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

3.23 of 5 stars 3.23  ·  rating details  ·  585 ratings  ·  156 reviews
Clarence King is a hero of nineteenth-century western history. Brilliant scientist and witty conversationalist, bestselling author and architect of the great surveys that mapped the West after the Civil War, King was named by John Hay "the best and brightest of his generation." But King hid a secret from his Gilded Age cohorts and prominent family in Newport: for thirteen ...more
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Published March 10th 2009 by Tantor Media (first published 2009)
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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."

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
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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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
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
Barbara Mader
I felt this might have made a pretty interesting magazine article but that it was too slight and with far too much conjecture to build a book upon. Interesting idea, but too much about everything dull--too much about his debt, too many mentions of his reputation of 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.

The very
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
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
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.
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
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
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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
From the book description, “Clarence King is a hero of nineteenth century western history; a brilliant scientist and witty conversationalist, best-selling author and architect of the great surveys that mapped the West after the Civil War. Secretary of State John Hay named King “the best and brightest of his generation.” But King hid a secret from his Gilded Age cohorts and prominent family in Newport: for thirteen years he lived a double life—as the celebrated white explorer, geologist and write ...more
I was drawn in by the opening chapter with the census-taker. Then the story of white Clarence King and his black common-law wife, Ada Copeland, slowed down. There is not enough extant material BETWEEN the couple. The story of the brilliant Clarence King is fine, but his secret is TOO secret. The oddest part of the book is actually my assumption about the story - I believed it concerned a black man passing as white. Even after I read the blurb on the back, I kept black-to-white in my mind. Here I ...more
Frank Stein
An unbelievable story told with verve and insight. This book is partially a biography of Clarence King, a famed author and friend of notables like John Hay (Secretary of State under Roosevelt, who called King "the best and brightest of his generation") and Henry Adams (of "The Education of Henry Adams" fame), who was also the first director of the United States Geological Survey (1879-1881). What Sandweiss shows here, though, is that he lived a secret double life, spending years pretending to be ...more
Peg Lotvin
Passing Strange is a strange title, but not more than this story of a life. I first heard of Clarence King in the early '60s in a Historical Geology class. He was born in the early 1800s to an upper-class family in Newport, RI (before Newport became what it became in the late 1800s and early 1900s). Clarence had the best education, the most important friends, but his father disappeared early in his life. He went on to become one of the most improtant geologists of his century. He organized and w ...more
Did you catch the author on NPR talking about this book? I felt so au courant! I don't usually lean toward nonfiction, but this book was interesting. It tells the story of a white man well known as a geologic explorer and scientist who leads a double life also passing as a black man in order to marry and have a family with a black woman former slave.

It was a fascinating glimpse of the post-civil war time of western exploration and reconstruction, and gave some uncomfortable insights into the im
This book has a fantastic premise: a white man who is a semi-famous geologist and author working for the US government and living the NYC social life of the late 1880s, who has a 2nd life as a black man and father of four to a woman who lives her life in wait for his affections. Unfortunately, it's really boring and bogged down with information that may have been interesting to stumble across while doing research, but that isn't really woven into the narrative very well.

The stringing along from
Clarence King (1842-1901) is a man known to few Americans today. Yet when he lived, he had enjoyed a high regard and reputation as a geologist, explorer, first director of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), and writer of "Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada." King also had friends in high places (such as Henry Adams and John Hay, who, in his early 20s, had served as a social secretary to President Lincoln and later served as Secretary of State under President McKinley) and was much love ...more
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