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82 of 84 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Love across boundaries
When Clarence King died in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1901, he was eulogized by friends like John Hay, private secretary to Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State under McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, and historian and memoirist Henry Adams. He was remembered as the first director of the United States Geological Survey, the man who exposed a diamond hoax that threatened the...
Published on April 2, 2009 by mojosmom

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25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars 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...
Published on April 27, 2009 by H.C. Carey


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82 of 84 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Love across boundaries, April 2, 2009
By 
mojosmom (Chicago, IL USA) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line (Hardcover)
When Clarence King died in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1901, he was eulogized by friends like John Hay, private secretary to Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State under McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, and historian and memoirist Henry Adams. He was remembered as the first director of the United States Geological Survey, the man who exposed a diamond hoax that threatened the economy of the United States, a devoted son and confirmed bachelor.

He was all those things, except the last. The man who, in 1880, said that he had lost the only woman he had ever wanted to marry through too much attention to duty, in 1888 married a woman so far outside his social circle and standing that he did so under a false name, a false occupation, a false identity and a false race. For Clarence King, son of a prosperous China trader, interlocutor of Ruskin and Turner, guest at the White House, had fallen in love with Ada Copeland, an African-American woman born into slavery. He courted her under the name "James Todd", and told her he was a Pullman porter, a job which must mean that he, too, was African-American.

How this blond, blue-eyed man passed as black is more than a story of love and deception. It is the story of how this nation has interpreted race and how social and cultural assumptions translate into racial "certainties". It was interesting to compare how King used those assumptions to pass as black with way in which Belle da Costa Green used them to live as white (see An Illuminated Life: Bella da Costa Greene's Journey from Prejudice to Privilege). Although in some parts of the world distinctions were and are drawn between "white", "black" and mixed race ("colored", "mulatto" "mestizo"), in the world of Clarence King/James Todd any black ancestor made you black, no matter how you looked. At the same time, people took their cues about someone's race from their surroundings. So King could be perceived as "black" simply because he was met in an African-American neighborhood, visited an African-American church, and claimed to be a Pullman porter, a job for which only African-Americans were hired. (Curiously, though, he was in fact a bit too light-skinned for that to be entirely credible, as light-skinned blacks were more likely to be dining-car attendants.) A census-taker would look at the "white"-appearing children of Ada and Clarence (James) and mark then as "black" upon seeing their mother. (In fact, their two daughters would eventually marry white men and list their race as "white" on the marriage license applications.)

When King was dying in Arizona, away from his wife and family in New York, he finally revealed his secret to her, via letter, and to certain of his friends. Because he had kept Ada in the dark as to who he was and what his real life was, because, in order to keep his secret, he had left no documentation of their relationship other than his letters to her (obviously, though, not under his real name), she had no idea of his true financial situation either. And he had, foolishly, made no provision for them in his will, which left everything to his mother. Based on things that he had told her, Ada believed that he had left money in trust for her and the children, and his friends arranged to have money sent to her each month, which she believed came from that trust. It was not until many years later that Ada sued in court to obtain the funds she believed were rightfully hers. The forces of privilege were marshalled against her.

Ada King died in 1964 at the age of 103. Did she hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak of his dream that "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood" and think of her own life? Did she hear "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" and think of her husband and children, whose races were judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the company they kept?

Sandweiss has written an engaging account of the lives of King and Copeland, separately and together. She has illuminated their relationship, and Ada's later legal efforts, through the prism of American social, class and racial mores. Her work is thoroughly researched, through interviews and consultation with primary sources, and any speculation (for instance, as to where and how the two may have met) is clearly labeled as such and is backed by credible argument.

Passing Strange is both a love story and a story of the racial and social divides of 19th-century America, and is successful at telling both.
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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Double life, February 15, 2009
This review is from: Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line (Hardcover)
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).
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars the cost, March 31, 2009
By 
Kcolorado (Denver, CO United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line (Hardcover)
Martha Sandweiss is an academic and an historian. That description might drive away some readers and attract others. I knew about Clarence King as one of the early explorers who mapped the West. I had read something of his double life in Patricia O'Toole's book Five of Hearts, about the charmed circle around Clover and Henry Adams in the late 19th century.

