Henry Adams's Circle

IN the waning days of 1880, five very different people gathered regularly for tea at the Lafayette Square home of Henry Adams and his wife, Clover. Adams was a historian and man of letters, a patrician, and a member of America's most famous political family. Witty, intellectual, childless, Clover was a popular Washington hostess and an amateur photographer of talent. Their guests included Clarence King, director of the United States Geological Survey and a bachelor. He had directed the largest scientific study the federal government has ever sponsored, a geographical survey of the 40th parallel, the route of the transcontinental railroad.

Also joining the party were Secretary of State John Hay, who had served as a secretary to Abraham Lincoln, as a diplomat in Europe, and as a New York Tribune editor and writer, and his wife, Clara. All were witty, scintillating conversationalists - except the ``calm and grand'' Clara.

These tea gatherings often lasted into dinner and on into the evenings. The quintet decided to call itself ``The Five of Hearts.''

Patricia O'Toole's book of the same name is a warm-hearted, cool-headed portrait of this five-sided friendship and of the Gilded Age. It is as dark, eloquent, and as revealing of character as the photographic studies Clover Adams made with her early camera.

Because the women leave the story early (Clover a suicide to depression, Clara attending her growing family), the book is also the chronicle of friendship between three intellectually restless men, each with literary inclinations and some impulse to action, and where their life paths took them.

Hay lives the most conventionally successful life. He manages to write a landmark biography of Lincoln with his fellow Lincoln secretary, George Nicolay. And he becomes Secretary of State in the McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt administrations.

While once seeming the most promising of the trio, King never brings his restlessness under control. His mining ventures slowly fail. He lacks the self-discipline to complete literary works. His mother breaks up an early engagement.

To compensate, he begins a double life, seeming a bachelor to friends while at the same time acting as the common-law husband of a black woman who bears him several children. His promise that a trust fund will provide for her is all of a piece with the rest of his life. The funds elude her.

Although scion of an insider family, Henry Adams prefers to play with ideas rather than with power. He seems always to feel himself a kind of outsider. Clover's suicide deepens this alienation. Adams investigates history, travels to the Orient and the South Seas, and spends long periods in Europe.

He also falls in love with Lizzie, wife of Pennsylvania Sen. Donald Cameron. Always mindful of respectability, Adams seems to love Lizzie more as an ideal than as a woman. Is he playing again with ideas?

Distressingly, the book never comes close to unlocking the enigma of who Henry Adams was and what made him tick. (In fairness, Adams himself may never have figured out that one - despite attempts in his two masterworks, ``Mont Saint Michel and Chartres'' and ``The Education of Henry Adams.'')

Henry Adams is at the center of this book. The center fascinates. One also wishes that it held.

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