John Quincy Adams wasn’t looking for love in 1795. The 28-year-old diplomat and son of the vice-president was still recovering from a recent heartbreak when he arrived in London. He wrote to his mother, Abigail, that he would not even consider marrying until he was 45.
Then he met Louisa Johnson.
You might hear Louisa’s name thrown about as a trivia fact, as America’s first foreign-born first lady (though her father was American), but she is anything but trivial. Her story, as brought vividly to life in the biography Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams by Louisa Thomas, is begging to be told on screen.
The first act is straight out of a Jane Austen novel. In fact, at the exact same time Louisa and John Quincy’s romance was blooming, Jane Austen was writing her first novel, Pride and Prejudice, just fifty miles away.
I have to say that I feel a special connection with Jane Austen. Years ago, I researched her life for a comedy screenplay I co-wrote about two guys who went back in time to kill her. (It was never picked up, and was beaten to market by an eerily similar script about two guys who went back in time to sleep with Jane Austen – neither was produced but my script had the unique distinction of winning a popular screenwriting blog’s “First Annual Jane Austen Back In Time Romantic Comedy Smack Down.”)
While reading Austen’s novels and letters, I was surprised to find myself so damned charmed by her. Something about her frank insight and wit made it impossible to dislike her. I believe those same qualities are exactly what made John Quincy Adams fall in love with Louisa Johnson.
Much like Austen’s character Emma, Louisa let her guard down around John because she thought he had no interest in her. She and her sisters were convinced he was hanging around all the time to court the oldest sister, Nancy. They were wrong about the object of his affections, but they knew “a man old or young who visits frequently in a family of young ladies must be supposed to be in love.” That line would fit perfectly in a Jane Austen novel, but those words are Louisa’s.
The Austen-style comedy of manners with its misunderstandings and scandals carried on through John Quincy and Louisa’s long engagement. As the months and years went on, Louisa often wondered if he still wanted to marry her. He was devoted to his wild bachelor lifestyle of staying up late and reading Homer; he simply wasn’t ready to be married. Louisa’s father Joshua Johnson, on the other hand, was anxious for them to seal the deal.
Joshua kept up the appearances of being quite wealthy, but his debts were outstanding in every sense of the word. Immediately after John Quincy and Louisa tied the knot, Joshua set sail to America with the rest of his family to skip out on his obligations. John’s promised dowry never came, and Louisa spent much of her honeymoon in tears as debt collectors banged on the door trying to recoup their losses any way they could.
That’s when the Jane Austen part of the story ends. Austen confined her novels to a few families in the English countryside; Louisa’s story spans continents and genres.
Louisa is a royal court drama rife with political intrigue. As she dances with the Russian tsar Alexander I at lavish balls, she and John Quincy are unaware that Alexander was spying on their private correspondence. (In Russia’s first attempt at hacking a future president, the Adams’s private courier was covertly sharing their correspondence with the tsar.)
It’s an edge-of-your-seat globetrotting adventure as Louisa and her young son Charles embark on a treacherous 2000 mile journey from St. Petersburg to Paris by carriage, at times narrowly escaping certain death from Napoleon’s army – only her fluent French and convincing cry of “vive Napoleon!” would save their lives.
It’s a heart-wrenching domestic drama as Louisa experiences profound loss and grief that tests her mettle and makes her stronger than she ever knew. (And it makes you wonder how women were ever considered the weaker sex.)
And Louisa is an unlikely buddy movie between the elderly widowed John Adams and his brilliant daughter-in-law. (Imagine Paul Giamatti and Emily Blunt.) The two hit it off from the start, but they forged an even deeper friendship after Abigail’s death. Louisa cursed herself in her youth for not finding the right words to express herself in writing, but decades later her insightful letters to John Adams gave him life, he said. She found her voice as an extremely intelligent and curious heroine and a keen observer of human nature who was ahead of her time on issues like slavery and women’s rights.
Louisa’s story has everything you could want, including cameos from some of the most famous faces in American history — if Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson behaving badly aren’t enough you’ve even got the Queen Mother of America, Dolley Madison moving in next door! And considering that John Quincy Adams was a loveably cantankerous old man, Louisa is a 19th century Curb Your Enthusiasm from Cheryl’s point of view.
Louisa’s story has universal appeal because we all know what it’s like struggling to find our voice. We also know what it’s like to feel deeply out of place. That’s what Louisa really is – a fish out of water story about an American who never set foot in America until she was 26 years old. For all her travels through royal courts and war-torn villages, Louisa Adams never felt so out of place as she did in the kitchen of Abigail Adams.
And that’s how I’d sell her story.
So, Hollywood, if you’re listening – snatch up the rights to Louisa’s biography! I’m more than willing to adapt it. Actually, come to think of it, you should probably ask author Louisa Thomas if she wants to adapt her boffo biography first. Nobody is closer to the subject matter and nobody could more eloquently bring Louisa’s story to life.
But if she’s too busy writing great books and savvy articles for The New Yorker, or if she has no appetite for writing a lowly screenplay….call me.
Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams by Louisa Thomas
John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul Nagel
A Traveled First Lady by Louisa Catherine Adams