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Mentelles : Mary Todd Lincoln, Henry Clay, and the Immigrant Family Who Educated Antebellum Kentucky
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Though they were not, as Charlotte claimed, refugees from the French Revolution, Augustus Waldemar and Charlotte Victoire Mentelle undoubtedly felt like exiles in their adopted hometown of Lexington, Kentucky -- a settlement that was still a frontier town when they arrived in 1798. Through the years, the cultured Parisian couple often reinvented themselves out of necessity, but their most famous venture was Mentelle's for Young Ladies, an intellectually rigorous school that attracted students from around the region and greatly influenced its most well-known pupil, Mary Todd Lincoln.
Drawing on newly translated materials and previously overlooked primary sources, Randolph Paul Runyon explores the life and times of the important but understudied pair in this intriguing dual biography. He illustrates how the Mentelles' origins and education gave them access to the higher strata of Bluegrass society even as their views on religion, politics, and culture kept them from feeling at home in America. They were intimates of statesman Henry Clay, and one of their daughters married into the Clay family, but like other immigrant families in the region, they struggled to survive.
Throughout, Runyon reveals the Mentelles as eloquent chroniclers of crucial moments in Ohio and Kentucky history, from the turn of the nineteenth century to the eve of the Civil War. They rankled at the baleful influence of conservative religion on the local college, the influence of whiskey on the local population, and the scandal of slavery in the land of liberty. This study sheds new light on the lives of a remarkable pair who not only bore witness to key events in early American history, but also had a singular impact on the lives of their friends, their students, and their community.