Clarence King dined with presidents and knew most of the East coast intelligentsia of the day. And yet his life, as depicted in this biography, was a classic double life- appearing successful but with a personal life in shambles- filled with debt and difficult family relationships, most notably with his mother and wife. Ms. Sandweiss weaves the story of his secret marriage to a black woman with the facts about American views and laws surroundings race in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is not a pretty story, and King who was admired by many of his illustrious peers is ultimately portrayed as a man who left a wife and 4 children in dire straits. She presents his decision as very much a product of his times. The book is carefully referenced, but she has to make many assumptions because of a lack of facts concerning his relationship. While that could have doomed the book, I admire her ability to bring the information and tie it to the mores of the age, so that we come away with a better understanding of his double life as an example of costs of the tortuous racial history in the US.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Love and Deception, May 6, 2009
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This review is from: Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line (Hardcover)
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.
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25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars not as strange as she claims, April 27, 2009
By 
H.C. Carey (Arlington, VA USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line (Hardcover)
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.
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars American history brought to life in a lively, real and bizarre accounting, February 16, 2009
This review is from: Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line (Hardcover)
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.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A new perspective on a well-known American figure, April 2, 2009
By 
G. Dawson (United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line (Hardcover)
This biography tells the story of Clarence King, a Yale-educated geologist and explorer of the American West during the post-Civil War era. Dashing, charismatic, and beloved by New York's social elite, King was considered an honored dinner companion, witty conversationalist, and eligible bachelor. After his death, it was discovered King had a black wife and five children living in Brooklyn.

Apparently, social pressures and racial tensions compelled King to construct a complicated double life. To his Brooklyn family, King was known as James Todd. Despite his fair complexion and Western European ancestry, he convinced his family he was a black Pullman porter who spent much of his time away from home, crisscrossing the country on its railways. In New York City, King lived as an accomplished scientist and bon vivant who mingled with the best society as the white man he was. Eventually, King's double life tore him apart and resulted in the financial, physical, and mental breakdowns that led to his death.

Prior biographies of King have focused on King's professional achievements while mostly ignoring his complicated personal life. Sandweiss breaks this code of silence to tell the story of King's unlikely marriage to Ada Copeland, a woman born into slavery in Georgia. Sandweiss reveals this unknown side of King with engaging prose supported, but not suffocated, by thorough research. While giving a new perspective on a well-known American figure, Sandweiss also explores the complexities of race in late nineteenth century America.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Getting By on the Other Side, April 22, 2009
This review is from: Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line (Hardcover)
Chances are you have not heard of Clarence King, but Americans certainly knew about him in the nineteenth century. He came from a distinguished family, was trained in Geology at Yale, mapped across the American West, had a bestseller about his adventures of the survey, and he prevented the success of a fraudulent diamond mining scheme, earning for himself the title "The King of Diamonds". An author visiting a little inn in Austria was discovered to be an American by a cultivated Englishman, and the first question the Englishman put to him was, "Do you know Clarence King?" He didn't make a financial success of himself, a circumstance that puzzled him and his close friends, author Henry Adams and diplomat John Hay, both of whom thought that he was the most talented man they knew. Yet there was another side to King that the public did not know, nor did his friends, nor did his devoted mother and his other family members. _Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line_ (The Penguin Press) by Martha A. Sandweiss is the story of King's double life. King had a fascination for women of other races, and he was secretly married to one. He not only kept the secret from the friends in the upper reaches of white society which was his "proper" sphere, but his wife had no idea that he was a working scientist with nationwide contacts within government and commerce. She thought he was a porter on the railways. This bizarre story, at turns inspiring and sad, is told here in full for the first time; previous biographies have barely mentioned King's marriage. Sandweiss explores as much as can be known about King's wife and home life, and with sensitivity and earnest research has told a story whose tragedy rests on the great importance King's society had attached to the superficiality of skin color.

He was ambivalent about his comfortable upbringing and his distinguished upper class roots. In 1863, at the time of the Civil War, he avoided service by heading out west, walking across the continent and taking a role in the California State Geological Survey. Within four years, he had been commissioned to explore 12,000 square miles of the wild American West. When the nation was entranced by gold mining or the Comstock Lode, rubies and diamonds were discovered in Colorado. King was the one to warn off investors, showing that the gems could not have occurred naturally where they were found, and had been planted by swindlers. The story of Ada Copeland is not so easy to tell, for she was born a slave just before the guns fired on Fort Sumter. There is little documentation of her life. Somehow she learned to read and write, and she got away from the south in the 1880s, moving to New York City and doing domestic service. King had shown interest in women of other races during his travels in Hawaii and Nicaragua. Somehow he met Ada, and married her in 1888. For all she and her family knew, this was not an interracial marriage. King gave himself the name James Todd, and he told Ada's family that he was a Pullman porter. The Pullman company famously hired blacks to be servants to the white rail travelers, and when King (Todd) was away from his family, he could easily explain his absences as due to his job. How much Ada suspected that he had a double life we will never know. They had five children together, and if King's letters to her from his travels are any guide, they were deeply in love. King was worn out, dying of tuberculosis out west in 1901, and was buried by his friends who knew him as a bachelor, not by his family. He had confessed his real name to Ada before his death, and had explained to her about a trust fund he had set up for her and their children. That he had a wife and children only became publicly known in 1933 at a trial in which Ada tried to recover the supposed trust.

