- - Sunday, November 30, 2014


By Margery M. Heffron

Yale, $40, 432 pages

Very little seems to have been written about Louisa Catherine Adams, wife of President John Quincy Adams and the sixth first lady of the United States. That is a pity because she seems to be as unappreciated in death as she was in her turbulent and trying life.

It is difficult not to be deeply sorry for Louisa who suffered nine miscarriages and unending criticism from her husband, who once washed a dab of rouge off her face and always held her responsible for the financial problems of her family.

The tragedy that emerges from the fascinating biography that Margery Heffron put together before her premature death was that Louisa was not only beautiful, intelligent and witty, she possessed a remarkably realistic and cynical view of her life and wrote savage criticism of what she called “imbecilic” behavior on the part of women. In her “Adventures of a Nobody,” she scarifies the social system in which she lives and denounces its politics as “the spleen and avarice of demagogues.” The worst rose to the top, she charges, and the best and most worthy were ignored or reviled. Her biographer notes that this was “the distinctly jaundiced thinking of a woman who could over a lifetime of political turmoil apply her acute observations of politicians and the populace to advance her husband’s career.”

Louisa was the only first lady not born in America. She grew up in affluence in England and France, used her excellent French to the political advantage of her husband and became a legendary hostess in England, Czarist Russia and eventually Washington, D.C. The dark side of her life was her marriage to John Quincy Adams, and it is astonishing that it ever took place, given that it was preceded by a series of letters in which what became clear was that the couple were likely to be a disaster in matrimony. Yet those were the days when women married because without that symbolic status they were virtually ignored. Louisa lost the war of the letters when she acquiesced in her then-fiance’s unflinching requirement that she did as she was told and acknowledge his superiority. Her husband, who was arrogant, inconsiderate and humorless, held her responsible for her father’s financial irresponsibility and never let her forget it — which was especially painful for her in view of her great affection for her father.

The fact that Louisa suffered nine agonizing pregnancies before giving birth to three boys and a girl disturbed her husband as an example of what his “little woman” had to go through, yet this never gave him pause about impregnating her again. Ms. Heffron notes sadly that it took Louisa 21 years to acknowledge what she had, in fact, accomplished. “In 1836, eight years after a miserable single term in the White House and years of unhappiness she decided to chronicle her journey for the benefit of her descendants,” writes the author.

And what Louisa wrote, for its time, was devastating. She asserted that she was attempting to show “that many undertakings which appear difficult and arduous to my sex, are by no means so trying as imagination forever depicts them. Energy and discretion follow the necessity of their exertion to protect the fancied weakness of feminine imbecility.”

Ms. Heffron emphasizes, “Clearly Louisa was challenging the women of her time to forgo the ‘weakness’ to which she herself had so often fallen prey.” She proved herself by her handling of a harrowing and arduous 40-day journey from St. Petersburg to Paris at a time of real danger on the road. Her husband was so unimpressed by her valor that he was at the theater in Paris when she got there and barely mentioned her exploit in his memoirs.

It is most unfortunate that Ms. Hefron died before completing this work, which meant that she was unable to write about Louisa’s unhappy years in the White House. It is also a pity this book was not written long ago, because Heaven knows Louisa deserved justice.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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