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The Rage Of The Aged Lion
Alone in his empty mansion, the venerable Cassius Clay took unto himself a scandalously youthful bride; when the posse came for him, they met more than their match
June 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 4
Cassius Marcellus Clay was one of the most colorful, pugnacious, and irrepressible sons of that most colorful, pugnacious, and irrepressible state, the Kentucky of old-time blue-grass tradition. Son of a pioneer Indian fighter and frontier soldier, General Green Clay, and cousin of the great Henry Clay, he was born in 1810 and he lived until 1903, surprising everyone (including himself) by dying peacefully in his bed. That hardly figured; in his ninety-three years he never ran away from a fight, and he got into many fights in a time and place when most fights went to a finish.
For twenty years before the Civil War, “Cash” Clay was that rarity, an outspoken antislavery leader in a slaveholding state. He had inherited many slaves and he set all of them free, and once when he was making an emancipationist speech a heckler asked whether he would help a runaway Negro. Clay retorted: “That would depend on which way he was running.”
Founding an antislavery paper, the True American, in Lexington, Kentucky, he prepared for trouble. He lined the street door with sheet iron, installed two brass cannon loaded with musket balls and old nails at the top of the stairway, kept a stand of rifles and muskets handy, and put two barrels of black powder, in a corner of his editorial office. The staff was instructed that if a mob ever stormed the place and, against the probabilities, managed to reach the second floor, all hands were to flee via an escape-hatch in the roof: Clay himself would stay behind to drop a match in the powder and blow the place to fragments. The fact that it never became necessary to do all of this made no difference; the setup simply expressed the way Clay met life’s challenge.
By 1860, after surviving various personal encounters (in which, he established an enduring reputation as a bowie-knife fighter of vast capacity), Clay was so well known as an antislavery leader that he got 101 votes for the Republican vice presidential nomination in the convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln for the Presidency. He stumped the Middle West for Lincoln in the campaign, and in the dark April of 1861, when Lincoln sat in the White House amid rumors that Confederate forces would march on the defenseless capital to dispossess him, Clay organized a battalion of young roughs to guard the White House and the Washington Navy Yard. To show his gratitude, Lincoln presented him with a massive Colt revolver—a weapon that Clay later put to good use. He also commissioned him a major general of volunteers, although to Clay’s regret he never actually commanded troops in combat. A little later Lincoln appointed him minister to Russia.
As a diplomat Clay probably was miscast, but his experience in Russia at least contributed an unusual chapter to the history of American diplomacy. It also, indirectly, led to a postwar episode which somehow expresses the essential character of this stormy Kentuckian; and in the following article this final portion of Clay’s career is depicted by a Kentucky biographer who has made an extensive study of Cassius Clay’s life.
When Cassius Clay resigned his diplomatic post, in his late fifties, and returned to Kentucky, he found himself in an atmosphere of extreme hostility. Plantation owners held him personally responsible for the loss of their slaves. His friends in the Republican party left him when in 1872 he came out for Horace Greeley, Democratic candidate for President. The Ku Klux Klan—then rampant in Kentucky—denounced and threatened him when he armed the Negroes and marched them to the polls to vote. But this was not all.
Launey Clay, his son by beautiful Anna Jean Petroff, a star of the Imperial Russian ballet, came from St. Petersburg to live with him. Mrs. Clay left him and moved to Lexington with her children and obtained a divorce. The Kluxers burned his barns, stole his livestock, and scared off his servants. With Lincoln’s revolver, Clay killed Perry White, who attempted to assassinate him. The Russian boy grew up shiftless and dissolute and ran away, leaving the “Old Lion of White Hall,” as Clay—with his shaggy white hair and full beard—came to be called, completely alone in his big, empty house. At times, on long summer evenings—hungry for some contact with life in any form—he would open his unscreened windows so that he might watch the bats flutter in and pick the flies off the walls.
It was about that time that people began to hear that the Old Lion, who was eighty-four, was going to marry Dora Richardson, the fifteen-year-old sister of one of his tobacco tenants. And, of course, everybody was very much up in arms about that. There is an account of all this in a contemporary newspaper story by a reporter who was destined to become one of Kentucky’s greatest authors, James Lane Allen. Dated White Hall, November 14, 1894, it reads as follows:
“The second childhood of Cassius Marcellus Clay, if this be his present state, does not prevent him from being a conspicuous figure of American history. While in his younger days he was a veritable gladiator in the exciting arena of abolition, while in his mature manhood he served his country in the halls of St. Petersburg as the American representative to that mighty nation, he is far happier today than he was receiving the plaudits of four million slaves whose shackles he had helped to loosen, or listening to the adulation of the courtiers in the American Legation at Russia’s capital.