Constance Lowell


Yeah.  Constance Lowell had a lot of bad ideas, but her bad ideas for naming the newly discovered Planet X were…the baddest of all.  Here’s her letter to Lowell Observatory director Vesto Slipher, in February 1930:

Dr. Slipher—

Roger Putnam has written me about the intensely interesting observation that you are experiencing—that it may be Planet X I pray.  Mr. Putnam asked me if I had any thoughts about the name.  He said he had thought of “Diana”.

But no.  If it is not to be Lowell or Percival my choice is Zeus.

Zeus being the father of Aries—Aries being identified with Mars—it seemed appropriate—and Dr. Lowell was born in the sign of Aries—it is Dr. Lowell’s planet after all his years of looking for it.  And it is only right that it was his to name after himself and now my right as he is dead and gone, in the Air of the Universe—and he was like a Zeus—

Sin yrs
Const Lowell

Percival Lowell and his secretary, Wrexie Louise Leonard, were constant companions from 1893.  They exchanged fond letters; they each had a bedroom in the Baronial Mansion on Mars Hill; and together they tended the garden behind the Clark Observatory, proud of the watermelons and wary of the invading rabbits – calling them “Jack Rabbit, Esqr.”

But, as William Putnam says in The Explorers of Mars Hill, “proper Bostonians just did not marry their secretaries.”  Instead, Percival Lowell married the irascible Constance Savage Keith in 1908.  What exactly compelled him to choose Constance over any of the other options is unknown; it is well known, however, that Constance disliked the long-established Wrexie, believing her a rival for Percy’s affections.

And maybe she was.  Percival Lowell asked Wrexie to stay on as his secretary; remarkably, she did.  And when Lowell died in 1916, Wrexie sat down and composed a tribute to the man she had accompanied for nearly twenty years.

The book’s epigraph demonstrates the devotion Wrexie felt for Percy.  As William Putnam helpfully points out, hidden in the epigraph’s several lines are tributes to Lowell himself and two of his most faithful “computers” at Harvard College Observatory — the doughty Elizabeth Langdon Williams and John Kenneth McDonald — as well as the two women who made up the binary stars of the great astronomer’s romantic life.

Preambient light = Percival Lowell
Waning, lingers long = Wrexie Louise Leonard
Ere lost within = Elizabeth Langdon Williams
Just, kind, masterful = John Kenneth McDonald
Life’s sweet constant = Lowell Savage Constance

Could it possibly be a coincidence that only Constance Savage Lowell’s  initials are reversed — Constance being, as William Putnam notes, “the one who almost succeeded in completely negating [Lowell’s] life’s work?”  Might Wrexie have been extracting, here, a very quiet kind of of revenge?

In any case, it’s a fitting tribute to a man whose own initials – PL – are embedded in the very name of the planet whose discovery he made possible. If it was love, it was a love contained and tamed – or so it would appear – but one that insisted, in this smallest of ways, on proclaiming itself.

A blogger at the Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science has been writing about the Planet X story lately; in his most recent post, Darin points out that in the initial announcement in 1930, V.M. Slipher went out of his way to credit Percival Lowell for leading the way to the planet’s ultimate discovery — while underplaying Clyde Tombaugh’s central role in the painstaking photographic search.

The extension of credit to Lowell, and the relative under-recognition of Tombaugh, could suggest that Slipher simply knew where his bread was buttered.  You give credit to the man with his name on the letterhead, after all, not the undereducated farmboy from Kansas.  And part of the mission of Lowell Observatory was to rehabilitate the reputation of its founder, who was thought to be a bit of a kook.

(For example, Lowell had believed passionately in the existence of a Martian civilization — sustained by an elaborate series of canals.)

