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The autumn of 1883 was notably beautiful. Trees lining the streets of Washington, D.C., seemed to hold on to their leaves, and as the season deepened, roses and morning glories defied cooler temperatures, refusing to give up their last blooms. That fall Clover Adams celebrated her fortieth birthday. Her husband, Henry Adams, the historian and a grandson and great-grandson of American presidents, had just finished writing his second novel, Esther, and was again busy at his desk, poring over page proofs for the first section of what would become his nine-volume History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Most mornings, Clover rode her favorite horse, Daisy, through the streets of the capital to enjoy what she called the “smiling landscape,” returning home to 1607 H Street with flowers for bouquets. Their home faced south to Lafayette Square, with a view of the White House in the background. The Square, also called the President’s Park, offered a shady retreat from southern heat, a place to stroll through elliptical gardens on crisscrossing pathways lit by the yellowish glow of gaslight. At the park’s center a towering bronze of Andrew Jackson reared up on horseback. Senators, vice presidents, cabinet secretaries, and military leaders occupied the stately federal-style homes that ringed the park.
Three years before, Clover and Henry had signed a lease for two hundred dollars for what they nicknamed the “little white house,” asking its owner, William Corcoran, the banker, art collector, and philanthropist, to pay for renovations, including a brand-new stable and a large detached kitchen in back. Clover considered it a “solid old pile.” With six bedrooms and a spacious library, the townhouse, built in 1845, was “little” only in comparison to the capital’s grander homes, but it suited Clover’s preference for what she called “coziness in the New England sense.” Hand-carved mantels crowned fireplaces decorated with ceramic tiles. Carpets purchased on the Adamses’ honeymoon to Egypt in 1872 covered the floors. An eclectic mix of Asian bronzes and porcelains were set on tables and shelves, and art, including Japanese hanging scrolls, sepia drawings by Rubens and Rembrandt, and watercolor landscapes by the English Romantics, adorned the walls. Elizabeth Bliss Bancroft, a near neighbor on H Street, once said to Clover, “My dear, I dislike auctions very much, but I mean to go to yours after you die.”
Clover and Henry had married eleven years before, when she was twenty-eight and he was thirty-three, joining Hooper wealth to Adams political renown. In the close quarters of Boston Brahmin society, where they had both grown up, they were a likely — if not inevitable — match. If Clover could be an “undemonstrative New Englander,” as she herself admitted, her practicality and quick wit tempered Henry’s sometimes anxious nature. Together they enjoyed days of simultaneous fullness and leisure: a horseback ride in the morning, afternoons set aside for Henry’s writing, tea promptly at five o’clock for visitors, then dinner and an evening’s ride or a long stretch of reading by the fireplace. They collected art, traveled, gossiped about politics, supported various causes, and attended dinners and galas, which during the high time of the social season, from mid-October until Lent, took up many evenings. Of these years, Henry wrote, “This part of life — from forty to fifty — would be all I want.”
A wide array of writers and artists, politicians and dignitaries, doctors and academics made their way to the Adamses’ salon for food and talk. Presidents and their families made appearances. Elizabeth Adams knew it was her Aunt Clover “who brought people to their house and gave it its character and warmth.” Henry James, who liked to stay with the Adamses for weeks at a time, at one point called Clover “a perfect Voltaire in petticoats” and thought her an ideal specimen of a particular type of American woman — practical, honest, quick-thinking, with a streak of independence and rebellion. She read widely — George Sand, William Dean Howells, Henry James — and she took up Greek, tackling Plato and the Greek playwrights in the original language, a passion that never faded. Though Clover sometimes battled dark moods, she was no neurasthenic who took to her bed. She used her acerbic wit to maintain perspective and had the will to manage things to suit her. For example, because she was athletic and petite, at five feet two inches in height, and her husband was just an inch or so taller, she had the legs of all chairs and sofas shortened to better fit their personal proportions. When offered a seat, much taller guests, including the six-foot-two Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., later a Supreme Court justice, would precipitously drop onto the low seating.
Clover reserved Sunday mornings not for church but for writing a letter — what she called her “hebdomadal drivel” — to her widowed father. Sometimes she despaired at how her writing failed to express all she wanted to say: “Life is such a jumble of impressions just now that I cannot unravel the skein in practical, quiet fashion. Oh, for the pen of Abigail Adams!” But Clover need not have been intimidated by her husband’s great-grandmother. In fact, her father found it hard to comply with her request that he not read her letters aloud to family and friends — she told such interesting stories.
In early November of 1883, Clover reported that “our days go by quietly and pleasantly.” The lively social season had not yet begun, though it would commence in the next month, when Congress returned to session. With no children of her own to take care of, with Henry busy at his desk, and with time on her hands, she turned once more to what had absorbed much of her attention during the summer. The previous May, she had started something new: she had begun taking and printing her own photographs. She delighted in every step of the process, from selecting a subject, through exposure of the negative, to the final print. She had shown interest in photography before, by collecting Civil War stereographs and small commercial photographs of the sights she wanted to remember from her Grand Tour through Europe in 1866. She’d spent hours looking at fine art in museums around the world, amassing with Henry a large collection of watercolors and charcoals, Japanese prints and ceramics. But taking a photograph was different from looking or collecting. With her portable five-by-eight-inch mahogany camera, Clover started making art, and the process was changing her life.
