From the man who sneaked into his dead wife’s crypt to spend the night on her corpse to the woman who believed she was in communication with Poe’s spirit after his death, colorful characters seemed to flock to Edgar Allan Poe. But Stella stands out even among this crowd. It is said that, when he saw her approaching his front door, Poe fled through the back door to avoid her. She may have even convinced her husband to pay Poe to write positive reviews of her work. In spite of that, she told Poe’s biographer John Henry Ingram she had been Poe’s good and trusted friend, and she boasted that she had been the inspiration for his poem “Annabel Lee.” The Poe Museum now owns a strange letter she wrote to one of Poe’s biographers. Because it reveals some entertaining insights in her personality and her relationship with Poe, we have named it the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month.
Estelle Anna “Stella” Lewis (1824-1880) was a moderately successful writer and the wife of lawyer Sylvanus Lewis. She first became acquainted with Poe around 1846. She soon joined a group of Poe’s female admirers in helping the poet, his mother-in-law Maria Clemm, and his gravely ill wife Virginia in a time of need. After Virginia’s death in January 1847, Stella continued to visit Poe and his mother-in-law. According to Stella, she became his trusted confidant, but other sources believed she was really trying to bribe him to write complimentary reviews. Meanwhile, Stella’s “trusted confidant” Poe wrote in a June 16, 1848 letter to Annie Richmond, “If she [Stella] comes here I shall refuse to see her.”
Poe was close enough to Stella to write the following acrostic poem for her. The first letter of the first line, the second of the second, and so forth spell out her name.
“Seldom we find,” says Solomon Don Dunce,
“Half an idea in the profoundest sonnet.
Through all the flimsy things we see at once
As easily as through a Naples bonnet—
Trash of all trash!—how can a lady don it?
Yet heavier far than your Petrarchan stuff—
Owl-downy nonsense that the faintest puff
Twirls into trunk-paper the while you con it.”
And, veritably, Sol is right enough.
The general tuckermanities are arrant
Bubbles—ephemeral and so transparent—
But this is, now,—you may depend upon it—
Stable, opaque, immortal—all by dint
Of the dear names that he concealed within’t.
Unlike many of the poems Poe addressed to women, there is no hint of romance in this one. He also had this daguerreotype of himself made for her.
He gave Annie Richmond another, very similar, daguerreotype taken at the same session.
Stella later told John Henry Ingram, “I saw much of Mr. Poe during the last year of his life. He was one of the most sensitive and refined gentlemen I ever met. My girlish poem — ‘The Forsaken’ — made us acquainted. He had seen it floating the rounds of the press, and wrote to tell me how much he liked it: ‘It is inexpressibly beautiful,’ he said, ‘and I should like much to know the young author.’ After the first call he frequently dined with us, and passed the evening in playing whist or in reading to me his last poem.”
On his last night in New York before starting his ill-fated trip to Richmond, Stella invited Poe and his mother-in-law to her home for dinner. As Stella told it, “The day before he left New York for Richmond,” continues Stella, “Mr. Poe came to dinner, and stayed the night. He seemed very sad and retired early. On leaving the next morning he took my hand in his, and, looking in my face, said, ‘Dear Stella, my much beloved friend. You truly understand and appreciate me — I have a presentiment that I shall never see you again. I must leave to-day for Richmond. If I never return, write my life. You can and will do me justice.’ ‘I will!’ I exclaimed. And we parted to meet no more in this life. That promise I have not yet felt equal to fulfil.” Poe died a few months afterwards. Stella died three decades later without fulfilling that promise.
In the years following Poe’s death, Stella invited his mother-in-law to live with her. It seems that, in order to endear herself to Stella, Mrs. Clemm told her she had been the inspiration for “Annabel Lee”—even though nothing in the poem suggests this. Stella almost immediately told her friends, and the rumor appeared in the papers not long after that. Another of Poe’s friends, Frances Osgood, responded in the December 8, 1849 issue of Saroni’s Musical Times that Poe’s wife was the only woman he had ever loved and was unquestionably the true subject of “Annabel Lee.” Osgood continues, “I have heard it said that it was intended to illustrate a love affair of the author; but they who believe this, have in their dullness, evidently misunderstood or missed the beautiful meaning latent in the most lovely of all its verses…” Most people now agree with Osgood.
