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Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line Hardcover – February 5, 2009

3.6 out of 5 stars 70 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

During America’s Gilded Age, Clarence King was a famous geologist, friend of wealthy, famous, and powerful men. He was a larger-than-life character whose intellect and wanderlust pushed him to survey far-flung regions of the western U.S. and South America and develop an abiding appreciation of non-Western culture and people. What his family and wealthy friends did not know was that for 17 years, King lived secretly as James Todd, a black Pullman porter with a black wife and mixed-race children residing in Brooklyn. Devoted to his mother and half-siblings, restless and constantly in need of money, King relied on the largesse of his wealthy friends to help him support both families, never revealing his secret until he was near death. Sandweiss relies on letters, newspaper accounts, and interviews to chronicle the extraordinary story of an influential blue-eyed white man who passed for black at a time when passing generally went the other way. An engaging portrait of a man who defied social conventions but could not face up to the potential ruin of an interracial marriage. --Vanessa Bush


“One of the best-known men of his time crosses the racial divide—in reverse.

Well-born traveler, scientist, explorer and writer Clarence King enjoyed great privilege. In the words of Western historian Sandweiss (American Studies/Amherst Coll.; Print the Legen: Photography and the American West, 2002, etc.), he went through life ‘tempted by risk and attracted to the exotic but fearful of losing the social prerogatives that defined his place in the world.’ When King returned from his globetrotting expeditions and settled down in New York to enjoy his fame as the bestselling author of Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, he embarked on a romance with an African-American woman named Ada Copeland. A young nursemaid who moved north from Georgia in the mid-1880s, she apparently met King sometime in 1887 or early 1888 while he was out ‘slumming.’ That word, the author explains, denoted a class-crossing ‘fashionable amusement,’ according to the Saturday Evening Post. King was serious about his courtship of Copeland, but it was fraught with peril for all concerned, presenting threatening possibilities for blackmail on the one hand and abandonment on the other. He decided to present himself to her as a Pullman porter named James Todd, an invented identity that ‘hinged not just on one lie but a cluster of related, duplicitous assertions.’ As Sandweiss notes in this sturdy work, which blends elements of social and intellectual history with biography, thousands of light-skinned blacks in that era tried to pass for white, but the number of those who did the opposite must have been tiny. Yet King married Copeland and gave up his cherished social privileges. She had borne him five children, and he was on his deathbed in 1901, when he finally told her the truth.

An intriguing look at long-held secrets, Jim Crow, bad faith—and also, as Sandweiss observes, ‘love and longing that transcends the historical bounds of time and place.’”
Kirkus Reviews

“Sandweiss (Print the Legend) serves a delicious brew of public accomplishment and domestic intrigue in this dual biography of the geologist-explorer Clarence King (1842-1901) and Ada Copeland (c. 1861-1964), a ‘black, working-class woman’ who was ‘born a slave.’ Rendered as fiction, this true tale, would seem quite implausible-‘a model son of Newport and one of the most admired scientists in America,’ Clarence kept secret for 13 years his marriage to Ada and their apparently contented domestic life. He kept his patrician past and celebrated present concealed as well from his wife, who believed herself the wife of James Todd, a black Pullman porter. Sandweiss provides a fascinating account of King's ‘extraordinary double life as an eminent white scientist and a black workingman’; Ada's struggle ‘through the legal system to assert her rightful name, give her children their true familial history, and [unsuccessfully] claim the trust fund she believed to be hers’; and rich insights into the ‘distinctive American ideas about race’ that allowed King to ‘pass the other way across the color line, claiming African ancestry when he had none at all.’ A remarkable feat of research and reporting that covers the long century from Civil War to Civil Rights, Passing Strange tells a uniquely American story of self- invention, love, deception and race.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review Feb.)

Passing Strange tells an astounding true story that would beggar most novelists’ imaginations… A fine, mesmerizing account.”
—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“[Sandweiss is] a curious, talented writer… she tells [Clarence King’s story] with a scholar’s rigor and a storyteller’s verve… A sophisticated work of scholarship.”
Columbia Journalism Review

“Elaborate and incredible… Remarkable.”

“Sandweiss serves a delicious brew of public accomplishment and domestic intrigue… Fascinating.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

“One of the best-known men of his time crosses the racial divide—in reverse. As Sandweiss notes in this sturdy work, which blends elements of social and intellectual history with biography, thousands of light-skinned blacks in that era tried to pass for white, but the number of those who did the opposite must have been tiny. An intriguing look at long-held secrets.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Although Passing Strange reads like a suspenseful novel, it introduces us to a real American hero who lived a fascinating life on both sides of the color line. Sandweiss gives us a great lesson in American history that spans three generations.” —Lawrence Otis Graham, author of Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class

Passing Strange combines remarkable detective work, riveting storytelling, and the enduring question of race to fashion a most unusual but very American family saga about a famous white man and a heretofore unknown black woman. This book is a stunning achievement and example of just how deeply race is woven into our history, our imaginations, and our lives. Ada Copeland, who became a Todd, and then a King, rescued from obscurity by a talented historian, steals the show.”
—David W. Blight, Yale University, and author of A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Narratives of Emancipation

Passing Strange is a masterful work of scholarship, and a deeply moving human story well told. Here is a riveting new narrative about a hidden history of American race relations, one filled with love, deception and utmost tragedy on both sides of the color line.”
—Neil Henry, Dean, Graduate School of Journalism, University of California at Berkeley, author of Pearl's Secret

