Synopses & Reviews
The secret double life of the man who mapped the American West, and the woman he loved
Clarence King is a hero of nineteenth century western history; a brilliant scientist and witty conversationalist, best-selling author and architect of the great surveys that mapped the West after the Civil War. Secretary of State John Hay named King the best and brightest of his generation. But King hid a secret from his Gilded Age cohorts and prominent family in Newport: for thirteen years he lived a double lifeas the celebrated white explorer, geologist and writer Clarence King and as a black Pullman porter and steel worker named James Todd. The fair blue-eyed son of a wealthy China trader passed across the color line, revealing his secret to his black common- law wife, Ada Copeland, only on his deathbed.
King lied because he wanted to and he lied because he had to. To marry his wife in a public way as the white man known as Clarence King would have created a scandal and destroyed his career. At a moment when many mixed-race Americans concealed their African heritage to seize the privileges of white America, King falsely presented himself as a black man in order to marry the woman he loved.
Noted historian of the American West Martha Sandweiss is the first writer to uncover the life that King tried so hard to conceal from the public eye. She reveals the complexity of a man who while publicly espousing a personal dream of a uniquely American race, an amalgam of white and black, hid his love for his wife, Ada, and their five biracial children. Passing Strange tells the dramatic tale of a family built along the fault lines of celebrity, class, and racefrom the Todds wedding in 1888, to the 1964 death of Ada King, one of the last surviving Americans born into slavery.
One of the best-known men of his time crosses the racial dividein reverse.
Well-born traveler, scientist, explorer and writer Clarence King enjoyed great privilege. In the words of Western historian Sandweiss (American Studies/Amherst Coll.; Print the Legen: Photography and the American West, 2002, etc.), he went through life tempted by risk and attracted to the exotic but fearful of losing the social prerogatives that defined his place in the world. When King returned from his globetrotting expeditions and settled down in New York to enjoy his fame as the bestselling author of Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, he embarked on a romance with an African-American woman named Ada Copeland. A young nursemaid who moved north from Georgia in the mid-1880s, she apparently met King sometime in 1887 or early 1888 while he was out slumming. That word, the author explains, denoted a class-crossing fashionable amusement, according to the Saturday Evening Post. King was serious about his courtship of Copeland, but it was fraught with peril for all concerned, presenting threatening possibilities for blackmail on the one hand and abandonment on the other. He decided to present himself to her as a Pullman porter named James Todd, an invented identity that hinged not just on one lie but a cluster of related, duplicitous assertions. As Sandweiss notes in this sturdy work, which blends elements of social and intellectual history with biography, thousands of light-skinned blacks in that era tried to pass for white, but the number of those who did the opposite must have been tiny. Yet King married Copeland and gave up his cherished social privileges. She had borne him five children, and he was on his deathbed in 1901, when he finally told her the truth.
An intriguing look at long-held secrets, Jim Crow, bad faithand also, as Sandweiss observes, love and longing that transcends the historical bounds of time and place.
Sandweiss (Print the Legend) serves a delicious brew of public accomplishment and domestic intrigue in this dual biography of the geologist-explorer Clarence King (1842-1901) and Ada Copeland (c. 1861-1964), a black, working-class woman who was born a slave. Rendered as fiction, this true tale, would seem quite implausible-a model son of Newport and one of the most admired scientists in America, Clarence kept secret for 13 years his marriage to Ada and their apparently contented domestic life. He kept his patrician past and celebrated present concealed as well from his wife, who believed herself the wife of James Todd, a black Pullman porter. Sandweiss provides a fascinating account of King's extraordinary double life as an eminent white scientist and a black workingman; Ada's struggle through the legal system to assert her rightful name, give her children their true familial history, and [unsuccessfully] claim the trust fund she believed to be hers; and rich insights into the distinctive American ideas about race that allowed King to pass the other way across the color line, claiming African ancestry when he had none at all. A remarkable feat of research and reporting that covers the long century from Civil War to Civil Rights, Passing Strange tells a uniquely American story of self- invention, love, deception and race.
Publishers Weekly (starred review Feb.)
Passing Strange tells an astounding true story that would beggar most novelists imaginations
A fine, mesmerizing account.
