Tom Eblen

The Mentelles taught Lincoln’s wife, charmed early Kentucky. But they also had secrets.

Undated portraits of Charlotte, left, and Waldemar Mentelle in the collection of Transylvania University Library.
Undated portraits of Charlotte, left, and Waldemar Mentelle in the collection of Transylvania University Library. Randolph Paul Runyon

Charlotte and Waldemar Mentelle were colorful characters in early Lexington. Arriving in 1798, they charmed wealthy families with their educated manner and tales of fleeing the French Revolution. For a frontier town aspiring to become the “Athens of the West,” the couple brought a dash of Old World sophistication.

The Mentelles taught Lexington men and women to dance and speak French. Charlotte ran an intellectually rigorous school for girls. Her star pupil, Mary Todd, would later marry Abraham Lincoln and say Charlotte had been like a mother to her.

They were close friends and neighbors of Henry Clay, one of America’s most influential politicians. Their daughter, Mary, became Clay’s favorite daughter-in-law after she married and brought stability to his alcoholic son, Thomas.

But the Mentelles had a lot of secrets, too.

A new book — “The Mentelles: Mary Todd Lincoln, Henry Clay, and the Immigrant Family Who Educated Antebellum Kentucky.” (University Press of Kentucky, $40) — reveals new information that would have shocked the Mentelles’ Lexington neighbors, most of whom they privately resented.

For example, the Mentelles’ emigration story was much different than they claimed. They weren’t escaping revolutionary mobs so much as difficult relationships with their parents. Family tensions included a child they bore out of wedlock and money troubles that would haunt them the rest of their lives.

Author Randolph Paul Runyon fills in many details about the Mentelles’ previously sketchy biographies from dozens of overlooked or untranslated letters they exchanged with family, friends, associates and creditors.

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Runyon is a Maysville native, historian and retired French professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He also is a fifth-great grandson of the Mentelles, descended from their daughter Lucretia, who was named for Clay’s wife.

But this book is anything but a flattering family memoir. Runyon uses his extensive research in forgotten archives to weave a frank and engaging story of a poor immigrant couple who had ties to a surprising number of famous people in both America and France.

“The letters were amazing, and I feel so lucky to have found them,” Runyon said in an interview. “They made these people alive to me.”

Charlotte LeClerc was born in 1770, the only child of a physician whose wife left him for another man. Nicolas LeClerc raised Charlotte as if she were a boy. She got a good education, but also stern discipline that bordered on cruelty.

Waldemar was born in 1769 to a social-climbing academic and his glamorous wife. His parents ignored him as they pursued their own ambitions. Edme Mentelle made a large globe for King Louis XVI, which is now on display in the Palace of Versailles, and used it to advance his career. He became historiographer to the king’s brother, the Court of Artois, who nine years after Edme’s death became King Charles X.

The Mentelles and LeClercs lived in the same Paris apartment building, which still stands, and Waldemar and Charlotte became teenage lovers.

“We had noticed that Mademoiselle LeClerc received you from evening to morning,” Edme later wrote to his son in Lexington. “After your departure I sent to look for the child Monsieur LeClerc had placed in the foundling hospital. I would have taken it in and raised it; it had died.”

Waldemar left France in 1789; Charlotte followed four years later. They first went to the French settlement of Gallipolis, Ohio, then moved to Kentucky. They lived briefly in Washington, then spent the rest of their lives in Lexington.

Financial success always eluded Waldemar, who tried many occupations. At various times he was a merchant, house painter, pottery manufacturer, silhouette artist and dance teacher. He was steward of Transylvania University until President James Blythe fired him for being French and not sharing his strict Presbyterian beliefs.

Waldemar worked as an agent for land speculator Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, a wealthy French immigrant in the northeast whose son started a gunpowder factory that eventually became the chemical giant DuPont. The du Pont family library in Delaware preserved 121 detailed and revealing letters between the Mentelles and du Ponts that Runyon translated.

Waldemar found some success as a farmer and self-trained horse doctor, but his most steady income came from low-level banking jobs Clay secured for him.

“They were always on the edge of bankruptcy,” Runyon said. “Waldemar was a lost soul at times. Charlotte wore the pants in the family.”

While giving birth to and raising a son and five daughters, Charlotte worked as Clay’s secretary, wrote and translated manuscripts, made a catalog for the Lexington Public Library and sold produce and fruit from her garden. She was best known as a teacher, eventually opening her own girls’ school in 1820.

Mentelle’s for Young Ladies was run out of the family’s home off Richmond Road across from Henry Clay’s Ashland estate. A teenage Mary Todd Lincoln boarded there from 1832 to 1836 to avoid a stepmother she disliked.

The Mentelles lived on five acres that Charlotte’s good friend, heiress Mary Todd Russell Wickliffe, gave them rent-free for life in 1805. Waldemar built their house, which apparently was destroyed by fire in the early 1840s and rebuilt. The couple lived on the property they called Rose Hill until Waldemar died 1846 and Charlotte in 1860. A Carpenter Gothic home at 116 Lincoln Ave. may be that rebuilt house.

Their son was more successful, despite the collapse of an 1840s hemp business he ran with Henry and Thomas Clay that almost ruined them. For most of his career, Waldemar Jr. operated a foundry. In 1854 he bought 14 acres near his mother and built a house. In 1906, his estate was developed into the subdivision Mentelle Park.

The Mentelles’ correspondence indicates they never really felt at home here. Their French views on religion, politics and culture were at odds with most Kentuckians, whom they criticized as uneducated rubes who drank too much whiskey.

“It is not that we much love the arrogant rich of this place, but some are respectable,” they wrote du Pont. “We keep some friends among those who have appeared to us to merit the distinction of thinking intelligently.”

Runyon’s book offers a revealing look at the Mentelles and their unique perspective on Lexington during its dynamic early years.

“They were almost like spies in the wilderness,” Runyon said of his ancestors. “The Lexington elite didn't realize they were being keenly observed.”

If you go

Randolph Runyon will speak and sign books at a July 18 luncheon at Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate. Tickets are $15 for members, $20 for the public. Reservations and more info: Henryclay.org.

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