Clarence King was a well-known geologist in the late 19th-century, who became famous for his work surveying and studying the mountains of California. He was a man about town, a bon vivant who lived in gentlemen's clubs and hotels, and who was friends with men like Henry Adams and John Hay. He socialized in Washington, New York, and Newport's best circles, and traveled to Europe, where he collected art. He also had another identity--in Brooklyn, then Queens, he was known as James Todd. He had a wife, Ada Copeland Todd, who had been born a slave in Georgia, right before the Civil War. They had five children together (one died in infancy). Ada didn't find out about Todd's true identity until right before he died in the early 1900s, and the real story of his double life didn't come out until decades later, when Ada went to court to try to track down a trust fund Clarence had told her about.
As with so many things in King's life, the trust fund didn't really exist. King, hailed for his intellect, charm, and talent, had no skill at making money and could barely support himself and his mother and siblings, let alone a secret wife and five children. He borrowed money constantly from the wealthy Hay, who turned out to be apparently one of the few people trusted with the secret of James Todd. Hay was the secret benefactor who paid for the Todd home in Queens, along with a monthly stipend that was paid to Todd for decades after King died.
The name of Ada's benefactor was hardly the major secret in King's story. For people today, the biggest mystery may be how someone like King, whose identity as a white man was never questioned in any other part of his life, could be accepted as a black man by people who lived only a few miles from where he lived his other life as a member of the Gilded Age's highest social strata.
This isn't as hard as it sounds, Martha Sandweiss explains in Passing Strange, her book about Clarence King and his dual life. This was, after all, the period where "one drop of blood" from an African-American relative was enough for a person to be considered black. A blonde-haired, blue-eyed, light-skinned man was regarded as black if just one of his grandparents was African-American.
Whether a person could “pass” or not was largely controlled by things like education, class, speaking patterns, and most of all, expectations. In other words, people saw what you told them to see. Clarence King looked white, but when he met Ada Copeland, a young woman working as a nursemaid in the home of a white family, he told her that he was a Pullman porter. This was a job that was exclusively held by African-American man. When he said that, Sandweiss says, he was signaling to Ada that he was black, like her. What Ada, a naïve young girl who hadn’t traveled much, likely didn’t know was that Pullman porters were dark-skinned, so even if King really had been African-American, he wouldn’t have been hired by Pullman. Sandweiss notes that King apparently later changed his job to something like an itinerant metal worker (apologies, I returned the book a few days ago and now forget the exact job), probably to avoid the suspicions of savvier neighbors. So essentially King managed to pull off the masquerade of a life as James Todd, African-American, by simply doing things that an African-American man would do: working as a Pullman Porter and marrying a black woman. The Pullman job (and later traveling worker job) provided cover for his long absences from Ada and his children. In his other life, King had been known to disappear for long periods of time anyway, so his secret sojourns to spend time with his hidden family didn’t raise any eyebrows amongst the friends who knew him as Clarence King.
Sandweiss had to do a lot of detective work to write this book. Since Ada was born a slave, there is almost no historical record of her life. Few of the letters between her and King survive (including, unfortunately, the one where King revealed that he was not really named James Todd; whether he told more than that is a mystery). Much of what she writes about Copeland, then, is just guesswork based on what the life of an average, African-American woman at that time would have been like. King, of course, never wrote anything about his life with Ada, but there is quite a bit of other information about him--he was, after all, quite a well-known figure in his day.
This makes the book mostly about King, who doesn't come off well. Or maybe I just feel that way because of who I am. King was considered a lifelong bachelor by most of his friends, of course; some attributed this to the heavy financial burden he carried in taking care of the rest of his family. Those who knew him better might have simply concluded that he didn't like women. Not that he was gay, but just that he disliked the type of women who would have been available to him socially. He wrote over and over again about how unattractive he found white women, how he hated their voices, their figures, their faces. He couldn't stand the conversations of upper-class women who chattered on about things like fashion, gossip, and the latest novels; he had even less use for educated, intellectual women, who seemed cold and dry to him.
Those who knew King best would have been able to see that he was making these judgements about white women by comparing them to women who didn't move in his circle. His writing about African-American woman, Native American, and island women he met showed that he regarded them as "real women." His shorthand for women from other cultures was "archaic women," or "uncivilized," uneducated women. He thought that women from this type of background were automatically warm, passionate, and caring, and didn't talk about the things that all the white women he knew went on about. In other words, he was part of the fine, long tradition of men whose idea of marriage is a woman who will have wild, passionate sex with him at any time, then spend the rest of their lives taking care of him, and never doing anything for themselves, thinking for themselves, or demanding anything for themselves. The answer to this always seems to be some kind of non-western woman--a native of a foreign land, back in the day, or nowadays, someone who simply doesn't speak English and is just grateful to be here (the mail order/Internet bride). These are the kind of men who should really just put a prostitute on retainer and hire a good housekeeper instead of getting married. It's hard to figure out which group King was insulting more--women who are told that being educated and thinking makes them not "real women," or women from native cultures, who he seemed to see as nothing more than vessels for his fantasies.
So yeah, I didn't have a great deal of admiration for King. I do have a lot for Sandweiss, who really had to dig to find whatever facts she could in order to write this book, and sketch even a faint picture of the lives King and Copeland led. In the end, though, it's somewhat unsatisfying. As a reader, I found myself becoming frustrated with the maybes, most likelys, probablys, and so on that by necessity qualify so many parts of this book. I admire Sandweiss for taking on this task, but wish she could have had a few more facts available to her. I'll give King this--if I had met him at a party, I might have wanted to slap him in the face, but damn, the man could keep a secret.