About 30 years ago Margery M. Heffron stood before a portrait of Louisa Catherine Adams, the wife of President John Quincy Adams and a remarkable force in her own right.
"Her level, appraising glance challenged me to pay her respect," Heffron recalled in the introduction to "Louisa Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams," published in April by Yale University Press. "What was it about this fiercely independent spirit, whose place in American history has, until now, gone largely unrecognized, that enabled her eventually to win the outpouring of esteem and affection that crowned her long public and private life in her adopted country? This book is my answer to that challenge."
Heffron pursued her book with meticulousness, passion and the support of Boston Biographers Group, which she helped found. When she died in 2011, two years after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the book remained unfinished.
At that point, it was four or five years in the making. Her brother, David L. Michelmore, the book's editor and a former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette assistant managing editor, credited a "small army of friends, family and fellow writers" with completing the manuscript and getting it published.
The book ends with Adams' inauguration in 1825. That is 27 years before Louisa Catherine's death but, Mr. Michelmore said, it is also as far as his sister had been able to advance the project.
Years after she was inspired by Louisa Catherine's likeness at the Adams homestead in Massachusetts, Heffron has won warm reviews for her own portrait of a European-born first lady who mastered the nation's political and social landscapes while battling self-esteem issues. Here are excerpts from "Louisa Catherine."
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From the Introduction
At her core, she was a feminist before the term achieved currency. Throughout her life, her writings and journal entries focused on the role of women in society and within marriage. She claimed she wrote the gripping narrative of her heroic, 40-day journey in the dead of the winter of 1815 from Russia to France -- following the path of Napoleon's bloody retreat, accompanied only by her terrified 7-year-old son, a hysterical lady's maid, and two rascally servants -- to prove that "many undertakings which appear very difficult and arduous to my sex, are by no means so trying as imagination forever depicts them." In the early Victorian era in which she lived, such assertive views on the role of women were becoming unfashionable and unwelcome.
Louisa also anticipated -- by several years -- a number of causes that, as the 19th century progressed, would have critical social and political implications. She admired and corresponded with the feminist and abolitionist sisters Angelina and Sarah Grimké and assisted them in gathering material for a book about the politics of emancipation. She also understood and championed the rights of Native Americans: "The splendour of this country originated in the persecution and extermination of a large portion of the aboriginal owners of this country: and now see them rising in their strength, and struggling to maintain themselves upon the last remnants of their mighty possessions still unjustly coveted," she wrote in 1841.
Louisa's assets as the wife of a senator, ambassador, secretary of state and president were exceptional. Her fluent French -- an indispensable asset in diplomatic circles of the time -- made her unique among early first ladies. Very few women in Washington, or in the country as a whole, rivaled her combination of wide reading, accomplished writing and talent as a musician. None brought to the White House her keen understanding of diplomacy nourished by long experience in the royal courts of Prussia, Russia and Britain. She understood precisely how state business was routinely conducted at formal receptions and how the placement of a dinner guest could have international repercussions.
From 'A Fine Romance'
Louisa did not apprehend how extremely sensitive her fiancé was to the slightest remark about his grooming or attire. His mother had berated him from an early age for his "slovenly" habits and dress. When his aunt reported to her sister that the fledgling Boston lawyer "had not a pair of stockings or drawers fit to put on," Abigail had not hesitated to let him know he was disgracing the entire family by his failure to keep up appearances.
Never suspecting she was walking into a hornet's nest, Louisa dressed herself "very becomingly" and the party "drove off in high spirits expecting a delightful evening." To her delight, John Quincy, as instructed, "was very handsomely dressed in blue," with "a large napoleon hat" and "altogether looked remarkably well." When the group separated to stroll in couples around the rotunda, Louisa happily took John Quincy's arm and complimented him on his appearance. That was the last straw: "He immediately took fire and assured me that his wife must never take the liberty of interfering in those particulars, and assumed a tone so high and lofty and made so serious a grievance of the affair, that I felt offended and told him that I resign'd all pretensions to his hand, and left him as free as air to choose a lady who would be more discreet. I then dropped his arm and joined my mother with whom I staid the remainder of the evening."
From 'The Journey of a Lifetime'
Back on the road, she had traveled only a mile and a half when she began to hear women's voices shouting vicious obscenities. The carriage had become entangled with a mob of camp followers who had attached themselves to a troop of the Imperial Guard on its way to join Napoleon. In the cacophony of the women's curses, Louisa could make out specific threats: "Tear them out of the carriage" and "They are Russians" and "Take them out and kill them." As the cries grew louder, a party of soldiers seized the reins from her coachmen and turned their guns against them. Terrified, but keeping her head, Louisa removed her passports from safekeeping. When a general officer rode up beside the carriage, she calmly presented to him her official papers and affidavits. He called out to the unruly soldiers that the woman inside the carriage was not Russian but an American lady on her way to meet her husband in Paris. The troops then shouted "Vive les Américains" and made it clear they wanted to hear "Vive Napoleon!" in return. In the perfectly idiomatic French she learned in Nantes when she was 3 years old, Louisa complied, leaning out of the carriage and waving her handkerchief for good measure.
In the fall of 1820, the Adamses moved out of their rented house at 4½ and C Streets and into a spacious, brick townhouse that John Quincy had purchased at 1333 F St., within two blocks of the President's House. Louisa complained that the decision to buy the new house had been made over her objections -- "I always detested [the house] as it has in my eyes no one recommendation" -- and was annoyed that John Quincy claimed he had bought it to please her. The house, previously lived in by James and Dolley Madison and adapted by Dolley to accommodate her many social events, had fallen into disrepair after the Madisons moved into the President's House in 1809. Louisa wrote to her father-in-law that on visiting the property with a carpenter in June to "give orders as to what alterations and repairs" were to be made, she found the house in "miserable condition." On reporting the same situation to her husband and listing the improvements she thought necessary, they had, she remarked sardonically, "entered, of course, into no agreement."
Planning and superintending the work that needed to be done on the property was left entirely to Louisa. John Quincy's mind may have been on weightier matters when she informed him that she envisioned major renovations, but she forged ahead anyway. It came as something of a shock when he discovered what she was about: "On going to my office as I passed by the house I have purchased in F Street, I was surprised to find workmen employed in pulling down the wooden shed adjoining it. Mrs. Adams has made a contract with mason named Van Cable to build an addition to the house, a measure I have acquiesced inasmuch I have not expressly prevented it. I have been entangled in this and other expense almost unawares."
Copyright © 2014 by The Estate of Margery Heffron. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved.