To begin with, she had knocked two years off her age, a gesture of vanity, perhaps. And she and her husband had been married for twelve years, not eighteen, a fact of which Mrs. Todd was surely aware, and a lie that seems hard to fathom, since the children’s ages raised no questions about their legitimacy. But the other untruths were more stunning. Her husband was not black. He was not from the West Indies. He was not a steelworker. Even his name, James Todd, was a lie. Ada Todd was in fact married to Clarence King, an acclaimed public figure and the person Secretary of State John Hay once called “the best and brightest man of his generation.”
King was a larger- than- life character: an explorer of the American West, a geologist, an accomplished writer and storyteller. He hobnobbed with presidents and congressmen and counted some of the nation’s most distinguished writers and artists among his closest friends. His physical agility and bravery, combined with his keen intellect and wit, commanded near reverence from those who knew him best. With King, the historian Henry Adams wrote, “men worshiped not so much their friend, as the ideal American they all wanted to be.” But of all this, of her husband’s true identity and even his real name, Ada had not a clue.
Not until he lay dying of tuberculosis in Phoenix in late 1901, his last desperate hope of a desert cure gone, did James Todd write a letter to his wife telling her who he really was.
King sustained his double life for thirteen years. He lived as the celebrated Clarence King— a man who traced his English ancestry back to signers of the Magna Carta— in his workplaces, in the homes of his friends, in his Manhattan clubs. But he was James Todd, the black workingman, when he went home to his wife and children in Brooklyn and later in Queens. His well- to- do friends in New York and his family back in Newport, Rhode Island, thought him a bachelor; they never knew about Ada. And she knew nothing of them. Secrecy bounded his separate worlds. An attentive watchfulness governed his every move. No wonder King found married life fraught and complicated.
Ada, however, found nothing particularly clandestine about her domestic life. She might sometimes find it hard to understand why she never met her husband’s family or friends, or difficult to explain to neighbors why he was so often away. But her life as Ada Todd gave her a foothold in a middleclass world she could scarcely have dreamed of as a girl in Civil War and Reconstruction Georgia. She embraced the world her marriage gave her and took pleasure in being Mrs. Todd. When she became a widow, she claimed the name of Ada King and did everything she could to assure that the peculiar circumstances of her married life would not remain a secret or become a source of shame to her children.
James and Ada Todd thus understood their life together in different ways. We know the story they told the world. Ada’s report to the census taker conveys the public tale, or at least one of them. But precisely what they said to each other or, indeed, to themselves lies beyond all knowing. Clarence King took care to make sure that scant record of his secret life would survive. No pictures of the two of them together exist. No piece of paper bears both his signature (either one) and hers. The wedding ring he gave to her had no inscription inside the gold band.
Excerpted from Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line by Martha A. Sandweiss. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) February, 2009.
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