Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line

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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 life¡ªas 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 ¨C as the white man known as Clarence King ¨C 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 race¡ªfrom the ¡°Todd¡¯s¡± wedding in 1888, to the 1964 death of Ada King, one of the last surviving Americans born into slavery.

Customer Reviews:

  • I think the story suffers from lack of hard evidence
    I think it helps with this story if you fall in love with Clarence King in the first few chapters of his life (because everyone else around him seems to). This fabulous bigger than life, smart, funny raconteur, a scientist and an explorer. Because by the time you get to the second part of his life, where he suffers from poor health and focused on finding investors for his mines, living beyond his means, where he gets really cranky about how much he dislikes educated women (at least the ones that were not his intellectual equal, oh, that would be all of them), it's a bit of a hard shovel.

    The book is well researched and well written. It had a lot of interesting things to say about the times Clarence King lived in. (I did not know that President McKinley was the last Civil War veteran to serve as president.) It makes some interesting points about race. But for me, it was more a story about how a man can out-live what's he's really good at in life....more info
  • Love and Deception
    Historians, and history itself, have not treated Clarence King kindly. King was at one time one of the most famous and admired people in the United States but, if you are like me, you likely have never heard of the man. Born into a wealthy family in 1842, King became famous as the geologist responsible for surveying and mapping diverse regions of the western United States. Always the self-promoter, he published a book about his adventures, "Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada," that became a best seller of its day and made him into a national figure. Two of his closest friends were author Henry Adams and career politician John Hay, former secretary to President Abraham Lincoln. King traveled in the highest circles of society, even dining in the White House on at least once occasion.

    All of which makes even more astonishing the fact that Clarence King lived a secret life that even his closest confidants knew nothing of until King was near death or had actually passed. King's friends were well aware that King, the sole support of his elderly mother and an extended family, was hard pressed to meet his financial obligations. His financial difficulties were so serious, in fact, that King was only able to maintain his standard of living by accepting repeated loans from John Hay and others of his friends, often offering items from his personal art collection as collateral for the money loaned to him.

    What King's benefactors and admirers did not know was that, for some thirteen years, King was living two lives: one as the famous explorer of the American West and another as the husband of a woman who, in 1861, had been born into slavery in Georgia. King represented himself to ex-slave Ada Copeland as James Todd, an extremely light-skinned black man from Baltimore whose work as a Pullman porter required him to be away from home for months at a time. In a day in which a single drop of black blood was deemed to distinguish a black man from a white one, his story was believable enough for King to be accepted into the community in which Ada bore him five children.

    Clarence King loved Ada Copeland but he lied about their relationship because he feared the scandal that would result from his marriage to a black woman. He knew that by publicly acknowledging his black wife and mixed-race children he would lose his friends and any chance of earning the income necessary to support either of his families. Although Ada may have suspected that her husband had something to hide, even she did not know the extent of her husband's secrets until his confessional deathbed letter.

    Clarence King's story is a fascinating one and Martha Sandweiss tells it well. Almost as fascinating is what happened to Ada and her children after King's death. Ada, who lived to be 103 years old, did not die until 1964, outliving her husband by sixty-two years. "Passing Strange" includes an account of her determined effort during the 1930s to be recognized as King's rightful heir and the resulting court case that explains much of what happened after his death.

    If this were a movie, no one would believe it.
    ...more info
  • Any library will find it a powerful, popular lend
    PASSING STRANGE: A GILDED AGE TALE OF LOVE AND DECEPTION ACROSS THE COLOR LINE is a powerful, haunting account by a historian author who probes the secrets of Clarence King, a brilliant scientist who helped map the West after the Civil War. His little-known double life - as a celebrated white explorer and writer and as a black Pullman porter and steel worker - offers up a gripping saga of a man who lied because he wished to marry his wife publicly, presenting himself falsely as a black man to marry the woman he loved. Any library will find it a powerful, popular lend....more info
  • Passing Strange
    The story was interesting but lacking in depth in some areas. Too much second hand information....more info
  • American history brought to life in a lively, real and bizarre accounting
    American history is much more complex and richer than traditional history books have portrayed. "Passing Strange" untangles some of the history of America's "gilded age" through an amazing story of Clarence King and Ada Copeland. The book does not claim to be anything but a history book - and its a very lively and engaging one. It is neither a love story nor a novel (although at times it reads as both), but a multi-faceted real life story that demonstrates in an achingly real and bizarre way, how constricting both racial constructs and high society were at the end of the 19th century. As the end of the book demonstrates, these historic themes played well into the 20th century, and frame current day discussions of racial identity in America. This is an amazing story and a fabulously interesting and provocative way to learn about themes in American history....more info
  • Passing for "mixed white," not "black"

    One thing that bothers me about the author and reviewers is that they continually claim that Clarence King posed as a "black" man (which sounds physically impossible to the average reader). It would be accurate to say that King was a man of unchallenged white status (with no known black ancestry) who pretended to be a caucasian of partial black ancestry. The claim of recent mulatto ancestry made him seem like an acceptable (even prized) mate to Ada Copeland.