Poe’s ex-fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman, however, (who also thought she had been the inspiration for “Annabel Lee”) was so insulted by Stella’s claim that she spread the rumor that a New York writer familiar with all the parties involved told her Maria Clemm had only been flattering Stella to repay some favors and that Osgood had invented the claim that Virginia was the real Annabel Lee solely to spite Stella. (In case you’re counting, that’s three possible Annabel Lees in this blog post.)
Just to make sure her role in Poe’s life was recorded for posterity, she befriended his enemy and biographer Rufus W. Griswold. She still failed to convince the public she could have been the real Annabel Lee.
In 1858, Stella divorced her husband, began a feud with Maria Clemm (who apparently sided with Sylvanus Lewis in the divorce), accused another writer of stealing from her, and headed for Europe. About this time, Martin Van Buren Moore (1837-1900), a young reporter from Tennessee, wrote her for assistance in writing an article about Edgar Allan Poe. In her response, she boasts that Poe himself had entrusted her to be his biographer, calls Maria Clemm the “black cat” of Poe’s life, talks about her divorce, and asks Moore if she should change her name to La Stella or Anna Stella. She eventually settled on the name Stella. Here is a photo of this note.
The text of the letter reads:
I had not time to reply to you [sic] letter which reached me the day before I sailed for Europe. I called at Mr. Scribner’s on my way to the vessel and told his brother to say to you that I would write the notice of Poe–I will if you can wait. It was his last request of me– “Write my life–you know better than anyone else.” he said. If any one else should write it do not permit the name of that old woman who calls herself his mother-in-law to appear in it. I have heard that she is not his mother-in-law–That she has something else on him. Any how. I believe that she was [the] black cat of his life. And that she strangled him to death. I will tell you about it when we meet. If you get the work out before I return to America put Poe first, and Stella next in the Poets of Maryland. You cannot get it out till next year as it ought to be– do wait–that is a good Van.
I intend to drop the name of Lewis–but cannot do it at once–What do you think of La Stella or Anna Stella. Call me Stella on all occasions–ring on it in biographical notice– You know that the Divorce was all in my favor–That is after trying for a year they could not get anything against me–and gave it up–say this in the notice–say that I stood unscathed against the treachery of a half dozen Lawyers. Let me hear from you the moment you get this. Direct to care of Mr. John Monroe, Banker, no 5, Rue de La Paix, Paris—
After leaving the United States, Stella meandered around Europe before settling in London around 1874. While there, she provided information about the poet to another of Poe’s biographers John Henry Ingram. At the same time, Poe’s nurse Marie Louise Shew and his fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman were also supplying Ingram sometimes contradictory accounts of their own relationships with Poe.
Stella still found time to write poetry and plays. Her major works include the tragedies Helémah, or the Fall of Montezuma (1864) and Sappho of Lesbos (1868). The latter was printed in seven editions and translated into Greek to be performed in Athens. The Poe Museum owns a autographed copy of this, her most celebrated work. In 1865 she composed a series of sonnets about Poe. Her other works include The Child of the Sea and other Poems (1848), The Myths of the Minstrel (1852), Poems (1866) and The King’s Stratagem(1869).
Stella died in London in 1880. By then, the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine deemed her the “Female Petrarch” while Ingram considered her merely a “harpy” who had preyed upon Poe in his final years.
Martin Van Buren Moore eventually wrote his essay about Poe. The manuscript for it is also in the Poe Museum’s collection. His grandson Otis D. Smith of Richmond, Virginia donated both the Stella letter and the manuscript to the Museum in 1979 but kept the envelope because he thought he might be able to sell it to a stamp collector.
On this page from Moore’s manuscript, he acknowledges the assistance of the “brilliant” Stella to whom he is “indebted for many of the facts in regards to Poe’s life” that were used in the essay. Among these facts, he continues, “She stated positively that Poe was born in Baltimore and not in Boston.” Click here to find out where Poe was really born. Fortunately, Moore’s essay makes no attempt to promote the discredited claims that Stella was the real Annabel Lee.
While the Poe Museum owns a number of Edgar Allan Poe’s letters, most visitors do not realize the collection also holds several rarely seen letters from the people in his life. While these are rarely anthologized and seldom read, they nevertheless provide value insights into Poe’s life and work as seen by his contemporaries. Since this Stella letter was written to a person researching an article about Poe, the document reveals the way in which Poe’s biography was shaped (or distorted) by the biases and self-interests of the people who knew him as they provided information of varying quality to his biographers.