Passing Strange is an irresistible story of love and deception beautifully told. But it is also a major contribution to our understanding of race, class, and gender. This biography of a secret interracial marriage also tells more about the social experience of big city life—New York in this case—than a shelf full of urban histories.”
—Thomas Bender, New York University, author of The Unfinished City: New York and the Metropolitan Idea

“This is a wonderfully intelligent and haunting book about love and race and secrets and revelations. The secrets were personal, and closely guarded. In showing how and why they remained secret, Marni Sandweiss reveals much about the American past and the American present.”
—Richard White, Margaret Byrne Professor of American History, Stanford University, author of The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires and Republic in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815

“If you drop the name Clarence King to almost any group of Americans today, it is unlikely they will have heard of him. This was not always so. During the final decades of the 19th century, King strode across the national scene as the scion of a prominent family and a Yale-trained geologist who mapped the American West. When he published a collection of vivid essays about his exploits, "Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada," the book was an instant hit. King gained further fame when he exposed a fraudulent scheme to sell interests in diamond fields whose purported value was greater than all the silver and gold in Nevada's celebrated Comstock Lode. By proving that the fields had been artificially "salted" with precious gems, he halted investments in the project, forestalling the economic bubble that would certainly have formed around it. For this he was nicknamed the King of Diamonds. "We have escaped, thanks to God and Clarence King, a great financial calamity," one newspaper editorial said.

King often inspired such talk. He was a close friend of the writer Henry Adams and the diplomat John Hay, both of whom thought him the most talented man of their generation. Although he was born in Newport, R.I., to an old and distinguished family -- a paternal ancestor came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637 and his mother could trace her ancestry back to signers of the Magna Carta -- King had little money for most of his life. Instead, he cobbled together income from government appointments, writing projects and loans from rich friends to support himself as a gentleman scientist.

But there was another side to King that neither the public nor his glittering friends knew, a side that Martha A. Sandweiss explores with great sensitivity, insight and painstaking research in "Passing Strange." The title of this immensely fascinating work provides a broad hint: King lived a racial double life. It would be hard to imagine a man more "white," meaning a man who was more thoroughly steeped in the privileges available only to whites of his class during the Gilded Age. But he was also secretly married to Ada Copeland, a black woman who had been born a slave in Georgia. Even more astounding, she knew nothing of his life as Clarence King. Indeed, she did not even know that he was Clarence King. From the day they met in Manhattan in 1887 or 1888 until 1901, when King died, she knew him as "James Todd." When they married in 1888, she became Ada Todd. And when their five children were born over the next 13 years, their last name was Todd, too.

"Passing strange" -- Sandweiss's play-on-words meaning both exceptionally odd and passing for black -- captures the situation precisely. King invented an ingenious identity, posing as a light-skinned Pullman porter. Why a porter? First, it was well known that Pullman hired only black men as porters and waiters on the company's trains. So his wife and neighbors assumed that if the fair-complexioned, blue-eyed, blond- haired James Todd worked as a Pullman porter, he must be black. Second, the job provided an explanation for his frequent absences from home. And finally, stable employment was a way to attract young Ada. Clarence was 18 years older than she. He knew that she, like other black refugees from the South, was struggling. A Pullman porter would be able to provide a decent life for her and any children they might have -- and over the years, that is what he did.

"Passing Strange" is ultimately a book about a couple, and Sandweiss has used her formidable skills as a researcher to reconstruct as much of their lives as possible. This was necessarily an uneven task. Much more is known about Clarence King than about Ada Copeland. Sandweiss succeeds admirably, however, in piecing together a portrait of a young woman who achieved stability in a domestic setup that would seem unendurable in today's world. One must remember the times and what Ada escaped when she came north and met her James Todd, under circumstances that remain mysterious. Perhaps the most powerful feature of this book is the way Sandweiss evokes the terrifying racial landscape of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Georgia of Ada's childhood was, quite simply, a deadly place for blacks. Terrorism was the order of the day; whites killed blacks almost at will. When schools were set up to teach black children to read, white townspeople occasionally burned them down. After enduring such a place, living with a somewhat wayward husband, who nevertheless loved her and provided for her, would seem rather easy.

Raised by an abolitionist mother and grandmother, King romanticized blacks and believed, Sandweiss says, that racial mixing would "improve the vitality of the human race and create a distinctively American people." But his society friends lived by the racial order of the day. Although Adams and Hay were not the kind of men to burn down schools for black children, they might have cut their dear friend out of their lives had he been open about his relationship with a black woman. Instead, King strained mightily to hold on to the two worlds that he loved, terrified to lose either one.

This story does not have a happy ending. King died penniless, wiped out by disastrous investments and poor career moves. There followed a long and very public court battle over a mysterious trust fund that he had supposedly left for Ada and their children. But King's talent for friendship stood him in good stead. His friends bought a house for Ada and provided the family with a monthly stipend, all anonymously; racial decorum had to be maintained. And, as Sandweiss notes, King's early biographers played along by pretty much writing Ada Todd out of her husband's life and treating their relationship as a distasteful lapse on his part. It was, of course, more than that. It was a tragedy, because all King wanted was to marry the woman he loved while maintaining the respect and amity of his white family and friends. That was too much to ask of his time. ·
— Annette Gord on-Reed is the author of "The Hemingses of Monticello." --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The (February 5, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594202001
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594202001
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.3 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (70 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #748,827 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By mojosmom VINE VOICE on April 2, 2009
Format: 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).
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Format: 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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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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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.
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