Frederick Douglass: A Chick Magnet
The Secret Loves of Frederick Douglass
It was like visiting a shrine, a holy place dedicated to the memory of a beloved ancestor. That’s how I felt on that steamy Saturday afternoon during the heat wave last August, when I entered Cedar Hill, a stately white mansion perched high on a hill in the impoverished black Anacosta section of the nations Capitol, which was the last earthly home of Frederick Douglass before he danced off and joined the gods.Everything was pretty much as it had been when the great black abolitionist orator, editor, and human rights activist dropped dead of a heart attack in the foyer at the age of seventy seven, one hundred and four years ago. A red light still marks the spot where he fell while leaving to attend a meeting – probably to offer eloquent argument in defense of black America’s rapidly deteriorating civil rights, which were evaporating like water in the Mississippi sun only four years before the Plessy vs. Furgueson decision.
Although I had read and reread Douglass’ writings many times since I first discovered them in the sixties – the three autobiographies and his many commentaries on the great issues of his times – it took my reading of Maria Diedrich’s wonderful new book, “Love Across Color Lines,” to inspire me to finally visit the home where the great Afro-American leader lived the last eighteen years of his illustrious life. Diedrich, a professor of American studies at the university of Munster in Germany, is a meticulous and enterprising scholar who has unearthed the long buried love affair between Frederick Douglass and the German intellectual/ writer/ activist Ottilie Assing, who introduced Douglass to the German public by translating his autobiography and writing voluminous articles about him in leading European journals for over twenty years. In this richly documented and exquisitely written book Dr. Dedrich has presented us with a tragic love story for the ages, while enriching our knowledge of the intellectual currents which informed the radical movements in nineteenth century Germany and the USA.
Employing the techniques of the historian and the novelist, Diedrich has read widely in the scholarly studies on the period and uses that knowledge to enrich what the contemporary documents – which include 91 letters Ottilie wrote to her sister Ludmilla, the memoirs of their contemporaries and confidantes, the published and unpublished journalistic writings of Assing, the letters of Frederick Douglass to friends, etc. – have to tell us, then she skillfully fills in the gaps with imaginative speculations.
It was her use of these techniques in describing Assings’ reaction to Cedar Hill that sparked my desire to go there. “Assing was enchanted by Cedar Hill,” Dedrich writes…”and her irreverent nature no doubt made her chuckle at the way Washington lay literally at his feet, exposed to his commanding gaze. The house upon the hill was a symbol of his empowerment.” As I strolled through Douglass’ house the Greco-Roman statuary, the paintings – which included images of black male heroism such as a rendering of the charge of the 54th Massachusetts regiment at Fort Wagner, and a battle field portrait of Alexander Dumas Cest, the great black Calvary general in the Army of Napoleon Bonaparte – and his wide ranging selection of books, some of which had been removed for reasons of preservation, all took on a special meaning to me because of the intimate view Dedrich had provided us of the forces which shaped Douglass’ artistic taste and eclectic intellectual interest. One of those forces was Ms. Ottilie Assing, who taught Douglass German and introduced him to the writings of some of the great German philosophers.
I was especially interested in looking at the layout of the master bedroom, whose design, according to the learned speculations of professor Dedrich, spoke volumes about the bold and adventurous nature of their twenty-eight year love affair. “Upstairs,” she tells us, “the bedrooms were arranged in an unusual way, with the master bedroom separated from one guest room only by a velvet curtain…Had Douglass finally been able to design a private space for himself and Ottilie?”
Standing in Douglass’ bedroom looking at the flimsy red curtain which serves as a partition, then observing that his wife Anna’s bedroom was across the hall one is forced to wonder along with Dr. Dedrich what was going on. The situation looks especially suspect since it is well established that Assing spent several months a year in the Douglass’ residence for two decades. And, as Dedrich points out, Assing was not the first European woman to play a role in Douglass’ life and hang out at his house.