Janet Maslin, The New York Times
[Sandweiss is] a curious, talented writer
she tells [Clarence Kings story] with a scholars rigor and a storytellers verve
A sophisticated work of scholarship.
Columbia Journalism Review
Elaborate and incredible
Sandweiss serves a delicious brew of public accomplishment and domestic intrigue
Publishers Weekly, starred review
One of the best-known men of his time crosses the racial dividein reverse. As Sandweiss notes in this sturdy work, which blends elements of social and intellectual history with biography, thousands of light-skinned blacks in that era tried to pass for white, but the number of those who did the opposite must have been tiny. An intriguing look at long-held secrets.
Although Passing Strange reads like a suspenseful novel, it introduces us to a real American hero who lived a fascinating life on both sides of the color line. Sandweiss gives us a great lesson in American history that spans three generations. Lawrence Otis Graham, author of Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class
Passing Strange combines remarkable detective work, riveting storytelling, and the enduring question of race to fashion a most unusual but very American family saga about a famous white man and a heretofore unknown black woman. This book is a stunning achievement and example of just how deeply race is woven into our history, our imaginations, and our lives. Ada Copeland, who became a Todd, and then a King, rescued from obscurity by a talented historian, steals the show.
David W. Blight, Yale University, and author of A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Narratives of Emancipation
Passing Strange is a masterful work of scholarship, and a deeply moving human story well told. Here is a riveting new narrative about a hidden history of American race relations, one filled with love, deception and utmost tragedy on both sides of the color line.
Neil Henry, Dean, Graduate School of Journalism, University of California at Berkeley, author of Pearl's Secret
Passing Strange is an irresistible story of love and deception beautifully told. But it is also a major contribution to our understanding of race, class, and gender. This biography of a secret interracial marriage also tells more about the social experience of big city lifeNew York in this casethan a shelf full of urban histories.
Thomas Bender, New York University, author of The Unfinished City: New York and the Metropolitan Idea
This is a wonderfully intelligent and haunting book about love and race and secrets and revelations. The secrets were personal, and closely guarded. In showing how and why they remained secret, Marni Sandweiss reveals much about the American past and the American present.
Richard White, Margaret Byrne Professor of American History, Stanford University, author of The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires and Republic in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815
If you drop the name Clarence King to almost any group of Americans today, it is unlikely they will have heard of him. This was not always so. During the final decades of the 19th century, King strode across the national scene as the scion of a prominent family and a Yale-trained geologist who mapped the American West. When he published a collection of vivid essays about his exploits, "Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada
," the book was an instant hit. King gained further fame when he exposed a fraudulent scheme to sell interests in diamond fields whose purported value was greater than all the silver and gold in Nevada's celebrated Comstock Lode. By proving that the fields had been artificially "salted" with precious gems, he halted investments in the project, forestalling the economic bubble that would certainly have formed around it. For this he was nicknamed the King of Diamonds. "We have escaped, thanks to God and Clarence King, a great financial calamity," one newspaper editorial said.
King often inspired such talk. He was a close friend of the writer Henry Adams and the diplomat John Hay, both of whom thought him the most talented man of their generation. Although he was born in Newport, R.I., to an old and distinguished family -- a paternal ancestor came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637 and his mother could trace her ancestry back to signers of the Magna Carta -- King had little money for most of his life. Instead, he cobbled together income from government appointments, writing projects and loans from rich friends to support himself as a gentleman scientist.
But there was another side to King that neither the public nor his glittering friends knew, a side that Martha A. Sandweiss explores with great sensitivity, insight and painstaking research in "Passing Strange." The title of this immensely fascinating work provides a broad hint: King lived a racial double life. It would be hard to imagine a man more "white," meaning a man who was more thoroughly steeped in the privileges available only to whites of his class during the Gilded Age. But he was also secretly married to Ada Copeland, a black woman who had been born a slave in Georgia. Even more astounding, she knew nothing of his life as Clarence King. Indeed, she did not even know that he was Clarence King. From the day they met in Manhattan in 1887 or 1888 until 1901, when King died, she knew him as "James Todd." When they married in 1888, she became Ada Todd. And when their five children were born over the next 13 years, their last name was Todd, too.
