Commissioned in 1835 from the artist Charles Cromwell Ingham, this portrait of Hyde Hall’s first chatelaine, Ann Low Cary Cooper Clarke (circa 1780 – 1850), is an idealized image of her as a young woman, arguably around the time she married George the Builder in 1814. (It belongs to the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown.)
Daughter of one of George Washington’s aides and once described as “beautiful and reckless,” Ann married, in 1801, Richard Fenimore Cooper, an elder brother of the famous novelist; he died in 1813 when she was pregnant with their fifth child. Or was she? Gossips certainly believed Alfred Cooper Clarke, as that child was known, was actually the son of George Clarke of Hyde Hall, whom Ann married about a year after Alfred’s birth.
As Wayne Franklin, a biographer of James Fenimore Cooper has written, “Ann was carrying on more-or-less openly” with George Clarke during the final years of her first marriage. Clarke was married too, with a wife back in England, Elizabeth “Eliza” Rochfort (ca. 1768 – 1861), an Irish beauty whose mental condition had deteriorated profoundly by 1818. No divorce documents have ever been found dissolving the marriage of Eliza and George, and even George’s father back in England referred to her as his son’s wife and treated her accordingly.
Nevertheless, George Clarke and the widow Cooper married in Pownal, Vermont on 6 August 1814, with the “sanction of the House of Assembly and the American law.” Was it bigamy? Or merely a lucky legal loophole? The Clarkes had four children: George Hyde Clarke (born and died 1815); Anna Clarke (1817-1899); George Hyde Clarke (1822-1889); Georgina Clarke (1824-1830); and Arthur Clarke (born and died 1826).
As letters in the Clarke family papers at Cornell University attest, George Clarke’s children by Eliza Rochfort considered their American half-siblings to be illegitimate interlopers.