Arts Everyday Living: A Haunting in Washington—The Mystery of the Adams Memorial

Augustus Saint-Gardens (1848-1907), Adams Memorial, modeled 1886-1891, cast 1969, bronze, 69 7/8 x 44 1/2 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., museum purchase.


The Mystery of the Adams Memorial

Lafayette Park, just across from the White House, is one of the most haunted areas in the nation, starting with War of 1812 hero Admiral Stephen Decatur, who used to stare at frightened passersby from his  townhouse until the windows were mercifully bricked up, to former First Lady Dolley Madison still sighted relaxing on the front porch of her last residence, the Cutts-Madison mansion.  But of all the ghosts that inhabit this historic square, it is the fate of Marian “Clover” Adams, the wife of Henry Adams, great grandson of John Adams, that is the most tragic.  In early December, 1885, she committed suicide at the age of 42, near the site of the present Hay-Adams Hotel, where according to both clients and staff, she reportedly appears, especially on the anniversary of her death.

However, perhaps the true spirit of Clover Adams actually dwells several miles away in Washington’s oldest cemetery, Rock Creek Cemetery, on the edge of the nation’s capital.  For in a small enclosure, protected by holly trees, her mourning husband Henry had a memorial erected at her gravesite some six years after Clover died.

In the center, surrounded by a distinctive marble bench, is a statue created by one of America’s leading sculptors, Augustus Saint-Gaudens.** (see: below).  Yet, his patron Adams provided the idea of the Buddhist goddess Kwannon as its inspiration, calling the finished work, “The Peace of God.”  Although Mark Twain’s early comment that it was a symbol of grief has been popularly accepted for more than a century.

The 6 foot high figure, enveloped in a full-length cloak of rhythmic folds, sits alone with eyes downcast and seems oblivious of any approaching visitor. Is it male or female?  Adams, even though the monument was based on a feminine deity, thought of it as “sexless.”  Then why have so many viewers, from art historians to a president of the United States, referred to it as a woman?  Is it the gracefulness of the supple arm that curves upward toward her chin? Or is it her profile? Or her full mouth? Or the arrangement of the drapery overall resembling the attire of a Madonna or a classical goddess?

Clover Adams herself is buried, along with her husband underneath; no dates or names have been inscribed as on an ordinary grave. Little visual evidence of Clover exists as well: only a few blurred photographs including one of her posing on a horse taken in about 1868 when she was 26.  Ironically, Clover was an accomplished photographer in a time when the medium was new and technically difficult.  But she never practiced it professionally, most likely because of Henry’s disapproval.

Yet Clover definitely exists on the written page.  The famous American novelist Henry James was an admirer praising her “intellectual grace” in a letter to his brother William James in 1870.  She also might have served as the model for the independent American woman in his books such as The Portrait of a Lady and Daisy Miller. However, Clover’s husband Henry provides the fullest portrayal in his correspondence, describing her once to an English friend before their marriage in 1872 as “certainly not handsome; nor would she be called plain” and knows “her own mind uncommon well” although adding later that “we shall improve her.”

Then why did Clover take her own life?  One theory is that she was profoundly depressed after the death of her father Dr. Robert Hooper the spring before.  Hooper, a widower, had raised all three of his children mainly alone and had developed a strong bond with Clover who was only five when her mother died of tuberculosis.  The lives of the other two Hooper children also ended tragically: in 1887, Clover’s sister Ellen was killed after standing in front of a train and in 1901, her brother Ned jumped out of the third floor window of his house.  He survived his fall for a few months, finally dying of pneumonia in a mental hospital where he had been institutionalized.

And what was the role of Henry Adams in his wife’s suicide? Speculation about his guilt has been discussed in several books, including Clover by Otto Friedrich in which the author presents a generally balanced portrait of both Marian and Henry Adams.  Henry is said to have never spoken of Clover again after he discovered her in their upstairs bedroom around noon on December 6, lying lifeless after swallowing potassium cyanide, a chemical she used to develop her photographs.   He even omitted his marriage to her in his acclaimed autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, skipping entirely the period of 1872 to 1892.  Was his behavior a sign of remorse?  Or was it the result of a literally unspeakable guilt that continued until his death at 80 in 1918.

Whatever Adams’ culpability, the memorial has offered solace and strength for succeeding generations. Eleanor Roosevelt  who spent many hours meditating upon the statue, seeking comfort in her sometimes own troubled marriage, perhaps best described its essence as a soul or being “who had transcended pain and hurt to achieve serenity.”

The above quotes of Henry Adams and Eleanor Roosevelt are found in the following books:  Clover by Otto Friedrich, publisher, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1979; The Five of Hearts by Patricia O’Toole, publisher, Clarkson Potter, New York, 1990; and Uncommon Clay: The Life and Works of Augustus Saint Gaudens by Burke Wilkinson, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1985.

**The original sculpture of the Adams Memorial is at Rock Creek Cemetery. Two castings exist: the first casting  represented in this blog is at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. and the second casting is at Saint-Gaudens National Historical Society, Cornish, New Hampshire.







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