February 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 2
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.
Their need was mutual. He wanted a companion to look after him; Mis» Tone had to support herself. It was agreed that she should become a permanent member of his household. At last lie was able to say to her: “You must write your mother and tell her you are never coming home.” Hut, of course, she still had to visit Mrs. Tone in New York, and Adams was much fretted during these necessary absences. The following are excerpts from a series of notes he sent up from Washington: I have nothing to say. except that as soon as your mother is tired of you, I wish you would remember the next train. Like Richard, I make no reproaches, mais pourtant je suis seul. Comtesse Soeur , may you make all your family happy—don’t neglect anyone—but by and by sing a Pastourelle for the poor Robin. … Of course without you I am quite helpless, and count the hours till you return. … Everything has stopped running since you went away. … Apparently Mrs. Tones’ orders that I must not be disturbed are likely to end in my burial without clergy. Tant mieux . I don’t really care. … Your letters are my only excitement. … Florence has gone to Florid. Her father is said to be dying. So am I! A lunch yesterday did it. You had better come soon if you want to see me first.
His prediction was humorous. Hc did not die for five more years. Aileen Tone survived him for more than half a century. In her little apartment on East Eighty-third Street in Manhattan, bzfore the mantel over which hung the beloved drawing of Adams by John Kriggs Potter (until it was taken oil by the Adams family to Quincy and placed in a dark room to prevent it from fading), she kept his image fresh. I remember, after the bombing of Hiroshima, her quoting from Adams’ poem to the Virgin of Chartres: “Seize, then, the Atom! rack his joints.” Scholars and biographers of Adams and of Adams’ friends—Harold Dean Cater, Ernest Samuels, Leon Edel, Edward Chalfant—came to listen and to hear the past made vivid.
I had known her from my childhood, as a friend of my parents. She was always a very special presence, a reassurance that beyond the world of immediate experience, of schools and sports and parties, there existed a cool, calm layer of experience, both intellectual and emotional, that was there for the sensitive nostril, for the Oner discrimination. She did not turn away from life in the rough; lier broad and tolerant Catholicism always kept lier from that error. She simply pleaded for equal time for the exquisite, knowing that it did not take power or money or ambition to achieve it, but only a little patience, a little industry. She was a kind of lay priestess, with a wise, worldly side to hsr kindness and understanding. She put me in mind of an eighteenth-century French abbess, one who would know that life lias to be kept constantly fresh, constantly vivid, that one must never neglect one’s mind or one s heart or one’s clothes or one s accent or one’s soul. Ailcen Tone stood for style in the deepest sense. Her God did not disdain elegance. If she was a living reproach to many of the vulgarities in American life, she was also an example of how simply they could be avoided.
In the last year of her life lier thoughts kept turning back to the summer of 1914. She had been with Adams and his niece Elsie in France at the outbreak of war. He had rented the Château de Coubertin just north of Paris, and there they were stuck without automobiles or horses until such time as they could arrange transportation home. Adams finally got hold of a horse that had not yet been fully broken and had it hitched to a carriage for the afternoon drive. His driver had been told by its owner that the creature must not be whipped, yet the first thing the idiot did was to strike it, and the little party was carried away at a gallop across country while Adams shouted with laughter. Somehow, as Miss Tone described that laughter, I had the feeling that it was the only laughter in France, the desperate, frustrated laughter of an old man who had survived to the Armageddon that he had predicted.
One day they explored a medieval tower in the neighborhood, and Miss Tone climbed to the top to see the view. Police arrived and booked the party of three as possible spies. At the station Adams became so indignant at the questions of the magistrate that he could no longer remember anything. Asked for his grandmother’s name, he turned to Miss Tone and shouted: “What the devil was my grandmother’s name?”
They finally went to Dieppe and thence to England, where they occupied Sir Ronald Lindsay’s house in Stapleton in Dorset, walking in the countryside and haunted by the sense of distant battle. Henry James came down from London to spend the night, and he and Adams sat up late talking. Miss Tone, as she thought tactfully, absented herself, but the next morning Adams told her that she should have stayed. He made it very clear that she was never to leave him. The beautiful English fall, the peaceful fields and woods, the old, distinguished, talking men, the death of youth across the Channel—it was the leavetaking of two eras.
