by Carole Duff
As a child, I was more a tomboy than a reader. Then I discovered biographies and thereafter looked forward to weekly family trips to the Town Library. My sisters and I would clutch to-be-returned library books to our chests, pass through the main floor stacks for grown-ups, then follow the scent of plastic book covers and magic tape downstairs to the basement—the children’s section. After making our selections, we’d hand the librarian our library cards. Each week, I held my breath, hoping she’d let me renew my favorite biography one more time.
Jessie Benton Frémont.
Daughter of Thomas Hart Benton, one of Missouri’s first two senators, she was named after her grandfather Jesse because her father had wanted a boy. Raised more like a son than a nineteenth century daughter, Jessie received an education in history, literature, and languages. Intelligent, witty, and gracious, Jessie often accompanied her father to Capitol Hill and the White House and with him hosted the leading politicians of the pre-Civil War period. She fiercely defended his belief in Manifest Destiny and later her own cause, Abolitionism. In 1841, Jessie married the army explorer of the West, John Charles Frémont, “the Pathfinder.” As I recall, the biography I read had an illustration of the beautiful young heroine with her handsome, daring lieutenant, and the text lingered on their romance. Or maybe I did.
Jessie had many adventures. She made the perilous journey across the Isthmus of Panama with her young daughter Lily, lived like a pioneer during the Gold Rush, championed California’s admission to the Union as a free state, then returned to Washington’s social swirl as wife of a senator, presidential candidate, then Union General. After the war, her family lived in a fabulous house on the Hudson River in New York. Due to financial reversals, however, Jessie’s last years were spent writing stories and living a quiet humble life.
I named my daughter after the heroine of my youth, though I chose Jessica rather than Jessie. My hopes for Jessica were straightforward: education, love, adventure, dedication to a cause, and resilience in the face adversity. Now that I’ve read adult biographies of Jessie Benton Frémont, I know that these hopes aren’t always as straightforward as I once thought.
Childhood family and acquaintances described Jessie as quick, energetic, charming, curious, imaginative, a “Don Quixote,” wild, impulsive, outspoken, boisterous, willful, and rebellious. She was seventeen when she eloped with Frémont, eleven years her senior, a relationship her parents considered unsuitable, given the age difference and his lack of money and credentials, both educational and social. The elopement caused a scandal in Washington society and dissention within her family, and there would be more.
“The Pathfinder” relished solitude while Jessie thrived in society. By her nature and abilities, she often upstaged her husband. The excitement and adventure of his expeditions came alive through dictated letters and narrative reports, often in Jessie’s handwriting. On the presidential campaign trail, supporters cried, “Frémont and Jessie,” and sang, “We’ll give ‘em Jessie, we’ll give ‘em Jessie; we’ll give ‘em Jessie when we rally at the polls.” A writer at the time noted that “she had a man’s power, a man’s education, and she did a man’s work in the world.”
Ironically, Jessie did not support suffrage for women. In later years, she would tell Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “I think women in their present position manage men much better.” Jessie had much to manage. Her marriage was complicated, in part because her husband was often absent, pursuing business opportunities and other women. Frémont’s aloofness, ostentation, inefficiency, and impatience with regulations made him ill-suited for political and military leadership. His business dealings were often tainted by corruption, though Jessie never doubted her husband’s innocence. His defense became her cause, including her own involvement in dubious, unscrupulous, and unsavory ventures.
Jessie’s family and friends never understood her blindness to her husband’s faults, calling Frémont “Jessie’s insanity.” Perhaps they were blind to her faults, too. Throughout her marriage, Jessie spent lavishly on herself and her children, Lily and sons Frank and Charley. She dressed in the latest fashions and loved to shop in London and Paris. At their estate in New York, Jessie hired servants to manage the orchards, vegetable gardens, dairy, henhouse, greenhouse, dogs, carriages, and boats, including teenaged Charley’s yacht, a reward for his progress in Latin. Frank had a Steinway grand piano, and Lily had horses.
After the Panic of 1873, the Frémont house of cards collapsed, and they had nothing. Jessie’s meager earnings, writing children’s stories and reminiscences, kept the family afloat until Fremont’s death in 1890. Even after his death, “Don Quixote” continued efforts to restore her husband’s name by writing the second volume of his memoir, a book that was completed but never published. The Frémont glitter was gone. Jessie spent the last years of her life with Lily, who never married, in a house donated by a committee of ladies in Los Angeles and living on a widow’s pension granted by Congress.
Sometimes I wonder if I should have given my daughter a different name, perhaps a Biblical one. But, unlike the children’s section. the Bible and other books in grow-up section of the library feature the warts-and-all messy truth of our humanity. That’s what I think about when I’m tempted to call someone a hero or heroine.
Everyone is a flawed human being. I certainly am.
Carole Duff is a veteran teacher of young women and now a writer of creative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes from Vanaprastha(http://caroleduff.wordpress.com), has written for The Perennial Gen and Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, and is working on a book-length faith memoir. Carole lives in Virginia with her husband Keith Kenny, also a writer, and two large overly-friendly shelter dogs, Heathcliff and Freya.