Noe Valley Voice September 2006

Mary's Defender: Janis Cooke Newman

By Olivia Boler

After much anticipation, Janis Cooke Newman's second book arrives in bookstores on Sept. 8. It's called Mary: A Novel, and the 706-page work of historical fiction explores the life of Mary Todd Lincoln, President Abraham Lincoln's remarkable wife.

Newman, 51, became intrigued by Mrs. Lincoln during a tour of Ford's Theater, where John Wilkes Booth assassinated the president. Newman learned that the president's widow had become extremely depressed after her husband's death, and that her son Robert Lincoln had put her in an insane asylum in 1875.

Newman, who lives in Glen Park ("I like to think of it as Noe Valley South"), is the author of a memoir, The Russian Word for Snow, about the adoption of her son, Alex. A journalist as well, she also wrote a regular column for the Noe Valley Voice, from 1999 to 2003. Recently, the Voice sat down with Newman to chat about Mary, madness in the Victorian era, and the debatable sexiness of a five-dollar bill.

Noe Valley Voice: What is Mary about?

Janis Cooke Newman: It's about different things on different levels. [Former San Francisco Chronicle columnist] Adair Lara said to me, "You're rescuing Mary Todd Lincoln from the slag heap of history." From a historical point of view, I feel I have become Mary's defender.

As a novel, it's about a woman searching for love after her mother dies--first from a husband who has difficulty with affection and passion, and then from a son from whom she tries to get affection and love.

NVV: Why did you decide to write this book?

JCN: I feel the story really found me. That day at the boarding house where Lincoln died and the tour guide described her grief, I really felt like her spirit was there. And all the descriptions I heard of her were always derogatory. At the time, she was the most hated woman in America aside from this abortionist in New York. After Lincoln died, she had terrible debts, and it took years for his estate to be settled. She kept petitioning Congress for some sort of pension. And then she tried to sell her clothes, which was hugely scandalous. She didn't act the way the public expects a president's widow to act, in the way the public still expects. Like Jackie Kennedy: The president's widow should be retiring and dignified. She should disappear, not marry Aristotle Onassis.

Mary was very outspoken and people didn't want her to be outspoken. For her, it was a big conflict because she was raised to be a Southern belle [in Lexington, Ky.], and that was important to her, yet she was also ambitious and smart and wanted to be a president's wife. Growing up, she heard a lot about politics because politicians came to her father's house, but Mary knew, as a lady, she was not supposed to be ambitious or care about politics. So she would try to find a way to justify her ambition to herself. In her mind, women exert power over men behind the scenes. But she had terrible impulse control and almost could not help herself in stepping into the scenes anyway.

NVV: Do you think Mary was "mad"? It seems that madness was equated with passion back in those days. Lincoln also seems wary of Mary's passion--he's afraid of going mad himself.

JCN: No, she was not insane. She was very highly strung and neurotic. She also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after Lincoln's death, and it got worse at the 10-year anniversary of Lincoln's killing. Her behavior points to it. She had trouble sleeping. Doctors prescribed a mix of laudanum and chloral hydrate, and the side effects can cause hallucinations and paranoia.

As for passion being equated to madness, that is a theme in the Victorian age--any strong passion is tied to insanity. Lincoln believed in logic and rationality, and he did fear madness. In the novel, he recounts to Mary the story of a young man he knew who went crazy. That was a true story and he was really affected by it. Lincoln also suffered from melancholy. And he thought that passion was irrational. So, the two ideas of passion and madness really fell together for me as I wrote the book.

I do believe that Lincoln and Mary really were truly in love. They endured a lot together, and there are accounts of their physical affection. She would always be touching him, holding his hand, smoothing his hair. In the President's House, they had separate bedrooms, but if someone needed to find him, often they would find him with her in her bed. And she spoke of it all the time, how much she loved him.

NVV: What do you think of their oldest son, Robert Lincoln?

JCN: It's funny. My copy editor said to me once, "That Robert Lincoln--what a beast!" He is a fabulous villain to have in a book. But he did have a really difficult childhood and life. He was handsome except for having one crossed eye. His father, trying to make a name for himself in the political arena, wasn't around much during Robert's youth, and being the son of one of the greatest American presidents didn't help either. He was also a very conventional person, and hated his mother drawing attention to herself or acting unladylike.

NVV: What kind of research did you do? Did you get to do any traveling?

