Pay, pack and follow, at convenience


She was neither the first nor the last diplomatic wife to receive the directive, later reduced to six words: “Pay, pack and follow, at convenience.” The version that reached Louisa Catherine Adams in January 1815 was less succinct — her husband was John Adams’s son after all — but she could hardly have complied more swiftly. In three weeks she had crated up the St. Petersburg household, settled the accounts and prepared to set off, across 2,000 miles, to join her husband in Paris. It was winter. Europe remained pockmarked by the Napoleonic Wars. With her Mrs. Adams would take knives and forks; hidden bags of gold and silver; a governess; two servants, one of them trustworthy; and 7-year-old Charles Francis Adams, whose third language was English. They set out late on the afternoon of Feb. 12. It was Mrs. Adams’s 40th birthday. There was some reason for the eager departure from Russia, to which John Quincy Adams had been posted in 1809. His was largely a ceremonial office. A St. Petersburg winter lasts from six to eight months. Neither Adams took naturally to diplomatic life, which in the court of Alexander I consisted of a debilitating round of balls, all-night marathons that left the Adamses to crawl from their beds the next afternoon with aching heads and parched throats. They endured as well the tribulation of every early American envoy abroad: how to survive in the most opulent of European courts on a preposterously low Congressional allowance? Especially to the London-bred Louisa Adams — she remains America’s only foreign-born first lady — the wardrobe-related indignities abounded. She had moreover held down the fort alone for nearly a year.

more from Stacy Schiff at the NYT here.