Clover Adams, born Marian Hooper in 1843, came from a relatively prominent and well-to-do Boston family beset by an operatic excess of tragedy. She was the baby of the family and her mother’s pet—her mother gave her the nickname Clover. But even the charms of a bright and beloved child were no match for the tuberculosis that claimed her life when Clover was only five. That was the first of the child’s major losses—throughout her life, a number of parental figures and family members died unexpectedly or committed suicide. When she was nine, her aunt, who had become a mother-figure to Clover after her mother’s death, separated from her husband and killed herself by drinking arsenic. Each loss stripped away more of Clover’s sanity and security. Natalie Dykstra examines those losses and Clover’s “gilded” life in her wonderfully researched biography Clover Adams.
Robert Hooper was devoted to his motherless children and focused all of his energy on their wellbeing and education. Clover went to the finest schools and received an education as good as or better than most young men of her station. She moved in a privileged world of social events, horseback rides, summers in grand houses on the New England shore, dinners with the best and the brightest artists and public figures at her table. Clover was plain, unlike her beautiful mother and sisters, and never was comfortable being painted or photographed. Despite her intelligence, lively curiosity and aptitude for engaging conversation, she married much later than her peers—at twenty-eight, to Henry Adams who fell hard for her despite his illustrious family’s disapproval.
Clover and Henry took the traditional grand tour of Europe during the year after their marriage and she suffered an alarming depression while they cruised the Nile for three months. But, by the time they returned to Europe, she had recovered and the couple socialized with American friends abroad and luminaries in the worlds of the arts, letters and politics. They spent several years in Boston on their return, living near Clover’s doting father while Henry taught at Harvard. Clover was uncommonly talented at setting up a gracious home and establishing a sought-after salon, skills she took to Washington when they moved to the capital so Henry could research his ambitious American histories, the books that would make his reputation.
By all accounts, Henry and Clover Adams lived a charmed life at the center of the social whirl that was Washington. All credit for this goes to Clover who was adept at managing invitations and who consistently maintained the most popular evenings of conversation. But she was searching. She stayed very close to her father, writing him copious letters every Sunday with remarkably gifted recountings of the world around her. Clover Adams was herself a talented writer but Henry, even as he supported and relied on her, made no move to share the literary glory in the family. Clover helped with his research and created a protected space for him to write in—and kept seeking some meaningful occupation of her own.
Eventually she discovered photography and set out to teach herself how to take pictures according to the same artistic standards of the paintings and drawings she and Henry collected. When her talent became obvious and she was asked to contribute a photograph for the cover of a prestigious magazine, Henry objected and she didn’t oppose him. The couple had thoroughbred dogs and horses but no children and Clover’s very full life began to seem empty to her. She and Henry grew apart and his affections shifted to a beautiful married younger mutual friend, although he made no move to act on the attraction and sought ways to protect Clover from another bout of depression.
The death of her father, coming after suicides and deaths in her immediate family, unhinged her and she was inconsolable, gradually slipping into isolation and hopeless melancholy. In December 1845 when she was 42 years old, she drank the potassium cyanide she used to develop her photographs and killed herself. Natalie Dykstra interprets the tragedy of Clover Adams as a mix of artistic and intellectual frustration, irreparable emotional loss at a young age and the possibility of genetic mental instability in her family. It’s hard to assign meaning to her brief life and death. All motives for the suicide could be true. Clover was clearly intelligent, charismatic and talented. She moved in a dazzling world at the top tier of society. She had her share of grief and found it insupportable. What is left is a modest legacy of epistolary and photographic accomplishment. Her husband was famous in his lifetime and remains a prominent historical literary figure. Clover Adams is a nearly forgotten story, brought to life in the pages of Dykstra’s book.
Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life Natalie Dykstra | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012