The Letters of Mrs. Henry Adams

by Steve Hartshorne on January 26, 2011

'Grief' by Augustus St. Gaudens

'Grief' by Augustus St. Gaudens

I’m currently reading The Letters of Mrs. Henry Adams, which I’ve had for years. I paid twelve bucks for it at a used book store, which is unheard of for me, but I could see it would offer a glimpse into a largely unknown corner of history, and I’m a sucker for that kind of thing.

I first met Mrs. Henry Adams née Marian Hooper, known to her friends as Clover, in Cornish, New Hampshire, at the Augustus St. Gaudens National Historic Site. I knew St. Gaudens, the famous sculptor, was pals with Henry Adams, and I knew that Mrs. Adams has tragically taken her own life, so when I turned a corner and there was this giant bronze statue of a shrouded figure, I knew right away that had to be Marian Adams.

Turns out it’s one of St. Gaudens’ most famous works, known as ‘Grief’ and it marks the graves of Marian and Henry in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C., part of a memorial designed by St. Gaudens and Stanford White, the guy that got shot in Madison Square Garden — but that’s another story.

Marian Adams is also said to haunt the Hay Adams Hotel in Washington. Guests and staff say doors fly open on their own, people feel they are being embraced by ghostly arms, and they see a woman asking, “What do you want?” They also report the smelling mimosa, her favorite scent.

I guess I started the book thinking there might be some clue to why Mrs. Adams took her own life. I didn’t expect this sprightly gallop through history. The book is made up of Clover’s letters to her father, whom she clearly loved very much, and nothing gives me more delight than a well brought up young lady who loves her dear old dad. There’s really nothing like it in the world.

Clover’s mother died when she was young, and her father seems to have been governed by her and her sister Ellen, letting them pretty much have their own way, and it’s a real delight to enter into this extraordinary household as a fly on the wall.

Henry Adams, a rather somber historical / literary figure, son of Charles Francis Adams, the US minister to Britain during the Civil War,  destroyed all Marian’s letters (to him) and never spoke of her again. He never mentioned her in his famous autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams. That’s one way of dealing with grief and loss.

But somebody, her sister perhaps, came upon her letters to her dad (he died just before she did) and decided to publish them so the world could see what a delightful lady she was. To me that’s a far better way of dealing with grief and loss, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to get to know this fascinating woman.

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