They called themselves the Five of Hearts as they traded Washington gossip and sipped from heart-shaped teacups. The fivesome was notorious: Clara and John Hay (fresh out of Brown, he was President Lincoln’s secretary before becoming secretary of state); Clover and Henry Adams (she was a photographer and he, descended from two presidents, a political journalist); and Clarence King (head of the U.S. Geological Survey).
The Hays and Adamses commissioned architect H.H. Richardson to design them adjacent houses on Lafayette Square, across from the White House. Both households also owned five-of-hearts china. (The Hays’ set is in the John Hay Library.)
When Democracy, an anonymous satire, became an international best-seller in 1880, the Five of Hearts were suspected of writing it as a kind of parlor game. The book was set in a Lafayette Square salon; its socialite heroine resembled Clover, who photographed the group with each of its members holding a copy. After Henry’s death, his publisher ascribed Democracy to him, but some still suspect Clover, who died young after taking cyanide.
Another secret came out in 1901, when Clarence King died. In Harlem, well out of sight of his Washington friends, he had an African American wife, Ada Copeland, by common law, and four children. The Hays knew, but King never told Henry Adams.