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Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line

3.29  ·  Rating Details  ·  673 Ratings  ·  172 Reviews
Read Martha A. Sandweiss's posts on the Penguin Blog

The secret double life of the man who mapped the American West, and the woman he loved

Clarence King was a late nineteenth-century celebrity, a brilliant scientist and explorer once described by Secretary of State John Hay as "the best and brightest of his generation." But King hid a secret from his Gilded Age cohorts a
Kindle Edition, 403 pages
Published (first published 2009)
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(showing 1-30 of 1,809)
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David Monroe
Listened to the interview with the author on The Diane Rehm show ( and have to read more about this fascinating story.

"Martha Sandweiss: "Passing Strange" (Penguin)
Clarence King was a famed explorer, scientist, and hero of late nineteenth century history. But the blue-eyed and fair-skinned King also led a secret double life passing as a black man. A historian examines the secret King only revealed on his deathbed to his black wife of thirteen years."

Mar 03, 2010 Judith rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
True story: a wealthy aristocratic brilliant white guy in the late 1800's falls in love with a former slave and marries her. They set up housekeeping and have 5 children together. The catch? He tells her he is black and that he works as a Pullman porter, which explains why he is gone most of the time. Meanwhile, he leads a double life, just across the Brooklyn Bridge, traveling the world over and hanging out with his best friends who are all upper level government leaders, including secretary of ...more
Apr 06, 2011 VJ rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Just upfront I have to say that I rarely read historical biographies; I always associate it with my graduate research. It's been a while since grad school, so I thought why not, I'll give this one a shot. The premise is intriguing: a famous white geographer secretly marries a black woman, fathers four children with her, and dies with only a handful of people knowing his secret. I was amazed at the amount of time and research that went into this book, that's why I am disappointed that the author ...more
Jun 29, 2009 Joni rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, 2009
Somehow this fascinating story of a mixed marriage at the end of the 19th Century was a big slog. The story picks up after King dies, but the first half, especially before he met Ada was a full of the kind of writing that gives non-fiction a bad reputation.

Sandweiss wrote this book to shed light on Clarence King's marriage to a black woman at the end of the 1800s. She spends the first half detailing King's life as scholar, explorer, gentleman, and geologist. I had no idea King was so important i
Barbara Mader
Oct 20, 2015 Barbara Mader rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I felt this might have made a pretty interesting magazine article but that it was too slight and had far too much conjecture in it to build a book upon. Interesting idea, but too much about everything dull--too much about his debt, too many mentions of his reputation as a brilliant talker, and dear heaven, too much detail about the lawyers contacted--a whole mini-biography of one lawyer who didn't even take the case to trial. A case of an author wanting to include every bit of research done.

Rebecca Johnson
Meh. I just couldn't get interested in this. The subject matter is interesting and gives the reader a well-researched glimpse into the race-relations of the time from a perspective that isn't very common (a white man passing as a black man and marrying a black woman), but since there was so little material that documented the Kings' relationship, I found the entire book to be somewhat speculative and therefore uncompelling. I would rather read a documentary about something that definitely happen ...more
Jun 21, 2015 Caroline rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: american-history
Clarence King was a man who moved in elite social circles, an internationally-renowned explorer and geologist, friend to men such as President Theodore Roosevelt, Secretary of State John Hay, writer Henry James, historian Henry Adams. He was considered by his friends to be the brightest and best of his generation and great things were expected of him. And yet King had a secret life that no-one, not his family, friends, colleagues or admirers, knew about. King, to all the world a confirmed bachel ...more
Liz Vega
The story of a white man who chooses to pass as black. is definitely 5 stars but it is told in the most boring way possible. A true look at the life of Clarence king , a white man who lived a double life and told his wife he was a black man working as a Pullman porter and therefore had to travel a lot. He would then go on to experience notoriety surveying the American west as a white man. This is a fascinating study on the fluidity of race and race as a social construct so that I gave it three s ...more
Jun 19, 2010 Anne rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I guess I read the back of the book too quickly in the airport bookstore because I thought it was about a black man passing in white 19th century America and having a brilliant career. In fact, it is about an upper-middle-class white man, a prominent geologist and scholar, passing as a black man to marry a black nursery maid. It is a fascinating story though one with little documentation for the historian author to build upon. The book provides insight into the historian's craft as the author st ...more
Apr 10, 2013 Pamela rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
There is a lot to consider in this book - - it is the story of Clarence King, a renowned and respected scientist in the early part of the 20th century, who “passed” as a black man and married a black woman named Ada Copeland. He and Ada had 5 children in the 13 years they were together (before he died). He kept the life with Ada a secret - - telling her his name was James Todd and that he was a Pullman porter, which provided supposed proof that he was black (although he looked white), and also p ...more
May 21, 2012 Heather rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2012, pageturners
Interesting and troubling story. It's really hard to know what in the heck was really going on, and the fact that the author speculates so much (because of lack of documentation) is less than ideal.

The person with the most documentation is Clarence King, and I can't quite decide if he's a sociopath, or just a guy who was so scared to give up the privileges of his upper-class existence that he created an elaborate double life. It's also hard to reconcile the witty, loving, scientific genius that
Mar 14, 2011 Emily rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
This is an interesting story of a turn of the century, bi-racial, clandestine marriage. The work shows significant research, but after 300 pages both Clarence and Ada Copeland King remain a mystery.

King's public life is well documented and dizzying. He criss-crosses the country and the globe, dines with presidents, buys valuable art, discovers glaciers and maps California, writes a book....