JCN: I did a lot of reading. Jean Baker's book [Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography] was essential. I'm not a historian, but when I go to write and create, I want every aspect of a scene to be accurate. It's easy to find out what places looked like. And the Internet is helpful. It's not hard to uncover information about Lincoln--there's just so much out there.

And I did go to the places in the book. I visited Mary Lincoln's house in Lexington, Kentucky, where she grew up. I also went there because I wanted to hear the accent. In Springfield, Illinois, I saw the Lincolns' house and his law office. I visited the state house where he made his speeches. In Batavia, Illinois, I saw the asylum where Mary was committed by Robert. It's now an apartment building, but it looks the same as it did when she was there. There's a museum nearby with a re-creation of Mary's room.

NVV: What was fun about writing the book?

JCN: Well, I love this time period. There are all sorts of strange things about it. There's the way people would treat lunatics and the way lunatic asylums were at the time. There were all sorts of strange remedies like tree bark for cholera. And there's the sense of the occult throughout. The séance stuff was the most fun. Everyone was a spiritualist at the time--it was really popular. I got really involved in researching it. I even wound up at a spiritualist church in San Francisco. You know, you have someone like Mary, who grew up well educated on a plantation in the care of slaves, and all around her was this slave culture with its strong beliefs in conjuring, and she was exposed to that.

NVV: What was the most difficult thing about writing the book?

JCN: Killing off her sons. I have a son who is 11 years old, and every time I had to write the death of one of Mary's sons, I had to put myself in her body and feel the grief. I had to write these scenes--and they all died at three different ages. While rewriting the death of Willy [the Lincolns' third of four sons], I had horrible dreams.

NVV: You've joked that you'll never look at a five-dollar bill the same way again. Can you elaborate?

JCN: Well, because I had to think of Lincoln as a sex object because that's how he was to Mary! [laughs] Before he died, they had this famous kiss and this intense conversation, and I had to write about it, and it's Abraham Lincoln! Now John Wilkes Booth was a sexy guy--it would have been much easier to imagine it for him.

NVV: Talk a little bit about your writing career.

JCN: I do travel writing for the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. I got into it while working on my first book. Memoirs are like cheap therapy done by an amateur and all by yourself. You spend all these hours delving within yourself, so to take a break, I would spend some hours writing travel. I started writing for the Noe Valley Voice after we moved from Marin to the city when Alex was 4. I read the Voice and I thought, What a cool paper. So I begged Sally [Smith, the editor] to let me write something. We came up with an essay for the Last Page about moving to the city. I kept pestering her for a column and we decided it had to be something useful. We came up with travel writing about places to take kids in the Bay Area ["Are We There Yet? Family Adventures Close to Home"]. I only stopped when I got the contract for Mary.

I teach classes for Book Passage, both in Marin and at the Ferry Building. I also teach classes with the Writing Salon, and I have a private women-only class that I run. Those women are so great--they kept me from getting too weird while writing Mary. There were all these intense days of writing alone with no time off, especially in the last few months because the book was a year late. I owe a debt to my students--they kept me from becoming a crazy lady hermit.

Janis Cooke Newman will be signing Mary: A Novel at Cover to Cover Booksellers, 1307 Castro Street, on Sunday, Oct. 29, at 4 p.m. A portion of the sale of her books will be donated to Synergy School. In addition, she'll appear at Bookshop West Portal on Sept. 13 and Books Inc. at Opera Plaza on Oct. 4.

From Chapter 1 of Janis Cooke Newman's Mary: A Novel

(May 20)

Mrs. Mary Lincoln admitted today--from Chicago--Age 56--Widow of Ex-President Lincoln--declared insane by the Cook County Court May 19--1875.

--Patient Progress Report from Bellevue Place Sanitarium

I read today the account of my attempt at suicide. It was printed in the Chicago Inter Ocean--on the front page, where appear all the worst stories about me. This is not to say that Doctor Patterson allows the eighteen female lunatics under his care newspapers. Indeed, he believes all news of the outside world to be excessively agitating.

It is Doctor Patterson's opinion that the tumult of late-nineteenth-century life is responsible for diseases of the brain. He explained to me during our first interview that female nerves--which are smaller than those of men--are more likely to be drained of their vitality by the chaos of modern life.

"Newspapers would only serve to overstimulate your already deranged mind," he told me.

Our interview was conducted in Doctor Patterson's office, which is fitted up like a lady's boudoir, with velvet chaises and a great many needleworked pillows. A décor designed to make comfortable the doctor's patients, all of whom are possessed of those female nerves.

