Martha Washington Gets A Makeover

Historians are giving the First Lady an extreme makeover from frumpy to attractive. Social and cultural historian Patricia Brady offers her take on revamping Martha Washington's image.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

Now, an old, gray-haired plump and double chin - that's the way we saw Martha Washington. That's the Martha Washington we've known and loved for centuries. The wife of George Washington and the first First Lady, Martha has been an enigmatic figure, a mere extension of our iconic first president. But earlier this month, The Washington Post reported that historians are giving the First Lady an extreme makeover. Imagine an 18th century American "it" girl, a brunette with delicate, asymmetrical features and from a wealthy family to boot. That was Martha Dandridge. Historian Patricia Brady calls her a foxy first lady and joins us in a moment.

What were you taught about Martha Washington? Give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255 and our email address is talk@npr.org. Patricia Brady is a historian and author of "Martha Washington: An American Life" and she joins us from member station WWNO in New Orleans, Louisiana. It's so good to have you with us.

Ms. PATRICIA BRADY (Author, "Martha Washington: An American Life"): Hey, Lynn. It's great to be here.

NEARY: How did Martha Washington suddenly become so foxy?

Ms. BRADY: Well, I wanted to save her from old-ladyhood, so I had a scientific age-regression done at a anthropology lab, and they took her back to the age of 26, and she's really pretty.

NEARY: How...

Ms. BRADY: So we had the portrait painted and said, this is what she actually looked like when she was young.

NEARY: Well, what has got this - what's motivated this sudden sort of attention on Martha Washington, this sort of looking at her again maybe in a sort of revisionist way, historically?

Ms. BRADY: I think everybody is looking back at our founding generation and trying to figure out who those people really were. Were they all born 65? Were they all born perfect? Were they all born marble statues? No. So it's time to look at the real people, and I just happened to choose Martha Washington.

NEARY: Why do we only have pictures of Martha Washington as this older, plump, gray-haired lady to begin with?

Ms. BRADY: She wasn't famous until then. There was one portrait done when she was young, but it was done by a very, very bad artist and so it's hard to tell what she looks like from that.

NEARY: And what did you know about her historically that made you think she might have actually been a different kind of person when she was younger? What had you read? What kinds of things did you learn about her?

Ms. BRADY: I read some of the letters that they wrote to each other which survived. Not many of them did. But when Washington was becoming commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, he wrote home, to my dearest. My dearest Patsy, he said, please don't be angry. Don't miss me too much. And I thought, golly, that sounds kind of sexy, really. So I wanted to think who was she before they met and before they became famous.

NEARY: So tell us a little bit more about the young Martha Washington. First of all, she had been married once already when she met George, right?

Ms. BRADY: Correct. She was - she first fell in love when she was 17 years old. Her first husband was 20 years older than she was. His father was furious that he wanted to marry her and it was only because she went and talked to the old grouch that he actually gave permission for his son to marry this girl. They had four children and two of them died. Their children were like butterflies. They were - their lives were so evanescent. It was hard to keep a child alive in those days. And so she was a widow at 26 with two little kids and didn't yet know what she would do in the world.

NEARY: How old was she when she met George?

Ms. BRADY: Twenty-six.

NEARY: She was 26.

Ms. BRADY: He came...

NEARY: When she...

Ms. BRADY: When she was 26 as a widow and she was 26 when they met. He came calling eight months after her husband died. You know, people in Virginia, in Colonial Virginia married early and often, and it was very weird to remain as a widow or widower, so they started courting way earlier than we would think was really quite proper.

NEARY: And she had another suitor as well, though, at the same time, didn't she?

Ms. BRADY: Exactly. At exactly the same time a very, very, part of the really upper tier of the colonial society, a very rich man who was a widower himself. He wrote to his brother and he said, oh, she's so beautiful. She's so nice. She's so wonderful. I've been so lonely since my wife died. I hope to rouse a flame in her breast.

NEARY: So we know she...

Ms. BRADY: Clearly she has sex appeal.

NEARY: She had something going for herself there, yeah.

Ms. BRADY: Uh huh.

NEARY: And something else that I read that interested me about Martha Washington. I don't know exactly when this was in her life but, she read the Bible but she also read Gothic novels?

