Born Constance Savage Keith, the young Constance made her name in the unlikely field of real-estate speculation, buying promising Back Bay properties, fixing them up, then selling them to prominent or socially ambitious families. Known for her argumentative and contentious nature, her marriage to Percival Lowell in 1908 came as a surprise to everyone, especially those who knew the famous astronomer – who had long been thought to be permanently partnered with his loyal secretary Wrexie Louise Leonard.
When her husband died in 1916, Constance Lowell’s quarrelsome and bizarre nature took a turn for the worse. Not only did she engage the Lowell estate in a ten-year probate battle in an attempt to prevent much of her husband’s fortune going to support the Observatory, she became willfully peculiar and increasingly reclusive, often pretending to be blind.
But she displayed her own kind of loyalty. Even long before it was found, Constance Lowell was determined to name Planet X after her late husband; she wished the planet to be named either Percival or Lowell.
I came across a few threads during the writing of the novel that led me to wonder about this marriage. Percival Lowell’s family firmly discouraged him from marrying Wrexie – his loyal secretary, to whom he was thought to be fondly attached. Might he have have settled on the irascible Constance as a form of revenge? And might Constance have fought so hard to keep her late husband’s money from going to the Observatory because she suspected this truth? (But in this case, why press to have the planet named after him?)
Every marriage is a mystery, this one especially so.
The following letter from Constance was composed the day after the discovery of Planet X had been announced. “Lawrence” is Abbott Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard, and “Roger” is Roger Putnam, executor of Percival Lowell’s estate. One can imagine the cautious conversation Mr. Lowell and Mr. Putnam must have had with the astronomer’s widow…
March 14, 1930
In eastern newspapers and at a luncheon today unaminous demand that the planet be named Percival, and we hope that you at the Observatory who made possible its finding will be in sympathy with the appropriateness of this name. They think as I that the gods of the past are worn. I find from Lawrence and Roger what you all have to say is going to have great weight.
Constance S. Lowell