A scholar’s debut recounts the life and troubling death of a Gilded Age woman.
In the Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C., a brooding, bronze figure marks the too-early grave of Marion Hooper “Clover” Adams (1843–1885), known, if at all, to posterity as the wife of a distinguished man and as a suicide. This shrouded, enigmatic Saint-Gaudens masterpiece appears almost to warn off biographers intent on probing the puzzle of Clover’s life. But Dykstra (English/Hope Coll.) proceeds boldly and supplies us with all the recoverable details, even if the mystery remains. A child of privilege in Transcendental Boston, Clover received the best progressive education then available to young women. She came of age during the Civil War, bold, athletic and passionate about art, reading and foreign languages. She charmed the likes of John Hay, Clarence King, Henry James and, of course, her husband, the celebrated professor, editor and historian Henry Adams, the direct descendant of two presidents. (Indeed, both Henrys modeled characters in their novels, at least in part, on her.) Though she confidently presided over a Washington home that sparkled with wit, 13 years into her marriage she swallowed a lethal chemical used in her photography, a three-year-old avocation for which she was beginning to develop a reputation. Why? Dykstra finds shadows in Clover’s seemingly enviable life: the early death of her poet mother (Clover was only five), the suicide of a favorite aunt and the unusual closeness between Clover and her physician father who died only months before she took her own life. Clover’s childlessness and the infatuation of her husband with a pretty, young and unhappily married friend may also have contributed to the overwhelming depression that marked her final months. Relying on letters and photographs, even the placement of pictures in an album, Dykstra teases all this out, occasionally appearing to over-read clues to Clover’s inner life. Is it significant that Clover used one of the tools of her art to kill herself, or was potassium cyanide merely the death-dealing agent closest to hand?
The curtain at least partly raised on a charmed and haunted life.