The First Lady Who Charmed a Russian Tsar
Come for the protocol, stay for the accusation of pimping and prostitution
If you’re ever on Jeopardy!, here’s what you need to know about Louisa Adams: until Melania Trump, she was the only First Lady born outside the United States.
Her father, a merchant from Maryland, had moved to London for business, where he married and started a family.
In 1795, his 20-year-old daughter Louisa met John Quincy Adams, the son of future president John Adams. The couple married in London two years later but weren’t destined to live a quiet life at home.
Adams, a diplomat, was posted to Berlin just one month after the wedding. Two months later, Louisa joined him. She was an asset to her less socially adept husband — she spoke fluent French, was well-read, and had a good grasp of continental politics.
Then, in 1809, John accepted a post as U.S. Minister in St. Petersburg. Louisa was not happy with the faraway destination or his decision to leave their two oldest sons at home. But John overruled her protests, and they sailed with their youngest son, Louisa’s sister Catherine, two servants, and three political aides for John.
Louisa described the trip as “painful in every possible shape.”
Meeting Russia’s Royal Family
Less than a day after they arrived, John Quincy Adams was presented to the Russian court chancellor. Louisa despaired at John’s fugly wig: it was “horrid” and “entirely disfigured his countenance.”
Luckily, the fugly wig didn’t derail his prospects. The presentation went well and John met the tsar a few days later.
Now it was time for step two — meeting the tsar’s wife and mother, the two most important women at court. The court’s master of ceremonies suggested they visit Countess Litta, the grand mistress of the court, for protocol tips.
Fun fact: Countess Litta was one of the five beautiful nieces of Catherine the Great’s lover, Grigori Potemkin. He had affairs with three of them, including Countess Litta (born Ekaterina Engelhardt).
When the day of her presentation arrived, a nervous Louisa waited for the palace summons. Multiple messengers arrived, each changing the time of her appointment.
Finally, she was told to be at the palace at 1:30 pm.
Louisa hurried to get dressed in the complicated outfit required for a presentation. She arrived at the palace in a glimmering silver dress, topped with a heavy crimson velvet robe. On her feet, she wore white satin shoes. Her only jewel was a diamond arrow in her hair.
Countess Litta met her to go over the protocol one more time. When the big folding door opened, the tsar and his wife would walk up to her. When the tsarina approached, Louisa should lean forward and make like she was going to air-kiss her hand. It was all for show, however, because the tsarina wouldn’t allow this. When raising her head, Countess Litta warned Louisa not to head-butt the tsarina.
These last-minute instructions didn’t help calm Louisa’s nerves. She later wrote:
“I felt as if I was losing all my composure and with difficulty could command the tremor.”
Finally, the hall’s ornate doors were flung open.
Tsar Alexander I and Tsarina Elizaveta Alexeievna walked up to Louisa, trailed by a flock of courtiers. Everything happened exactly as planned. Louisa chatted with the tsar for the allotted fifteen minutes, then the royal couple proceeded down the hallway.
When it was over, Countess Litta congratulated her on a job well done. Louisa Adams was now officially welcome at court.
But this didn’t mean she was done for the day — now she had to meet the tsar’s mother.
When the tsar’s mother asked what she thought about Petersburg, Louisa made sure to name-drop the other cities she’d seen, including London, Paris, Berlin, and Dresden.
“Oh, my God, you’ve seen it all” replied the tsar’s mother.
Louisa knew the older woman had been expecting an American “savage,” and did her best to dispel that image.
Throughout their stay in Russia, money worries loomed large. “The style of expense is so terrible here it seems it would be impossible for us to stay,” Louisa wrote as they searched for a place to live.
Eight months after arriving, they moved from a hotel to lodgings near the Moika Canal. It was one of many places they’d live as they attempted find a balance between cost and convenience.
The government paid John a salary of $9,000, second only to President Madison’s $25,000.
Sounds great, right?
But compare that to the Swedish ambassador’s $30,000, or the French ambassador’s $350,000.
Part of a diplomat’s job was entertaining — going out, being seen, and throwing lavish parties. It was an arms race of awesomeness, and it cost money they didn’t have. According to Louisa:
“Debt or meanness is the penalty imposed by the Salary of an American minister.”
The social whirl for diplomats and their families was intense. Louisa recalled going to dinners, balls, the theatre, and even costume balls for kids (she dressed her son as an “Indian Chief”).
Not long after her presentation, the tsar’s mother invited Louisa back to the palace. But Louisa only had one court dress and didn’t want anyone to know she was too poor to afford another one. So she called in sick…and then went to a friend’s house for tea that night.
Word got back to the tsar’s mother, who let it be known that if Louisa lied again, she wouldn’t be invited back.
