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

""Passing Strange" tells an astounding true story that would beggar most novelists' imaginations. It exposes the bizarre secret life of a well-known historical figure, but that secret is its least sensational aspect. The secret was hidden in plain sight until Martha A. Sandweiss, the deductive historian who pieced together this narrative, happened to notice it. Her great accomplishment is to have explored not only how the 19th-century explorer and scientist Clarence King reinvented himself but also why that reinvention was so singularly American. Best of all are Ms. Sandweiss's insights into what King's deception and its consequences really mean. . . . Ms. Sandweiss offers a fine, mesmerizing account of how one extremely secretive man, 'acting from a complicated mix of loyalty and self-interest, reckless desire and social conservatism,' could encapsulate his country's shifting ideas about race in the course of one family's anything but black-and-white history."

—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

"Martha A. Sandweiss explores [King's secret life] with great sensitivity, insight and painstaking research. . . ." An "immensely fascinating work."

—Annette Gordon-Reed, Washington Post

". . .a staggeringly researched, absorbing and page-turning account of a stunning deception carried out by a complex man. . . ."

—The Ottawa Citizen

"Sandweiss is a gifted historian. . . ."

—The New Yorker

"Sandweiss (Print the Legend) serves a delicious brew of public accomplishment and domestic intrigue in this dual biography of the geologist-explorer Clarence King (1842-1901) and Ada Copeland (c. 1861-1964), a 'black, working-class woman' who was 'born a slave.' Rendered as fiction, this true tale, would seem quite implausible-'a model son of Newport and one of the most admired scientists in America,' Clarence kept secret for 13 years his marriage to Ada and their apparently contented domestic life. He kept his patrician past and celebrated present concealed as well from his wife, who believed herself the wife of James Todd, a black Pullman porter. Sandweiss provides a fascinating account of King's 'extraordinary double life as an eminent white scientist and a black workingman'; Ada's struggle 'through the legal system to assert her rightful name, give her children their true familial history, and [unsuccessfully] claim the trust fund she believed to be hers'; and rich insights into the 'distinctive American ideas about race' that allowed King to 'pass the other way across the color line, claiming African ancestry when he had none at all.' A remarkable feat of research and reporting that covers the long century from Civil War to Civil Rights, Passing Strange tells a uniquely American story of self- invention, love, deception and race."

—Publishers Weekly (*starred review)


"Passing Strange is one of those books with precisely the right title. It is indeed a story about passing, in every sense of the term, and historian Martha Sandweiss tells it with a scholar's rigor and a storyteller's verve. . . . Passing Strange is not only a lesson in the intricacies of class, race, and gender relations. It also demonstrates how to write a particular kind of history -- how, that is, to reconstruct lives in the absence of historical records."

—Columbia Journalism Review


"If any modern television or film producer conceived a story as elaborate and incredible as the one depicted by Martha A. Sandweiss in her remarkable book Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line they would have a hard time finding any studio willing to back it. Sandweiss . . . has uncovered the trued feats of pioneering scientist, author and brilliant public speaker Clarence King. This same man led a second life as black Pullman porter and steel worker James Todd. . . . Not even the deceptive path taken by critic Anatole Broyard or the decision by Walter White to be a champion for legions who distrusted his light-skinned looks compares to this constant juggling and personality switching. The fact that King/Todd did all of this long before there was any hint of radical change coming to America (the late 19th and early 20th centuries) makes what he did even more astonishing and Sandweiss' work in uncovering it more noteworthy."


"One of the best-known men of his time crosses the racial divide–in reverse.Well–born traveler, scientist, explorer and writer Clarence King enjoyed great privilege. In the words of Western historian Sandweiss . . . he went through life 'tempted by risk and attracted to the exotic but fearful of losing the social prerogatives that defined his place in the world.' When King returned from his globetrotting expeditions and settled down in New York to enjoy his fame as the bestselling author of Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, he embarked on a romance with an African-American woman named Ada Copeland. A young nursemaid who moved north from Georgia in the mid-1880s, she apparently met King sometime in 1887 or early 1888 while he was out 'slumming.' That word, the author explains, denoted a class–crossing fashionable amusement,' according to the Saturday Evening Post. King was serious about his courtship of Copeland, but it was fraught with peril for all concerned, presenting threatening possibilities for blackmail on the one hand and abandonment on the other. He decided to present himself to her as a Pullman porter named James Todd, an invented identity that 'hinged not just on one lie but a cluster of related, duplicitous assertions.' As Sandweiss notes in this sturdy work, which blends elements of social and intellectual history with biography, thousands of light–skinned blacks in that era tried to pass for white, but the number of those who did the opposite must have been tiny. Yet King married Copeland and gave up his cherished social privileges. She had borne him five children, and he was on his deathbed in 1901, when he finally told her the truth.An intriguing look at long-held secrets, Jim Crow, bad faith–and also, as Sandweiss observes, 'love and longing that transcends the historical bounds of time and place.'"

—Kirkus Reviews

". . . . Balancing scholarly exploration with readability. . . . Sandweiss demonstrates just how racial identity and inequality circumscribes behavior, adding both general background and individual perspectives on the conundrum of race in America. Her literary references add to a historical narrative that should catch the attention of both specialists and the reading public. A welcome choice for both academic and public libraries."

—Library Journal

". . . . Sandweiss relies on letters, newspaper accounts, and interviews to chronicle the extraordinary of an influential blue–eyed white man who passed for black at a time when passing generally went the other way. An engaging portrait of a man who defied social conventions but could not face up to the potential ruin of an interracial marriage."


"Although Passing Strange reads like a suspenseful novel, it introduces us to a real American hero who lived a fascinating life on both sides of the color line. Sandweiss gives us a great lesson in American history that spans three generations."

—Lawrence Otis Graham,
author of Our Kind of People

"Passing Strange combines remarkable detective work, riveting storytelling, and the enduring question of race to fashion a most unusual but very American family saga about a famous white man and a heretofore unknown black woman. This book is a stunning achievement and example of just how deeply race is woven into our history, our imaginations, and our lives. Ada Copeland, who became a Todd and then a King, rescued from obscurity by a talented historian, steals the show."

—David W. Blight,
Class of 1954 Professor of American History, Yale University; author of A Slave No More

"Passing Strange is a masterful work of scholarship and a deeply moving human story well told. Here is a riveting new narrative about a hidden history of American race relations, one filled with love, deception, and utmost tragedy on both sides of the color line."

—Neil Henry,
dean, Graduate School of Journalism, University of California at Berkeley; author of Pearl's Secret

"Passing Strange is an irresistible story of love and deception beautifully told. But it is also a major contribution to our understanding of race, class, and gender. This biography of a secret interracial marriage also tells more about the social experience of big–city life – New York in this case – than a shelf full of urban histories."

—Thomas Bender,
University Professor of the Humanities, New York University; author of The Unfinished City

"This is a wonderfully intelligent and haunting book about love and race and secrets and revelations. The secrets were personal and closely guarded. In showing how and why they remained secret, Martha Sandweiss reveals much about the American past and the American present."

—Richard White,
Margaret Byrne Professor of American History, Stanford University; author of The Middle Ground

Additional press attention for Passing Strange:

—Featured in Great New Books of February 2009 in Reader's Digest
—Subject of an interview with the author in Publishers Weekly (22 Dec. 2008)