- Historic Sites
“Never Leave Me, Never Leave Me”
February 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 2
When Aileen Tone went to live in Henry Adams’ house on Lafayette Square, directly across from the White House, as the historian’s “secretary-companion and adopted niece,” she was thirty-four and lie seventy-five. Her job, as he used to put it, was “to keep him alive,” for he had been very ill, and she succeeded for five years in it, from 1913 until 1918. The relationship between the old widower, an impatient perfectionist intolerant of the least sloppiness in thought or manners, and the beautiful, much-alive young woman was at first not easy, but the extraordinary devotion and understanding that existed between them triumphed in the end. Adams to Aileen Tone was always the great man, with the wisdom and knowledge of the noblest kind of philosopher, and she to him represented the beauty and grace, the feminine subtlety and sympathy, that he found indispensable to a civilized life. This Platonic union was to be closer than most marriages.
Adams, grandson and great-grandson ot American Presidents and author of the nine-volume History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison, occupied in his old age a unique position in Washington. Sought out by the many, he held himself aloof, limiting his company to those who would amuse him or to those (even fewer) who could give him insight in his incessant and ultimately obsessive quest for a scientific formula that would explain the history of man. He had given up writing history in the conventional sense, and, believing that his ideas were not fashionable, he had published privately for his friends, in 1904 and 1907, his two greatest works: Mont-Saint-Michel und Chartres and The Education of Henry Adams, the first a study of the unity of the twelfth century as expressed in the cult of the Virgin, and the second an autobiography to prove the inadequacy of his own—and his generation’s—education in preparing them for the multiplicity of the twentieth. The popularity of these books today would have astonished him.
Not all admired him. To some he was moody and misanthropic; a rich, spoiled man who had to have his way in everything or else he sulked, a frustrated statesman who despised the world because he had not achieved its temporal as well as its intellectual honors. Rut to his family and intimates he was a cult, to American historians lie was a master, and to subsequent generations he has become a seer whose dark vision of our century has been terribly justified. Theodore Roosevelt, who sneered at Adams as a man who could only criticize and never act, seems superficial in contrast to him today. If Adams, as Justice Holmes said, liked to play the role of the wise and cynical old cardinal, sitting alone by the Ore and enjoying the fact that the world came to him without his going to the world, his cynicism has more to say to us today than Holmes’s speeches on the need for war to keep a nation virile.
Childless, and a widower in early middle age, Adams was devoted to his own and his wife’s nieces. The avuncular role appealed to him both as man and as writer. Nephews, he maintained, “as a social class” had given up reading, but nieces were different. The relationship between uncle and niece was “convenient and easy, capable of being anything or nothing, at the will of either party, like a Mohammedan or Polynesian or American marriage.” He wrote Mont-Saint-Michael and Chartres as a series of talks by an uncle to a niece, either an actual niece or one who was willing, for the time, to be a niece in wish. Aileen Tone, as a niece in wish, was to bring to perfection a relationship that had begun as an only half-serious idea.
She met Adams through Airs. Banccl LaFarge and Airs. Ward Thoron, nieces of Mrs. Adams. As a member of the Schola Cantorum, Miss Tone had learned piano arrangements for old French songs, which she sang to Adams, who was fascinated. He found in their atonalities a possibility of recapturing the music of the twelfth-century poems that he so loved. He delighted in their unexpected conclusions. “They end with their tails in the air,” he used to say. The friendship deepened. Adams became disturbed when Miss Tone was away. “Come back, poor wanderer!” he wrote lier in April of 191-', adding despondently: “But you won’t.” In September he wrote again: Truly come and bring me life in some form, for I perish. I am happy and content hut cannot honestly grumble, which is a sort of suffocation. I cannot truthfully care even about Theodore [Roosevelt] and shall have four long years to admire Mr. Woodrow Wilson. The world has gone to the devil, and I smile with content. I, too, have gone to the devil, (krnic and entertain him.