Sandweiss has dug into the story of King and his family as deeply as she could. She has done a realistic job in filling in as much as possible, and including descriptions of society's strange ways of dealing with racial categories. Census takers, for instance, visited the Todd family every decade and "scientifically" designated the members white, [...], or mulatto based not on any actual understanding of ancestry but on the categories in play at the time and the context in which the visitors saw the individual Todds. If the sons were seen with Ada, for instance, they were quickly classed as black. The daughters, however, were light enough to marry white men. Readers will appreciate that Sandweiss has to use repeatedly "perhaps" or "may have" or "one imagines that..." It is one of the results of Clarence King's deception that she must fill in by such means. This is, as she reflects, one of "the constraints of a world that offered few choices to a man like Clarence King who loved a woman like Ada Copeland."
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A lesson in history, a biography, a page turning love story..., June 20, 2009
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This review is from: Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line (Hardcover)
This story gripped my interest on many points. First I live in the Sierra Nevada, and the tales of King and King's tall tales I have always found fascinating. I really didn't know anything about his "double life".

Once I began reading this book I could understand how King could pull something like this off. He was elusive and engaging at the same time. His family history and their points of view also help to explain his curiosity with the black world, one that he found exotic and natural.

One reviewer was put off because much of the information was secondhand and conjecture. That is an interesting point of view, but I found just the opposite, I found it interesting and provocative. As the author tells us, much of Ada's story, as with those of most black families, cannot be based on recorded or documented history. Most did not read or write and during the time of slavery they did not even have family names, birth and marriage certificates were also none existent. Therefore most of their history is hearsay, handed down as stories. Martha Sandweiss, in my mind, did a great job of proclaiming fact from educated guess. The fact that assumptions were declared made the story more fascinating. We will never know exactly how Ada came to New York; we will not know the details of Clarence and Ada's meeting and their courtship. The author was careful, referring to history and the state of the black community at the time to draw possible scenarios. She took care not to state them as fact.

If you enjoy American history or the history of the West then you will find this book enthralling. Because I enjoy these things this book captured me from the first page. I know much of what was happening at the time, I knew many of the characters and the places from earlier readings. One of my favorite books is Ramona, a book that King read and romanticized. There was much I did not know about the South, the slave condition and the post emancipation period. I found the chapter, Becoming Ada, very interesting and the fact that so little is known about her is thought provoking.

Wow, what a book! Read it if you are taken by American history, a lover of the Sierra Nevada and its characters. If we demand only facts to support the characters and events in this book it would not have been written and that would be a shame.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Curious Tale of Race and Love In The Gilded Age, August 3, 2010
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This review is from: Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line (Hardcover)
The facts upon which this book is based are fairly simple. A caucasian man named Clarence King is descended from a wealthy family of importers from Newport RI. In his adulthood, he becomes quite well-known as an explorer and surveyor of the American West and associates with the upper echelon of high society, business, and government. He leads an exciting life and is a 19th century celebrity. However, during the last 15 years of his life he leads another life of anonymity as a black man named James Todd. Todd is married to a black woman named Ada Todd and has fathered five children. Sounds strange? Absolutely!
Essentially this story details King's life of deception, half-truths, and denial and looks at an ever changing climate where race is defined and redefined with each census. It is also a story of a family trying to lay claim to their birthright and presumed fortune.
I liked this book very much with one exception. The author concedes that there are many aspects to this story that are unknown or cannot be fully answered as James Todd, his family life and marriage were as blurred as the public life of Clarence King was known. For me, the gaps in knowledge about James and Ada Todd and the level of candor in their relationship is frustrating. So be forewarned, not everything covered in this book is easily explained or logical at times. This is a fascinating yet somewhat incomplete story which doesn't have easy or completely logical answers.
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Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line
Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line by Martha A. Sandweiss (Hardcover - February 5, 2009)
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