Ms. BRADY: Yes, she did. She was quite a reader. She was very religious. Every morning, she got up and prayed and read her Bible, but she was no prude. Being religious did not mean that she was straight-laced. She read really very odd Gothic novels. We know it because she left them to her granddaughter and her granddaughter wrote, oh I love this book because my grandmother read it so many times.

NEARY: Now, why do you think in the end she chose George Washington, by the way?

Ms. BRADY: Let's see, her other suitor was 20 years older than she and he had twelve children.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BRADY: George Washington was about her same age. She was five feet tall. He was six foot two and a half. He was, in short, a hunk. He was a magnificent horseman. He was a wonderful athlete. He danced. I think she just fell for him and said, I have a lot of money now, I think I'll please myself. And George Washington was the one who pleased her, and did, for her whole life.

NEARY: Well, we are talking about Martha Washington who, it turns out, was a foxy first lady. We're discussing Martha Washington with Patricia Brady. She is an historian and author of "Martha Washington: An American Like" and if you'd like to join our discussion and tell us what you know about our first First Lady and what you've learned about her as you were growing, give us a call at 800-989-8255 or send us an email to talk@npr.org.

And we're going to go to Doug now, and he's calling from Eaton Rapids, Michigan. Hi Doug.

DOUG (Caller): Hello, how are you doing today?

NEARY: I'm good, thanks.

DOUG: Good. I just wanted to make a quick comment about how all through school - grade school, that is, and secondary school, we don't really learn much about our first ladies and they have such tremendous influence on their husbands. For example, Abigail Adams had such a tremendous influence on John and that's something that we really don't learn about very much and I was wondering what your comments were about Martha and George.

Ms. BRADY: One of the things people say that First Lady is the most important un-elected position in the American government, because clearly, you don't elect someone's wife and yet she's the one, as one of our First Ladies said, she's the one who speaks to him last thing in the evening and first thing in the morning. They have tremendous influences and they can be very important. Martha Washington was very close to George. They talked about everything. This was not one of those formal marriages.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much. Thanks for your call, Doug.

DOUG: Thank you.

NEARY: We're taking another call now and we're going to go to a woman named Martha, and she is calling from Tallahassee, Florida. Hi Martha.

MARTHA (Caller): Hello!

NEARY: Hi. Go ahead.

MARTHA: Well, I was saying, my name is Martha and a long time ago when I was in grade school, they were pictures of Martha Washington in the classroom with gray hair and like plump and a double chin. And boys always made fun of me and they'd call me Martha Washington. So I felt bad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTHA: I was just about 10 years old or something and it always stung me.

Ms. BRADY: Well, look at the new portrait. This is the new look at Martha.

MARTHA: I'd be very happy to see it, where is it?

Ms. BRADY: Well, it's online and at Amazon.

MARTHA: OK, it won't be in portrait gallery in Washington or anything?

Ms. BRADY: No, it's at Mount Vernon now. If you visit Mount Vernon, they've purchased it.

MARTHA: Yeah, maybe this summer we'll get down there again.

Ms. BRADY: Oh, go to the museum. It's wonderful and they have her wedding slippers on display too. They're purple satin.

MARTHA: Oh, she's very different looking, right?

Ms. BRADY: Exactly.

MARTHA: Oh, I'm glad to hear that, that helps me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Martha.

MARTHA: Bye.

NEARY: Tell us, I was going to ask you about those wedding slippers. Please describe them for us, because I think you said they were the Manolo Blahnik's of her age (laughing)?

Ms. BRADY: Exactly. Well, she was very wealthy, she and her first husband, and that they liked fabulous clothes, which they ordered from England every year and they came back on the ships. When she married George Washington, she wore a deep goldenrod yellow gown and purple satin slippers with silver lace and with rhinestone buckles. I mean, everything was shiny and glittery and beautiful and not boring.

NEARY: Now, I have to ask you, if Martha Washington was so captivating, why then did George Washington apparently seek out another woman at least in his letters, Sally Fairfax. Tell us a little bit about that and how that affected Martha Washington.

Ms. BRADY: Well, he didn't seek her out. She was the next door neighbor and the wife of his best friend. In my way of looking at it, she was older than he, two years older, and she was married. And she was one of those women with time on her hands, no children, who like to have a good-looking young man on the string. So he was madly in love with Sally, but it was hopeless. They couldn't get divorced, they couldn't live together.

