He fought slavery, was instrumental in the United States' purchase of Alaska, was a founder of the Republican Party and donated the land on which Berea College was built.
He was famous for his expertise in using a Bowie knife, and his life was filled with duels, scandal and mystery.
And now a documentary intended to give Kentuckian Cassius Marcellus Clay his due is in the works.
In March, Michael Breeding began filming a 90-minute documentary on Clay, one of Kentucky's best-known politicians and most colorful characters. Breeding, a producer and director, plans to finish filming in April and hopes the story will air on Kentucky Educational Television this summer. Plans are for the documentary to be offered via satellite to the other 341 Public Broadcasting Service affiliates throughout the country. Breeding would like to find a premiere sponsor, such as the Kentucky Theatre in Lexington, he said.
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Writer and historian Betty Boles Ellison, who wrote a biography of the 19th-century emancipationist called A Man Seen But Once, wrote the script for the film and came up with its title: An Audacious American: Cassius Marcellus Clay.
"Cassius has never really gotten the deserved credit for doing some of the things he did," Breeding said during a break in filming at White Hall, the three-story Italianate house in Madison County where Clay was born and died.
The documentary will cover Clay's entire life, including how his personality developed, how his parents influenced him and his education, Breeding said.
"We also want the audience to understand the extreme wealth of this family," he said.
Cassius Clay's father, Green Clay, was one of the wealthiest landowners and slaveholders in Kentucky.
Losing his identity
Mel Hankla of Jamestown, who has played American frontier military leader George Rogers Clark and frontiersman Simon Kenton in the Kentucky Humanities Council's Kentucky Chautauqua series, has the lead role in the documentary.
"I had the demeanor; I had the voice," he said, standing outside Clay's home, wearing 19th century-style garb, sporting a gray wig and holding a dueling pistol. Considered an expert in historic firearms, Hankla also apparently knows how to handle a gun like those Clay used.
"A goal for me was to not look like me, period," said Hankla, who, when the wig comes off, has a balding head with reddish hair pulled back into a ponytail. "I would really like for people that know me not to recognize it as me."
But actor George McGee, who has portrayed Cassius Clay's cousin, statesman Henry Clay, hundreds of times for the Kentucky Chautauqua series, doesn't have that kind of concern about playing Henry Clay in the documentary.
"I am Henry Clay," said McGee, who is director of theater at Georgetown College.
Hankla and McGee bantered lightheartedly about Cassius Clay's "souvenir from Russia" in between takes of a scene.
They were referring to Launey Clay, who was brought to Madison County by a Russian couple as a child and adopted by Cassius Clay. Many people think Launey Clay was actually the biological son of Cassius Clay and Maria Petipa, a prima ballerina in the Bolshoi Ballet.
Cassius Clay was the U.S. minister to Russia from 1861 to 1862 and from 1863 to 1869. He loved ballet, opera and theater, and at least one of the many calling cards he brought home to Kentucky from Russia bore a picture of the ballerina, Ellison said. Czar Alexander II of Russia sent Clay a large portrait of a woman thought to be the ballerina after Clay's last stint as minister to Russia, she said.
Launey Clay, the ballerina and the mystery surrounding them are included in the documentary.
Hankla and McGee finished their scene in which Cassius Clay, writing his memoirs at the desk in White Hall's library, recalls a letter he received from his famous cousin.
Then Kelly O'Connell Brengelman, who plays Cassius Clay's first wife, Mary Jane Warfield Clay, and Sam Stephens, who portrays Secretary of State William H. Seward, took their turns in front of the desk as part of Cassius Clay's memories.
Brengelman, a homemaker from Midway and Chautauqua series actress, wore a shiny brown hoop-skirt dress with a matching brown bonnet and talked about how she fell in love with Clay.
Stephens, a Lexington resident who in recent years has been editor of Clark's Kentucky Almanac and Book of Facts, seemed to relish delivering perhaps the most notable lines in the documentary:
"This man, Mr. Clay, is certainly the most wonderful ass of the age. It is prosperity that has developed the fearful underlying vanity that poisons his whole character."
That direct quote from Seward shows how Clay made some enemies, Breeding said.
Clay was born Oct. 19, 1810, at Clermont, the Clay family home that was later made part of White Hall. Clay attended Transylvania and Yale colleges and represented Madison and Fayette counties in the Kentucky General Assembly. In 1845, he began publishing The True American, an anti-slavery newspaper, in Lexington. Not long after, a mob wrecked his office and press, and he moved the newspaper operation to Cincinnati. Clay fought in the Mexican-American War, was an unsuccessful candidate for Kentucky governor in the 1850s and was briefly a candidate for U.S. vice president in 1860.
One interesting fact Ellison turned up in her research concerned Clay's contribution toward ending the Civil War while he was minister to Russia, she said.
President Abraham Lincoln sent Clay to Russia with the instructions to use Russia to keep Britain and France from helping the Confederacy, and Clay followed those instructions, she said. Two Russian ships sat in the Severn River near Annapolis, Md., during the war in case Britain or France decided to attack.
As minister to Russia, Clay also was credited with having a major role in the negotiations that lead to the purchase of Alaska. Clay's years as Russian minister figure prominently in the documentary.
Clay died July 22, 1903, in his bed in the library at White Hall.
"He's a character; he really is," said Central Kentucky horseman Catesby Clay, a great-great-nephew of Cassius Clay and one of the documentary's sponsors. "We've all marveled and been aghast through the ages," he said, referring to living members of the Clay family.
"He was really instrumental in righting this wrongful idea that human beings could be slaves — could be owned by others," he said.
As for Launey Clay, Catesby Clay said he thinks Launey was the biological son of Cassius Clay and the ballerina.
"I think it's well recognized that he was the father," Catesby Clay said.
Creating the story
In addition to Catesby Clay, sponsors of the documentary include the KET Fund for Independent Production, Berea College, Creative Kitchen & Bath, the Springfield salon All About Beauty, the Kentucky Humanities Council Inc. and The Stephen Foster Story.
Breeding won't say how much the production is costing but says he's working with a modest budget. Many of the costumes have been borrowed from the wardrobe used for performances of The Stephen Foster Story in Bardstown, he said.
Breeding, a former singer and development officer at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, said he became interested in doing a documentary on Cassius Clay several years ago when he filmed at White Hall as part of a state tourism project. His other credits include numerous documentaries and technical films — he produced The Keeneland Legacy and Our Lincoln, a DVD filmed at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for the Kentucky Humanities Council Inc.
Ellison, who has written books on several topics, said she has been fascinated by Clay for more than 40 years — since the late 1960s and early 1970s when she helped former Kentucky first lady Beula Nunn restore the old mansion, which had been neglected for decades.
Breeding saw a reference to Ellison's biography of Clay on the Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia, contacted her publisher, who gave him her email address, and the two began corresponding. It didn't take long for them to discover they both lived in Lexington and to begin collaborating on the Clay documentary.
"We have an innate understanding of each other," Breeding said. "It's really been a lot of fun."