L.Q.C. Lamar’s humor and reading habits

Published 6:00 am Sunday, April 24, 2016

By Jack Mayfield

Some time ago, I was looking for some new stories to pass along in my column on the life of Mississippi’s most famous statesman, L.Q.C. Lamar.

I wanted to find some information on the light or humorous side of Lamar’s life. One story I found concerned an event that happened in 1885.

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In a book written in 1907 by a relative of Lamar, Lucian Lamar Knight, titled “Reminiscences of Famous Georgians,” the event happened after the death of Lamar’s wife, Jenny, and during the period he was a member of President Cleveland’s Cabinet.

All the years that Lamar was in Congress, both before and after the Civil War, he had always lodged in hotels in Washington. He had never rented a home or apartment or even purchased a home in Washington. He would remain in Washington only when Congress was in session and then go back to Mississippi to be with Jenny and his family.

In 1885, when he was appointed the Secretary of the Interior in Cleveland’s Cabinet, he decided that since he would now be in Washington the year round and not just while Congress was in session, he decided to rent a home, on a yearly basis, and remain in Washington permanently.

Lamar found a home, not too far for his office in the Interior Department, that a Mrs. Dahlgreen had prepared for rent on a yearly basis. It was an elegant house in the Georgetown area of Washington. Supposing his yearly salary of $8,000 to be ample for all purposes of renting a home and this house just suited Lamar.

Ushered into the presence of the owner of the home, he told her he was anxious to lease the place at once, and he hoped he had come early enough to forestall any one else seeking to rent the home. The owner was exceedingly cordial, expressing her gratification at the opportunity of leasing the elegant home to one so distinguished as Lamar. She then named the rental price she expected it to bring.

The newly appointed secretary thought perhaps his ears were at fault when the figure was mentioned. “How much did you say the rental was?” he asked.

“Seven thousand, five hundred dollars a year,” she repeated.

Lamar was thunderstruck. He had not calculated on meeting such an obstacle. He sat perfectly still for several moments with his eyes bent upon the carpet, apparently absorbed in profound thought.

“Are you ill, Mr. Lamar?” the lady asked with evident anxiety. “No, madam,” returned the secretary, lifting his dreamy eyes from the floor. “I was only wondering what I would do with the rest of my salary.”

Another humorous event happened while Lamar rode the streetcar from his hotel to the Capitol Building during his term in Congress after the Civil War. One day after boarding the streetcar, he took a seat beside an apparently intemperate man who was about to be ejected from the streetcar because he had no money for the fare.

Quick in his sympathy for the man, Lamar reached into his pocket and handed the conductor a nickel for the fare of the drunken man. The man gazed stupidly at his benefactor for something like five minutes, and then as if suddenly recognizing an old acquaintance, he stated, “How d’yer do General Butler? I thought I know’d yer. Wuzn’t we both at New Orleans?”

With these words he put forth his hand, which Lamar took. But the whole streetcar was now laughing at the joke. Turning to some one who sat near him, Lamar said, “You don’t think he takes me for Ben Butler, do you?”

Lamar was not left in the dark long when the man spoke, after scanning his features more minutely.

“Got yer eye fixed sense we was at New Orleans, hain’t yer?”

Suddenly Lamar happened to remember that he had ridden as far as he wished, and clutching his papers he politely bade his old comrade adieu and left the car at the next corner.

Another incident happened also on the streetcar while Lamar was on his way to the White House for a Cabinet meeting. Lamar was engrossed in reading as he did most days while ridding the streetcar. Other passengers on the streetcar, I am sure, thought he was engrossed in some government papers, but he was reading a novel.

Strange as it may seem in one whose legal learning was so profound, Lamar was passionately fond of light literature or what some might call a “beach novel.” He usually whiled away his leisure moments by indulging his tastes in that direction.

When Lamar stepped down from the streetcar at the White House, a throng of correspondents greeted him. Lamar cordially returned the greeting, but in doing so he dropped his rather official-looking portfolio to the ground. Out popped some six novels. The polite correspondent assisted the secretary, who was somewhat embarrassed, in picking up the “seaside novels.”

At that moment he wished he was somewhere else or that the correspondents were somewhere else. He graciously thanked the men for coming to his rescue, and stuffed the books back into his portfolio and walked with dignified steps into the White House.

Jack Mayfield is an Oxford resident and historian. Contact him at jlmayfield@dixie-net.com.