"I do not believe that my mind is deranged," I said to the doctor. "Addled from too much chloral hydrate and laudanum, perhaps. Unsettled by the ten-year anniversary of my husband's killing. But not deranged."

The doctor pulled at his coarsely curled hair, which he wears quite full in the back, as if to give the impression of a very large brain. "Your bladder is hysterical," he informed me.

"My bladder, I believe, was damaged by the birth of my last son."

"You are also possessed of an irritated spine."

"It is an arthritic condition which has come upon me since I passed fifty."

"And you have engaged in the religious excitement of séance."

"As has Queen Victoria and fully one-third of the gentlemen of my husband's cabinet."

I had perhaps sounded too definite in defense of my sanity, for Doctor Patterson raked at his unruly beard with impatience.

"How long shall I have to stay at Bellevue Place?" I asked, in a tone more meek.

Doctor Patterson relaxed back in his leather chair, the only masculine furniture in the room. "You should not dwell too much upon leaving," he told me.

"But seeing an end to my time here will make the days more tolerable."

I watched the doctor handle the paperweight he kept upon his desk, a dragonfly caught in amber--an object which feels cruel to me, put before ladies who have been committed here.

"You will remain at Bellevue Place," said Doctor Patterson, "until I--and your son--determine that your reason has been restored."

"And how shall you determine such a thing?"

The doctor rose and went to stand before a lace-curtained window which looked out upon the lawns surrounding the asylum. "Treatment at Bellevue Place," he explained, "is based upon the wholesome benefits of fresh air, moderate exercise, and the therapeutic effects of cooling baths, in addition to the essential practice--particularly for those of the female sex--of moral restraint." He turned to regard me with a stern expression. "I shall decide your sanity by your willingness to participate in these activities."

"I shall do whatever you require to prove my underangement," I told him.

* * *

I have been told by the doctor's wife that my room is one of the best of the asylum, in recognition of the position I once held. That may be so--I have not seen where the other inmates are kept. Still, the room makes me think too much of a second-class boardinghouse. The bureau is oak and was once decorated with acanthus leaves, which have long since fallen away, leaving behind their ghostly outlines. I have also a rocker which has been made to an odd geometry, and when I sit upon it, it makes me feel as if it wishes nothing more than to pitch me to the floor. The room possesses a table, covered with a cloth which has lost half its tassels, and a strange little desk decorated with the carved face of an angel at the joining of each of its legs. Only the mattress is new, for I had it brought here on my first day--less to keep myself from sleeping upon bedbugs, as to avoid placing my head where others have dreamt their mad dreams.

I have a view of the river from my one window, but there are bars over the glass.

Shutting the door behind me--although a desire for privacy is thought at Bellevue Place to demonstrate an unwillingness to participate in the institution's therapeutic activities--I dropped into the inhospitable rocker and took the newspaper clipping from my pocket.

"On the evening following her trial for insanity," I read between the cuts on the page, "Mrs. Lincoln, overcome by melancholy, eluded the Pinkerton guards stationed outside the door of her hotel room and escaped to the pharmacy of Squair & Company. Acting in appearance both anxious and uncoherent, Mrs. Lincoln demanded of the druggist a lethal mixture of laudanum and camphor. When Mr. Squair expressed concern over providing such a poisonous concoction, the despairing lady informed him that she intended to use the potion to bathe a neuralgic shoulder. Unable to dissuade Mrs. Lincoln from her request, the druggist retired to a back room, and after some short moments, during which the demented lady grew increasingly agitated, Mr. Squair returned with a bottle marked 'Laudanum--poison.' Grabbing the potion from the druggist's hand, Mrs. Lincoln rushed into the street; whereupon, she immediately poured the entire contents into her throat. Then, she returned to her hotel to await her death.

"The nation was only spared further sorrow by the fact that Mr. Squair had recognized the Widow of the Martyred President beneath her veil, and divining her purpose, substituted burnt sugar water for the laudanum."

No one would believe this of me, I told myself. No one would believe that a fifty-six-year-old lady who is slightly arthritic and plumper than she should be could escape two Pinkertons. No one who knows me could believe that after all which has happened in my life, I would choose to end my life over commitment to the madhouse.

But of course they will believe it. For now that I have been proven insane, anything might be believed of me.

Excerpt from Mary: A Novel by Janis Cooke Newman. Copyright © 2006. Permission granted by MacAdam/Cage Publishing.