I wanted Miss Tone to write an account of her years with Adams, an’d for some time she played with the idea, but it at last became apparent that she would never do it. Then I suggested that we should simply talk about Adams and that I should record my impressions. But when I did this and showed lier my draft, she was distressed. “Because it’s so wrong?” I asked. “No, because it’s so right,” she said sadly, “and I’m so wrong.” She would not go on with our sessions. What I am sure disturbed her was the impression that she feared she might give of remembering too keenly the early difficulties of her position. Certainly it was not easy for a young and beautiful woman to enter the household of an ailing and unsociable old man, adored by a jealous family, and to adapt herself to the rigorous routine that he had long established. As will be seen, there were moments of loneliness and frustration. But to me these fragments show how both uncle and adopted niece turned their relationship into something extraordinarily beautiful. Let Miss Tone speak for herself. Here is a day in Adams’ Washington household in 1913:
“We always walked for an hour before breakfast, which we ate on trays in the living room by a fire. Then old Dawson, Uncle Henry’s coachman, brought around the purple victoria that had once belonged to Perry Belmont, and we drove to Rock Creek Park. Uncle Henry knew its every path and turn, almost its every tree and bush, and he would plan a different walk for each morning, telling Dawson exactly where to meet us and just what time we would be there. We never failed to emerge from the park at the appointed hour and place.
“Lunch was at noon, and afterwards Uncle Henry would sleep until three. That was the hour for correspondence. I wrote out his letters in longhand under his dictation and then read him the financial news from the New York Times . He was particularly interested in the price of gold, which played so large a role in his and his brother Brooks’s Theories of history. On the dot of four Dawson would reappear with the victoria, and Uncle Henry would ask me if I had any errands or any calls to make. Sometimes, if I could think of none, we would simply sit in the stationary vehicle until he finally exclaimed, with a touch of impatience: ‘All right, Dawson, to the river!’
“Oh, that river! I once protested to Uncle Henry that the air was so damp I thought we must be below sea level. ‘But we are below sea level,’ he replied.
“There were enormous compensations in life with a man of such wisdom and kindness and sympathy, but those afternoon drives were the bad part of my day. However, then came dinner, which Uncle Henry always made into a festive occasion. We dressed, even when alone—he insisted that I should have good clothes and look well—and there was always champagne, which lie would drink in such rapid gulps that I was sometimes afraid he would choke. ‘It’s the only way to taste good champagne/ he would retort if I protested.
“He never dined out, even when asked to the White House—Tm in bed with a nurse’ was his invariable excuse—and he never asked people in, but he expected them to propose themselves. Young people were shy about this, but I soon learned to tell when he wanted company and would suggest to friends of my own, Robert and Mildred Bliss or Frank and Lily Polk, that they come in on a given night. In this way we had many pleasant parties. Uncle Henry was passionately curious to know what ‘the young men were thinking,’ but he could never bear to feel that they had come out of obligation to an old man. The impulse for the meeting had to be all on their part.”
Miss Tone believed that one of Adams’ great disappointments was that he did not appeal more to young men. He would have adored to have been surrounded by a crowd of disciples as was Justice Holmes, of whom in this respect he was very jealous. Judge Learned Hand told me once how vividly he remembered Adams’ snort and his “Very interesting, very interesting” when Hand told him that Holmes was the man he admired most in the world. Adams’ interest in young men, however, diminished if they had not come to the house to talk to him . Miss Tone did not have an easy time when her own friends came.
“I remember one awkward afternoon when a friend of mine from the British embassy called on me, and Uncle Henry refused to leave the room and was so icy that the poor young man never came again. Also, he hated to have me go out without him; if I cared about a party, I had to beg permission to attend. He would cross-examine me about my prospective host and hostess and why I wanted to go, and he could be very disparaging indeed when he wanted to be. But in the end he would always yield and say with a sigh: ‘It seems I must send you forth, a dove from my ark.’ The next morning, of course, he would want to know every detail about the party, who was there and what was said. He was quick to discover just how little he had missed.”
Then there came the terrible day, the day on which the whole plan of their life threatened to crumble.