Indeed, his relationship with the British intellectual /writer/abolitionist Julia Griffiths, provoked an earlier scandal because of all the time she spent at his house in Rochester, New York, where he spent much of his adult life. Griffiths was working closely with Douglass in a heroic effort to put out his newspaper “The North Star,” a major anti-slavery organ, a copy of which was prominently displayed on the desk in his study atHowever at six foot four and over two hundred pounds, with a the well muscled body of a blacksmith and the handsome countenance of a leading man of the theater, a gift for language – historian and biographer Benjamin Quarles says Douglass seemed incapable of writing a bad line – and blessed with a marvelous vocal instrument which, when wedded to his mastery of rhetoric, had the power to move masses to action in behalf of his cause, a cause that included the emancipation of women, Frederick Douglass was a sexual magnet to the ladies, especially educated white ladies. Professor Diedrich tells us “Douglass was surrounded with enamored white women of this class wherever he traveled.”
And none was more enchanted with Douglass than Ottilie Assing, who described him as “magical.” As a self-confident intellectual who spoke several languages, an accomplished writer, a learned critic of the visual arts, literature and theater, a seasoned radical forged in the Young German and Free Thinker’s movements that were part of the failed German revolution of 1848, an actress and musician who accompanied Douglass on piano while he played his beloved violin, a feminist, militant atheist and passionate abolitionist, Ottilie was Fred’s kind of girl.
The fact that the blond curly haired Ottilie was described by a contemporary as “A beautiful girl with an opulent body” also worked in her favor. For, as Deidrich points out, “Douglass was not enchanted by the Victorian ideal of the submissive child wife, the bloodless, languishing beauty; he embraced what he himself represented: Vitality and power.” However it was Douglass’ increasing admiration of intellectual women that created an insurmountable barrier between him and his wife of forty-five years, Anna Murray Douglass. A free born woman, Anna, who is described by Assing and other white visitors to the Douglass home as “pure black,” chose to remain illiterate her entire life.
Given Douglass’ love of learning – a love that compelled him to secretly learn to read under penalty of death – his half-century marriage to Anna Murray was an act of heroic loyalty and great personal sacrifice. Hence before sitting in judgment on Douglass’ extra-marital affairs, we must take this fact into account. One of the many achievements of this book is professor Diedrich’s understanding of the importance of intellectual give and take between people who value ideas, and the deadening silence and tensions that must have occurred between Fred and Anna Douglass due to her refusal to educate herself. Especially since she was the mother of his five children!
The unequal intellectual development between Frederick Douglass and his wife was a major thorn in the side of Ottilie Assing, who thought her unworthy of him and regarded her, along with many of his white colleagues, as “The mistake of his youth.” As a German romantic who believed that true love should conquer all, Assing regarded marriage as a bourgeois convention that should not be allowed to stand in the way of realizing an ideal union.
Hence there was no shame in her game as she openly consorted with a married man, contemptuously flouting the Victorian mores of 19th century America. And the fact that Fred and Ottilie’s secret nickname for Anna was “border state,” which, in the American reality of the time, symbolized a region that separated slavery from freedom, raises a compelling question as to exactly how Douglass viewed his wife of nearly fifty years.
In the end however, there remains a question as to what Douglass really thought of Assing too. One of the things that sustained Ottilie Assing in her long affair with Frederick Douglass was her belief that were Douglass ever to become free of his wife he would marry her. She believed to her soul that she, the “half-Jewess,” as she was called in her native Germany, and Douglass, the American Mulatto, were a perfect match. But when Anna Murray died Frederick Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white woman who was twenty years younger!
Assing learned about the marriage while on holiday in Europe and committed suicide by drinking poison in an elegant Paris park, leaving Douglass a trust fund, which would pay him a fixed sum of money every six months for the rest of his life. Professor Deidrich hints that perhaps this was Assing’s way of haunting Douglass, but it sounds like what the old folks used to call “grave yard love” to me. This book deserves to be made into a major motion picture, but considering American anathema toward erotic attractions between top shelf white females and black males, I wouldn’t hold my breath.