Life got even more complicated when Tsar Alexander I started flirting with Louisa’s sister, Catherine (called Kitty). Kitty hadn’t been presented, so courtiers were shocked when Alexander sought her out to dance at a ball.
Court protocol called for dancing in silence, but Kitty — without all that expert guidance from Madame Litta — chatted Alexander up like he was a normal person. He prolonged the dance for 25 more minutes just to be with her.
From then on, Louisa and John did their best to keep Kitty out of the tsar’s path. The last thing they wanted was a scandal, and they breathed a sigh of relief when his roving eye moved on.
What You Don’t Expect When You’re Expecting
Despite their best efforts, Louisa and John were caught up in a scandal. During the winter of 1810–1811, the tsar’s secret police intercepted a letter from Louisa’s servant that was none too complimentary to Tsar Alexander.
So the tsar cold-shouldered the family, ignoring Louisa in public and summoning her servant to the palace.
Their disgrace didn’t last long, but this strange event resurfaced during John Quincy Adams’s 1828 presidential campaign.
Andrew Jackson’s supporters said John had been “in the habit while in St. Petersburg of procuring prostitutes for the tsar.”
The truth? There were no prostitutes — just the one loose-lipped servant summoned for questioning.
At about the same time, Louisa realized she was pregnant. It was good news, but she had to be careful. She’d already had three miscarriages in four years.
Early in the pregnancy, Tsar Alexander made a fuss over her at a royal event. He brought her a chair and asked a court official to keep the jostling crowd away from her as “a careless elbow could do you great harm.”
Louisa was mortified — she didn’t know her pregnancy was common knowledge.
A few hours later, Alexander told her to go sit on the royal platform next to his wife. This was a big deviation from protocol — diplomats weren’t supposed to sit in the presence of the tsar. Louisa played it cool, politely refusing his offer. Alexander reminded her that no one says no to the tsar. “But I am a republican,” she said, which made Alexander laugh.
On August 12, 1811, Louisa gave birth to a baby girl, the first American citizen born in Russia. Later, Louise wrote:
“We dared not ask the Emperor to stand as Sponsor least it should not please in America.”
Seventeen years before his run at the presidency, Louisa and John were already keeping an eye on their personal brand.
1812…Kind of a Big Year
Despite their relative poverty and John’s lack of social graces, the couple made a good impression. According to Louisa:
“Mr. Adams [sic] position is as high as ever with the Imperial Family and that is the Sun-shine of St. Petersburgh.”
But no success could make up for what she was missing — watching her two oldest sons grow up. The separation was increasingly painful to her.
To make matters worse, her baby girl, Louisa, died on September 15, 1812, just as Napoleon was invading Moscow.
Louisa was in agony — sick, tired, and depressed. She felt guilty for being unable to save her only daughter:
“My heart is buried in my Louisa’s grave and my greatest longing is to be laid beside her.”
The diary entries where Louisa struggles with guilt and depression are painful to read.
John didn’t help.
He noticed her erratic behavior and accused her of being a jealous wife. Louisa struggled to find a way back to herself:
“For those I love no sacrifice will ever be too great…I feel what a burthen I must be to all around me and it is this which has made me so solisitous [sic] to return home.”
Louisa clearly wanted to get the hell out of Russia, but the political situation was a literal and metaphorical dumpster fire. Napoleon had inflamed nationalistic and revolutionary sentiment all across Europe. The retreating Russians had set Moscow on fire to keep the French from making use of it. Back home, the invading British had set the White House on fire, too.
Louisa had no choice but to wait for it all out. Relying on her inner strength and her religious faith, she eventually pulled herself together.
Then, in 1814, President Madison sent John to Belgium to negotiate the treaty that would end the War of 1812.
He never returned to Russia.
In January of 1815, John wrote to Louisa and asked her to join him in Paris, as he awaited Madison’s next orders.
All on her own, Louisa had to close up shop in St. Petersburg and transport herself, her son, and her household across war-torn Europe.
In my next story, I’ll tell you how she did it — and the unexpected crisis she stumbled straight into.
SourcesAll quotes come from the book of Louisa’s own writings, listed below. The details on ambassadors’ salaries come from Allgor.Adams, Louisa Catherine. A Traveled First Lady: Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams. Edited by Margaret A. Hogan and C. James Taylor. Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2014.Allgor, Catherine. “’A Republican in a Monarchy’: Louisa Catherine Adams in Russia.” Diplomatic History 21, no. 1 (1997): 15–43. Accessed October 15, 2020. Montefiore, Simon Sebag. Potemkin: Catherine the Great’s Imperial Partner. New York: Vintage Books, 2005.