“One evening when some old but not very interesting acquaintances of Uncle Henry’s had proposed themselves for dinner, the conversation was going very slowly. He was obviously bored, and rather thunderously silent, and I tried, in my nervousness, to save the party with small talk. The next morning in the victoria Uncle Henry said gruffly and suddenly: ‘My dear, you were a bore last night.’
“I shall never forget the pain of that moment! To be called a bore, of all things! By Uncle Henry, who could never suffer bores! I was almost blinded by the soreness of it; I was like some desperate hurt creature; I even tried to get out of the carriage. Then Uncle Henry grabbed my wrist and said, very clearly and firmly: ‘Listen to me, and I will tell you why you were a bore, and then you need never be one again. You were a bore last night because you talked about yourself. There! It’s as simple as that! And now we shan’t have to worry about it in the future.’ ”
Miss Tone was not possessed of independent means, and it had been understood from the beginning that she should receive a salary. She was always perfectly sensible and practical about such matters, but to Adams these considerations seemed to place a blot on their high friendship.
“My monthly paycheck was agony to him. He had a habit of keeping money in drawers all over the house, and on the day when my check was due he called me into his study and abruptly pulled open a drawer full of bills. ‘Take it!’ he exclaimed in the tone of one performing an impossibly distasteful duty. ‘Take it all, I beg of you!’ I insisted on taking only what was my due and proceeded to count out the correct amount. ‘This is impossible,’ he cried, and the next week he summoned his nephew Charles Adams from Boston to draw up a deed of trust. By the terms of this trust he gave me an income for my life, regardless of whether or not I should remain in his household. ‘Now you are independent/ he told me with satisfaction. ‘You can leave me tomorrow if you choose.’ But if he offered me a world of liberty with one hand, I was glad that with the other he held me to his side. This may sound possessive on his part, and perhaps it was, but Uncle Henry was old and lonely, and I had come to him of my own free will. He was terribly conscious of the sacrifice that I might be making in choosing the life that I had chosen. ‘When I first suggested that you stay/ he told me ruefully, ‘I thought I had only a few months to live. And now, look what has happened. I go on and on.”
Mrs. Adams had committed suicide in 1885, almost thirty years before Miss Tone joined Adams’ household, but her memory was always present in the very absence of references to her. All Adams’ family maintained a virtual conspiracy of silence on the theory that the subject was agonizing to Adams, that even a passing reference would cause him pain. Yet he and Miss Tone very frequently visited the tomb in Rock Creek Cemetery with the beautiful brooding statue by Saint-Gaudens. She felt that the silence was artificial, and at last she broke it.
“I said to him in the carriage: ‘Uncle Henry, I cannot bear that we never mention Aunt Clover. Won’t you tell me about her?’ He said: ‘My dear child, I should like nothing better.’ We went back to the house, and he spent hours showing me photographs of his wife and pictures of things that they had seen together. When I asked him why he had never spoken of her, he said that he had been made to feel that any reference to her would be painful to his family.”
In the last, long winter of Adams’ life Miss Tone, constantly on duty, almost wore herself out.
“I was so tired that winter. I have never before or since been so tired. Elsie Adams used to say to me, ‘Vous faites pitié.’ She urged me to go away, but I knew that I could not, and I knew that Uncle Henry could not spare me. I can only hope that he did not know how tired I was. I tried so hard to conceal it. No, I do not think that he ever knew.
“But at last I did go away—just for a weekend. I had been asked to stay with Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Fell in Virginia. It was a small house party, and Mrs. Fell made such a point of my coming that I agreed to go. I worried about Uncle Henry every minute. Finally I became so nervous that I called the house in Washington. Elsie Adams answered the telephone and tried to reassure me about Uncle Henry. I told her I was coming straight home. She insisted that it was not necessary, but I came anyway. When I got to the house I hurried upstairs, where I found Uncle Henry sitting with Elizabeth Hoyt, who was reading aloud to him. I went straight over to his side and knelt down by the low chair and put my arms around him. He was a little man, you know, and I could feel his whole body trembling. ‘Never leave me, never leave me,’ he murmured, and I replied, ‘I never will.’ Two days later, when I went into his room in the morning, I found him dead.”