Ada, born a slave, leaves Georgia for NYC, learns to read, meets a man with blue eyes who claims to be blac
Dec 29, 2010 Kelley rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
It is not surprising to find that a lot about this marriage has to be inferred from other stories of the time. It is a good book on the history of mapping the west and the development of the science of geology. It's a fascinating look at how people did "pass" and what race and interracial relationships meant through time. I was, however, disappointed in how little was really known about the marriage of the main character. It is not surprising that records don't exist, given that this was a secre ...more
I have never been so deceived by a title, subtitle, cover photo, and interview as I was with this book. It is not what it appears or claims to be, there is nothing of the romance so boldly spoken of. OH wait there are some of his love letters to her still in existence (somewhere) but most of their "life together" is speculation based on current events in newspapers and census records. The research is remarkable and deep - this was more a history lesson than anything. This is a documentary - plai ...more
I gave this book 2 stars mostly because I couldn't get myself to finish reading it. The author's research alone probably deserves more.
The basis of this book is the true story of Clarence King. A well-known geologist for the U.S. in the late 1800's. Besides being known as a white man, he also lead a double life as a black steel-worker, married to a black woman. The author has done an incredible job in researching this story- most chapters have 100 or more references.
My problem in trying to r
Suzanne Peña
it was an interesting bit of history. a white man who was well known in high social circles keeps the secret from them that he is passing as a black man with a different name and married to a black woman who doesn't know his true identity. it seems weird, even after reading his proposed reasons.

sad for his wife and children and him too.
May 27, 2009 Joanne rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
A true story, it suffers from little fact and much conjecture. In New York, 1892, a prominant white man marries a black woman, and does not reveal his true identity until 13 years later, on his death bed. His wife thinks he is a Pullman Porter working on the railroads, and he is actually having dinner at the White House, or surveying newly acquired western lands. Surprisingly, she believes him to be a black man, though he has no black features, and even has blue eyes. He was so careful to cover ...more
Meryl Sussman
First, I understand the complaints of the other reviewers. Yes, a lot of it is speculative since because the major character lived a secret life, he and his descendants did not leave a trail of clear evidence. Given that, this book is worth reading for the history of racial definitions and how malleable they were for political purposes. So every ten years, as the census was taken or other government records were completed, the racial identities of many characters were labelled in different ways- ...more
Mar 12, 2016 Elizabeth rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a very odd true love story. Clarence King was a famous explorer, geologist, and writer who lead a double life when he married a young black woman some twenty years his junior. He told her he was a Pullman porter and told her a false name. She assumed he was black in spite of his blue eyes and fair skin--who could imagine differently. He disappeared for months at a time when he went back to his life as Clarence King just as he disappeared from that life to live in Queens with his black fa ...more
Oct 20, 2015 Ruth rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This book was a huge disappointment; but perhaps if it had been more appropriately named, my reading experience would have been more satisfying. Sandweiss hasn't written a bad book, but she's written a different book from what the title implies. Because there's really little remaining evidence of what the relationship between the spouses looked like, the author is left to spend most of the book discussing the Gilded Age itself, the concepts of race and class as they existed at the time, and the ...more
Sep 20, 2011 Cass rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I read about this in the NY times book review and it sounded very good but when I got into the book, I found it was filled with...well...nothing. Things like "It might be supposed..." or "one can imagine..." I couldn't wait to finish it thinking it would go out with a blaze of glory but no, it ended on the same boring note. One of the worst books I've read.
Donna Lewis
This was a very well researched book dealing with an upper class white brilliant scientist, who fell in love with a former slave and had to keep his marriage secret in order to continue his career, without humiliating his family and causing the estrangement of his friends. This is a sad commentary about how race in the United States in the early 1900s could be a determining factor in what was essentially a private matter. Marrying a black woman and raising five mixed race children had the power ...more
Mar 12, 2015 Jenna rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Intro: 5 stars. First section: 2 stars, so many details, kind of boring. Then, finally, Section 2, 150 pages later, the love story described on the cover. 5 stars. Last section: dull. This averages out to an average book that uses awesome words (peripatetic!) and covers intriguing topics, such as "passing": stepping over the boundaries of race to gain advantage in either your private or public life without revealing your true race. Secret double lives, the dissection of a double life through dec ...more
Jul 07, 2015 Rosalyn rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Martha A. Sandweiss created an intricate and thought provoking look at the illustrated career and private life of enigmatic world renowned geologist Clarence King. Clarence King, a career geologist, writer, adventurer and friends to some of the most powerful people in the political and literary realm was beloved by all. Yet this enigmatic man with a quicksilver wit and engaging manner hid one of his greatest secrets...his thirteen year marriage to an ex-slave Ada Copeland.

The book does not paint
Oct 25, 2015 Allan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In the absence of almost any documentation, Sandweiss still manages to create a plausible account of an unlikely relationship. Ada Copland, a black woman, born into slavery just before the Civil War, comes to marry a white man, Clarence King, whose prominence as a scientist has him living another life among some of the most important people in 19th Century American society. Their marriage of course, was illicit by the standards of that society, so King contrived to become "James Todd", supposedl ...more
Apr 10, 2009 Janet rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir-bio
I thought this would be one of those books I just skimmed to get the gist of, but it turned out to be truly fascinating and enjoyable; I read every word.
Lin Roberts
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Sandy D.
A biography based on some fascinating history about a well-known geologist (first director of the USGS), mountaineer, and 19th c. celebrity - Clarence A. King. He was born in 1842, went to Yale, helped explore CA, was part of a prominent snooty RI family, and had a bunch of more famous friends (one was Lincoln's secretary of state, there were several writers, etc.).

The interesting part was that in 1888, King married an African American woman named Ada Copeland. Ada was younger, born (into slaver
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