mark Twain helped name the Gilded Age, and most of King's contemporaries felt as Adams did, that there was nothing wrong in King's aspiring to enrich himself, and even something admirable about it. In The Education, Adams writes (in the third-person voice of that great book), "Hay and Adams had risked nothing and never played for high stakes. King had followed the ambitious course."
What King achieved as an explorer-scientist and a writer in the first half of his life ought to have made his name as well known today as that of John Wesley Powell or Bret Harte. But his achievements have mostly been forgotten, and to the extent that he is remembered at all it is as the friend of Henry Adams, and for the extravagant way that Adams and Hay praise him in The Education. Is it because he turned from science to the pursuit of wealth that King has been forgotten, or because he did not succeed in becoming rich? Another way of breaking down the two halves of King's life is to say that he succeeded in the first half and failed in the second. After leaving his job in Washington, King lived another twenty years. He traveled the world and knew almost everyone worth knowing in Europe and the United States. He had as much raw energy for business as he had had for science, but as the months grew into years and the mines either failed or produced only modest profits, it became obvious that King had all the credentials to make a fortune but lacked something else. Some people called that something luck, but the problem almost certainly arose from within King himself. As he lived more and more for fine food and wine, for collecting works of art and famous friends (among them the Prince of Wales, who would become Edward VII, and Henry James), he talked about producing new scientific or literary works. But all he did was talk.
The distractions that kept him from serious intellectual undertakings must have contributed to his inability to succeed in mining and later in banking. Friends like Adams and Hay said King lacked the ruthlessness for business, and blamed the age, but others, including those friends whose investments King had solicited and helped lose, felt that the problem was inattentiveness. Years later, the critic Van Wyck Brooks would blame King's failures on a lack of mental toughness to match the physical toughness he had demonstrated in the West in his youth: "For sensitive intellectuals, like Clarence King . . . the reckless life which the West implied, its hardships and fever of speculation, meant ruined health and broken souls and madness."
One other aspect of King's later years might have contributed to his undeserved obscurity today. Throughout his life King was drawn to women of other classes and races than his own, and along with Adams believed that dark-skinned women represented a primitive female ideal. Sometime around the beginning of 1888, King fell in love with an African-American nursemaid he met at a friend's house in lower Manhattan. Her name was Ada Copeland. Now in his midforties, King had never been married before, and had been engaged only once. But in a matter of months he married Ada in a ceremony that included all of the matrimonial traditions except a license. He kept the marriage secret from his family and friends, even as he and Ada produced five children together, and he supported her in a house in Brooklyn where he only occasionally lived. But he was so worried that the relationship and then the marriage would be discovered, by his mother and by society at large, that he even hid his identity from Ada, telling her that his name was James Todd. At the ceremony she became Ada Todd. She learned his real identity only as he was dying, in 1901, after they'd been married for thirteen years. King's letters to Ada suggest that he loved her and their children unreservedly, but the pressure of keeping his secret even from Adams and Hay seems to have affected his physical and mental health. After his death, when the truth came out, the common-law marriage scandalized the world in which King had lived publicly. The Century Club in New York, where he had been a member, refused to hang his portrait despite the urgings of Adams and Hay, and his family and friends destroyed letters that alluded to the relationship. Did King's glittering reputation begin to tarnish with this revelation? Did racism contribute to his tumble from the highest peaks of renown?
Another way to look at the parts of Clarence King's life is to say that he spent the first half of it achieving things and the second half talking about those achievements. The doing/talking divide might be as deflating as the science/greed or success/failure ones except for this: King was a brilliant talker, a man who was able to turn the facts of his life into wonderful stories. Like memoirists in any age, King felt free while shaping the tales of his own past to ignore the limitations of fact. In the clubs of Manhattan or London and in such drawing rooms as the one at 1607 H Street, King tirelessly held forth on his youthful exploits in the West, both real and imagined. There was the time he shot a buffalo with a handgun and was almost stomped to death in the stampede that followed; the time he followed a bear into a cave, a rope around his feet so that a soldier could drag him out if the bear attacked; the time he was pursued by bandits on horseback for two days and nights -- a tale that appears in Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada. Several of the sketches in Mountaineering fall into the category of tall tales, such as Bret Harte or Mark Twain were writing at just about the same time. King, like many a hero and would-be hero before him, was an active participant in the making of his own myth, and like all myths his begins in fact and ends in fiction. The myth made others wish to emulate him, including a young Theodore Roosevelt, who retold the buffalo stampede tale in his book The Wilderness Hunter. But if the fictions delight us, the facts make King someone worth remembering.
It's worth remembering, too, that, beyond his family, the friends who loved King best had the most cause to be disappointed by him. But when he died alone and in debt in a small brick house in Phoenix in 1901, those friends came out for his funeral in Manhattan and later contributed to an evening of fond and glowing memoirs of him. These tributes were collected in a book, and alongside The Education of Henry Adams, also written after King's death, they give evidence that his friends forgave him the sins of his later years by remembering the accomplishments that came before them. More than a century later, that still seems to be a good way to think about him.
Imagine the well-tailored Clarence King, then, standing in the high-ceilinged Washington drawing room, with its Oriental rug and potted palms, his friends Henry and Clover, John and Clara seated in their leather armchairs, expectant looks on their faces. They called him "our Byron," this sunburned man of action, with his tales of distant and dangerous places. Henry James called him a charmer, "the most delightful man in the world." William Dean Howells lamented that, in drawing rooms such as this one, King had talked away novels that he might have written. The voice is soft, cultured, and oozing with charm, as he regales his friends with the stories of his youth.
Copyright ©2006 by Robert Wilson