On a warm, windy November afternoon, just after lunch, she decided to photograph her beloved Skye terriers in the garden behind the townhouse. She draped a bed sheet over the back fence and positioned three chairs around a small dark table, complete with tea set — teapot, three cups and saucers, and a silver spoon. She placed each dog on a chair, somehow perching their front paws on the table and getting them to stay in position while she scrambled back to her camera. She took only one exposure with her new “instantaneous” lens, which didn’t require the extended exposure of the usual drop lens. She made a careful entry in her small lined notebook where she listed her photographic experiments, giving the details: “Nov 5 — 1 p.m. — Boojum, Marquis & Possum at tea in garden of 1607 H. St. instantaneous, not drop shutter — stop no. 3.” Later, with a different pen and in larger script, she commented on what she thought of the result: “extremely good.”
That same afternoon, Clover loaded her black carriage with her camera, tripod, several lenses, a notebook, and a carefully packed set of glass negatives called dry-plate negatives because they’d been commercially prepared with light-sensitive chemicals. She rode out three miles to Arlington National Cemetery and stopped at a spot within view of General Robert E. Lee’s former home. The new German minister’s twenty-year-old wife, Madame von Eisendecker, whom Clover described as a young “Pomeranian blonde,” tagged along. She had just arrived in America and wanted Clover, who was gaining a reputation around town for her portraits, to take her photograph. The two women arrived at the cemetery in the midafternoon, and after setting up her equipment, Clover took two exposures of General Lee’s house on the hill. But by “some crass idiocy,” as she later explained, Clover ruined the pictures. After the first exposure, she’d forgotten to replace the glass negative at the back of camera with another unused negative, something she had done several times before. Such mistakes irritated her. She crossed out the entry in her notebook with a large X. But she didn’t give up. Late in the afternoon, she took a picture of a haunting landscape of soldiers’ graves set against a background of trees. The tombs of those who died in the Civil War, the cataclysm that had profoundly shaped her generation and her own sense of America, rise up like unruly memories among the fallen leaves.
The next Sunday Clover wrote to her father that she’d spent “two good morning hours to develop photographs today,” promising to send him a print or two. The complicated process of making a photograph — exposing the image, developing the negative, sensitizing the printing-out paper, making and developing the print — required patience and concentration. Kodak’s promise (“You take the picture and we do the rest”) was still five years away. When it came time to put prints in her album, Clover paired the image of her dogs at tea with the one of the Arlington graves, putting each in the exact middle of the page, so when the album was fully opened, the two images would be seen at the same time. On the left page, she wrote the dogs’ names in the lower right-hand corner, beneath the photograph. She typically identified her photographs this way, with a quick description of who or what was pictured, the location, and sometimes the precise date or just the year. Beneath her image of the soldiers’ graves on the right side, she wrote a Latin sentence meaning “You sleep in our memory.” In the upper-right corner of the image itself, the only time she would write directly on a photograph, she included the last lines from the first act of Goethe’s Faust, the book she had been reading aloud with Henry in the evening: “Ich gehe durch den Todesschlaf / Zu Gott ein als Soldat und brav (I go to God through the sleep of death, / A soldier — brave to his last breath).
If Clover could be playful and mocking with her pictures, as with her “dogs at tea” photograph, a send-up of a social convention she occasionally found tedious, she could also evoke sadness or an intense feeling of loss. With her camera, she recorded her world for herself and for others to see, and in less than three years, her collection would grow to 113 photographs arranged in three red-leather albums.
But just when Clover discovered a powerful way to express herself, her life started to unravel. What had been a recurrent undertow of dark moods gathered force until she was engulfed by despair, “pulled down,” in the words of a friend, as if by some unseen tide. On a gloomy Sunday morning in early December of 1885, two and half years after she had first picked up her camera, Clover committed suicide by drinking from a vial of potassium cyanide, which she had used to develop her photographs. The means of her art had become the means of her death, a weapon she used against herself. The most dramatic moment of her life also became its most defining, cocooning her memory in the hush-hush of familial shame and confusion; when she was remembered at all, it was most often as the wife of a famous man or as a suicide.
Henry commissioned the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create a bronze statue that would memorialize Clover. It was not intended to be a realistic image of her; instead Saint-Gaudens created a compelling and mysterious figure, draped and seated, which Henry informally called “The Peace of God.” It is the only marker for her grave in Washington’s Rock Creek Cemetery and Henry’s only public tribute. He almost never spoke of her and did not even mention her in his Pulitzer Prize–winning autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams. Eleanor Shattuck Whiteside, a friend from school days, tried to find words to express her confusion at her friend’s sudden death, writing to her own mother that “Clover’s death has been a great shock and surprise to me. I can’t get it out of my head . . . How often we have spoken of Clover as having all she wanted, all this world could give . . . It seems to me a kind of lesson on what a little way intellect and cultivation and the best things of this life go when you come to the heart of life and death. And yet they are all good things and the desired. And that’s the puzzle.”
Clover’s life has remained half-illumined, a reflection of how others viewed her but not how she saw herself. But she left behind clues to what her friend called the “puzzle” of her life and of her death, clues in her many letters and, most eloquently, in her revelatory photographs, which invite the viewer to stand not on this side of her suicide, but on the other, the one she lived on. Her story begins in Transcendentalist Boston, with a privileged childhood shadowed by early losses. It moves on to the story of her iconic American marriage to a complicated, brilliant man who invented the study of American history, of their initial happiness, and of their inability, finally, to reach each other. Connection and disconnection, vitality and loss — these were deep currents in Clover’s life, which she attempted to transform, as artists do, into something beautiful and something to be shared. To be stirred by her photographs, to understand them in the context of her whole life, is to give her back some measure of her full humanity.