It’s worth noting that Slipher’s relationship to Lowell — and the Lowell family — was (understandably) a complicated one. By 1930, Slipher’s old friend Lowell had been dead for fourteen years. Constance, Percival’s widow, had been a thorn in Slipher’s side since the astronomer’s death, spending more than a decade fighting Lowell’s multimillion-dollar bequest to his own Observatory and cutting the astronomers’ salaries in the bargain. On the other hand, once the Planet X project got underway again in 1928, the Lowell family (apart from Constance) invested substantially in the equipment needed, including the remarkable triplet lens the 13-inch astrograph required. It can be imagined that the family expected results from their investment, and that Slipher’s emphasis of Lowell’s role in the discovery of Planet X was indeed at once an acknowledgment of his old friend’s ancient, originating ambition and a recognition of the family’s more recent, crucial involvement.

But consider another line as well. Slipher — and others involved in the Planet X search — knew they had an unusual case in Pluto.  Even before announcing their discovery to the world, they had tipped to the notion that Lowell’s calculations had not in fact been borne out by the discovery of Planet X, because it was too small to have been detected mathematically.  Still, one can imagine Slipher and the others being reluctant to get in the way of a good news story.  We don’t know who wrote “confirmed” here in the headline, but I bet Slipher didn’t protest too much.

Note that this question should be distinguished from the matter of whether Planet X should have been called a “planet” to begin with.  What other word would have fit?  Though its exact dimensions weren’t clear, it was still thought to be a fairly large object.  Certainly it was no asteroid.

Constance Lowell, widow of Percival Lowell, was an odd bird.  Her most obvious oddity was her contention that she was blind when in fact she was not.  As I discovered, this could get her into trouble.

While doing research for the novel, I was lucky enough to interview Henry Giclas.  Giclas, who was 95 when I interviewed him, called himself a “hill rat”.  Born and raised in Flagstaff, he spent time with Clyde Tombaugh during Clyde’s tenure at the Observatory (on Mars Hill), and later went on to become an astronomer in his own right.

Henry Giclas at the Pluto telescope

It was from Henry Giclas that I learned where you might have bought bootleg liquor in Flagstaff during Prohibition — in “Mexicantown”, on the other side of the railroad tracks.  I interviewed Giclas in his house in Flagstaff while he sat in an overstuffed armchair, watched TV, and fussed with his hearing aid while his daughter (as I remember it) served tea and cookies.

It was there that Henry Giclas told me the story of Constance Lowell and the birthday cake.

Constance, pretending to be blind, went everywhere with a lady’s maid.  One day, this maid decided to bake Constance a cake; she put candles on it to be festive.  She brought it into the dining room of the “Baronial Mansion” (the ramshackle house the Lowells kept on Mars Hill), with the candles lit.  Whereupon Constance, evidently overcome with satisfaction — someone hadat last seen what she deserved from life — said, “Oh, I see you baked me a cake!”

But of course, she couldn’t see the cake, supposedly; and everyone had to pretend as though they hadn’t heard anything.

After Henry Giclas told me that story, he shot me a strange, discomfited look.  He didn’t really know who I was, after all, and now he’d told me this story.  What would I do with it?  And — well, I couldn’t help but imagine the irascible, powerful, contemptuous Constance Lowell hovering around him, too, still a figure worthy of dread after all those years.

News traveled fast.  The day after Vesto Slipher made his announcement of Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery, papers around the world ran front-page headlines calling the “trans-Neptunian object” a “planet”.   Notice that while the cautious astronomers at Lowell Observatory hadn’t declared the object a planet themselves, the public did it for them.

You have to think Slipher knew this would be the case.  After all, finding a planet solved all kinds of problems for the observatory staff — most of all, the problems of expectation.  The Lowells, including Percival Lowell’s widow Constance, were keen to end the search with a success story.  They’d poured plenty of money, and a lot of heartache, into the project.

How terrible if Lowell had spent all those years just chasing ghosts.

(They don’t write them like this any longer, do they?)

These early reports are typically breathless.  Observations in the next few weeks would bear out Planet X’s apparently small size.  Rather than being 1200 times the size of Earth, Pluto is smaller than Earth’s moon.

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…

Boston, Mass.
March 14, 1930

Lowell Observatory
Flagstaff, Arizona

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