    Anyone interesting in so-called "passing" should read Legal History of the Color Line: The Rise And Triumph of the One-drop Rule or What Blood Won't Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America or White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race (Critical America Series)
    ...more info
  • not as strange as she claims
    First off it's hard to see what was the big deal about Clarence King. You come away inclined to agree that he was "one of the most overpraised men of the 19th century." I think most of his "genius" was that he could make effete literary types comfortable with natural science. That's not a bad thing, but the literary types tend to overstate its value.

    But he was pretty much a bum. He had this secret family and completely failed to provide for them. She wants him to be a great lover and a visionary of a race-blind future, but really he seems mostly to have been slumming and playing at being in love. He wrote love letters, but when it counted, he was somewhere else. He dodged the Civil War. He whines all the time about he oppressive weight of social propriety, but he doesn't resign any of those fancy men's clubs and he doesn't stop living high on his pals' money. He's a nasty misogynist. All the big tests of life he completely fails at.

    If you don't find King a compelling, attractive figure than you're not going to like the book much, maybe.

    Sandwiess' premise is that there is something really rare and strange in this cross racial romance, but I assume if you went to any southern city in 1900 every other house or so would have a white guy carrying on some kind of affair. Remember Strom Thurmond? And also what does she think they were doing on all those camping trips and cruises to see exotic "dusky" women? Playing cards?

    It does not have a lot new or interesting to say about the history of race relations, but then it's driven by the personal story of these two people. There isn't a lot of evidence, but she does a good job piecing together the story from what's available. I was very disappointed, but I'm a professional historian and so maybe not representative of the general reader. ...more info
  • America's Melting Pot
    Passing Strange is a good read. I thought it would be light read, but it was not. Professor Sandweiss manages to convey the upheaval the Civil War had on a people who were not consider as citizens of America and the laws that were put in place during that time. The main story centers around Clarence King who was paramount during that time. Mr. King was prominent member of society,he was witty, a man who blazed a trail in surveys that mapped the West after the Civil Was. Everyone who met and knew Mr. King were charmed and the people who knew him best loved him.

    Mr. King led a double life that even his dearest friends did not know until his death. This is a story of a man who loved a woman deeply and kept that love to himeself until his dying day.

    What I enjoyed about the book was not only his double life but the laws that were made to keep a people in their structured class that could not really be defined by a census taking. America has a beautiful bittersweet history that makes this country great and as more historians uncover more of our history to becoming a melting pot....more info
  • Double life
    In about 1888, a successful, well-known, and white, Clarence King met the woman who would shortly thereafter become his wife. Her name was Ada Copeland. Because she was black, King convinced her that he, too, was of black ancestry. He claimed that he worked as a Pullman porter and that his name was James Todd. He kept the truth a secret from her, and he kept HER a secret from his many distinguished friends.

    If you are looking for a love story, though, this book may disappoint you. The book tends to be rather dry and academic.

    The book is very well researched - (there are no less than 45 pages of notes) - and it does delve into the interesting subject of race relations during the last part of the 19th century in the US. The story is made more interesting due to the social status of King (This was a man who dined with the President)....more info
  • "Passing" in Reverse
    This is a strange, even curious, but in the end, a life-affirming story of love about a well-heeled white man who elects to marry a black woman 20 years his junior during the worse era of racism and lynching in the U.S. And then he chooses to live out a deceptive life on both sides of the track as both a poor black man and as a well-to-do white man.

    In the white world he lived as "Clarence King," son of abolitionists and renown Yale-trained Geologist. As a black man, he lives as "James Todd," Pullman Porter, married and father of five. His job on the rails greatly facilitates his being away from his black family for long periods of time.

    In the most dangerously schizophrenic of ways, he straddles this racial fence for a lifetime, and does so at a time when, had he been discovered, it could have possibly meant death for everyone involved. However, somehow he manages to pull it off and lives out his life undiscovered until his death, when things become a bit complicated and dicey for the remaining families left behind on either side of the racial divide.

    After his death, surreptitiously, his black wife and kids are cared for although they were not allowed to inherit the considerable (white) family fortune, and the secret of his double life remained closely held.

    Although this is good history, it is only an average story that seems a bit purposeless, since the love story itself seemed incidental to the "racial fence hopping." It was never exactly clear why Ada, his black wife, was chosen as his deceptive love interest. Still it is interesting history, but will not endure as a classic but only as a curiosity of America's strangest social institution.

    Three stars...more info


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