"Passing strange" -- Sandweiss's play-on-words meaning both exceptionally odd and passing for black -- captures the situation precisely. King invented an ingenious identity, posing as a light-skinned Pullman porter. Why a porter? First, it was well known that Pullman hired only black men as porters and waiters on the company's trains. So his wife and neighbors assumed that if the fair-complexioned, blue-eyed, blond- haired James Todd worked as a Pullman porter, he must be black. Second, the job provided an explanation for his frequent absences from home. And finally, stable employment was a way to attract young Ada. Clarence was 18 years older than she. He knew that she, like other black refugees from the South, was struggling. A Pullman porter would be able to provide a decent life for her and any children they might have -- and over the years, that is what he did.
"Passing Strange" is ultimately a book about a couple, and Sandweiss has used her formidable skills as a researcher to reconstruct as much of their lives as possible. This was necessarily an uneven task. Much more is known about Clarence King than about Ada Copeland. Sandweiss succeeds admirably, however, in piecing together a portrait of a young woman who achieved stability in a domestic setup that would seem unendurable in today's world. One must remember the times and what Ada escaped when she came north and met her James Todd, under circumstances that remain mysterious. Perhaps the most powerful feature of this book is the way Sandweiss evokes the terrifying racial landscape of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Georgia of Ada's childhood was, quite simply, a deadly place for blacks. Terrorism was the order of the day; whites killed blacks almost at will. When schools were set up to teach black children to read, white townspeople occasionally burned them down. After enduring such a place, living with a somewhat wayward husband, who nevertheless loved her and provided for her, would seem rather easy.
Raised by an abolitionist mother and grandmother, King romanticized blacks and believed, Sandweiss says, that racial mixing would "improve the vitality of the human race and create a distinctively American people." But his society friends lived by the racial order of the day. Although Adams and Hay were not the kind of men to burn down schools for black children, they might have cut their dear friend out of their lives had he been open about his relationship with a black woman. Instead, King strained mightily to hold on to the two worlds that he loved, terrified to lose either one.
This story does not have a happy ending. King died penniless, wiped out by disastrous investments and poor career moves. There followed a long and very public court battle over a mysterious trust fund that he had supposedly left for Ada and their children. But King's talent for friendship stood him in good stead. His friends bought a house for Ada and provided the family with a monthly stipend, all anonymously; racial decorum had to be maintained. And, as Sandweiss notes, King's early biographers played along by pretty much writing Ada Todd out of her husband's life and treating their relationship as a distasteful lapse on his part. It was, of course, more than that. It was a tragedy, because all King wanted was to marry the woman he loved while maintaining the respect and amity of his white family and friends. That was too much to ask of his time. ·
Annette Gord on-Reed is the author of "The Hemingses of Monticello."
"Passing Strange" is a uniquely American biography of Clarence King, who hid a secret from his Gilded Age cohorts and prominent family: for 13 years he lived a double life--as the celebrated white explorer, geologist, and writer King and as a black Pullman porter and steelworker named James Todd.
Read Martha A. Sandweiss's posts on the Penguin Blog
The secret double life of the man who mapped the American West, and the woman he loved
Clarence King was a late nineteenth-century celebrity, a brilliant scientist and explorer once described by Secretary of State John Hay as "the best and brightest of his generation." But King hid a secret from his Gilded Age cohorts and prominent family in Newport: for thirteen years he lived a double life-the first as the prominent white geologist and writer Clarence King, and a second as the black Pullman porter and steelworker named James Todd. The fair, blue-eyed son of a wealthy China trader passed across the color line, revealing his secret to his black common-law wife, Ada Copeland, only on his deathbed. In Passing Strange, noted historian Martha A. Sandweiss tells the dramatic, distinctively American tale of a family built along the fault lines of celebrity, class, and race- a story that spans the long century from Civil War to civil rights.
About the Author
Martha A. Sandweiss is Professor of History at Princeton University. She began her career as a museum curator and taught for twenty years at Amherst College. She is the author of numerous works on western American history and the history of photography, including Print the Legend: Photography and the American West, winner of the Organization of American Historians' Ray Allen Billington Award, and Laura Gilpin: An Enduring Grace, and is the co-editor of the Oxford History of the American West.