Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line
When I first read the jacket for Martha A Sandweiss’s Passing Strange, I did a literal double take. I read those introductory paragraphs over and over again, the words slipping and sliding over my brain without sinking in. Passing Strange covers the true story of Clarence King, a much-lauded White geologist and man about town who secretly married Ada Copeland, a Black nursemaid, in 1888.
I have read works before that covered the subject of passing: books on light-skinned Blacks who clandestinely crossed the color line, accounts of multiracial families that split apart because of skin color, tales on Whites who pretend to be Black and slip into the Black community. Yet the love story of King and Copeland was something altogether different.
According to Sandweiss’ compelling narrative, King led a double life for thirteen years. In one life he was a swaggering frontiersman, director of the United States Geological Survey; and in his later years a popular scamp in elite Manhattan social circles. In his second life King lived as James Todd, a quiet family man in Brooklyn. His closest friends never knew he married, and until his death his wife never knew his true name or even his true race.
As a public figure and notable character, King is a rich figure for Sandweiss to mine. In his day, King was well known for mapping the West after the Civil War, and for his thrilling tales of exploration. Much of the book is spent analyzing King’s possible motives for crossing the color line and attempting to understand his passionate nature and mercurial personality.
Since so little was known about the life of Ada Copeland Todd, it was much harder for Sandweiss to glean Todd’s dreams, expectations, and feelings. From what Sandweiss does uncover about Todd’s life, she seemed both ordinary and remarkable. Reading feverishly, I wished I could have learned even more about this woman who eventually torn off the screen of secrecy that her late husband, and later his wealthy, powerful friends had placed over her family.
Passing Strange is a fascinating read. Out of the dry facts of King’s life, Sandweiss creates a flesh and blood character. King was a romantic, constantly searching for fame and security. I could picture a man who was always chasing hapless financial schemes, who was always desperately trying to provide for his mother and his younger siblings, as well as his wife and their growing family, who was always the most charming storyteller at the dining table.
A true page turner, Sandweiss’ work keeps the reader in suspense as we follow first Clarence King’s frantic struggle to keep all of his plates spinning, and later as we follow Ada Copeland Todd’s slow and steady fight to seek her family’s rightful inheritance. Sandweiss’ exhaustive research into this relationship focuses on personal details and larger issues from snippets of King’s love letters to glimpses of the Gilded Age social set and the fledgling turn-of-the-century black middle class community in New York City. By the book’s end, I was left with more questions than I had when I first perused the book’s jacket. Did Clarence truly love Ada? How could he maintain his double life for so many years? How much did Ada know? And most importantly, how much of the lies that we tell others reveal the truth of what we are?