And so, when he found Martha, she still twitched the string a little bit and he wrote the letters that said, but-but-but, you know, of course, I do love you but it's time for it to be over, because he had to get married and start his life.

And the funny thing is, I don't think Martha really was jealous at all. Once she got George in her hands and they continued to live next door to the Fairfaxes for another 25 years or so, she never showed a sign of being jealous at all and those two couples were best friends. So, I think he grew out of it when he found a real woman.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call now from Chris(ph). Chris is calling from DeKalb, Illinois. Hi, Chris.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Hi, go ahead.

CHRIS: I just had to say, this conversation rubs me a little the wrong way because I feel like we're, you know, judging the first lady based on whether she was hot or not and that's just such a tired way of, you know, thinking about a woman's worth and why aren't we thinking about what she said and what she did and what she thought rather than whether she looked cute or not.

Ms. BRADY: Well, you know, in the book, of course, I talk about those serious things, but it just happens that right now, it's the portrait that gathered attention because everybody is used to thinking of her as old. If when we did the age regression, she had turned out to be quite plain. I would have used that just as well. I just wanted to show what she was really like and what she was like before she became the First Lady. You know, she was up in age, she was 57-58 when she became First Lady, but about the rest of her life? And I don't think it hurts to talk about people's attractiveness and people's interest in clothes. Obviously it's not the most important thing, but it's an important thing.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Chris.

CHRIS: Thank you.

NEARY: And we are talking with Patricia Brady, she's the author of "Martha Washington: An American Life." And you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

And of course, Patricia Brady, we still talk about what the First Lady wears though, don't we? There is an interest in this aspect of our First Ladies?

Ms. BRADY: Well, there's that sort of the icon thing that we want. We want to know what they wear to the Inauguration Ball, you know, what did Martha Washington wear? Well, she wasn't even there. She didn't come to New York City, which was the capital, until well over a month after Washington was inaugurated. And the ball was really a private affair. The whole idea of an Inaugural Ball and an important inauguration really comes from the era of James and Dolley Madison. With the Washingtons, they were just figuring out what to do, and a ball was not high on the list of what they were thinking about.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call now. We're going to go to Larry(ph) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Hi, Larry.

LARRY (Caller): Hi. How are you today?

NEARY: I'm good. Thanks.

LARRY: I had heard on another NPR program, I believe some while ago that after Martha became First Lady, despite her love of silks and fine fabrics and so on, she dressed very plainly, very commonly in broadcloth and wanted not to look like she and George were set apart from the rest of the people.

Ms. BRADY: Actually, that's not really true. And she didn't wear much broadcloth. She did occasionally wear what they called "American" clothes - in other words, they were made in New England factories instead of in England. And that was considered quite a step. But she also still wore very beautiful fabrics. If you visit Mount Vernon today you can see pieces of the dresses which her granddaughters cut apart to give as mementos to different friends and admirers. But she always did have - after she reached middle aged, she became more tailored and plainer, but her clothes were always made of beautiful fabrics. And she did wear jewels but she didn't wear furs and she didn't wear feathers. So that did set to make her look more staid, more commonplace and not look so Paris Hilton-ish.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call, Larry.

LARRY: Thank you.

NEARY: And here, we have an email here from Jenny in Lakewood, Ohio.

I had to laugh when I heard the topic of today's show. I have a distinct memory of learning about George and Martha Washington in grade school and having to make George and Martha figures. I did mine using dried apples for their heads.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Giving both of my figures a distinctive elderly look. It's hard for me to imagine Martha as the hottie that your guest describes because she is forever ingrained in my memory as a small woman with a shriveled-apple complexion.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BRADY: Well, you know that that is actually how people think of her, not the apple but as the Gilbert Stuart portrait. That's the most famous one. And she was old then, that's how she looked at the time.

NEARY: When all said and done, do you think that Martha Washington was given fair, has been given fair treatment in American history?

Ms. BRADY: I don't think it's a case of fair treatment. I don't think she's really been given much of any treatment.

That because she destroyed all, almost all of their letters to each other, 41 years worth of letters, there hasn't been the bulk of correspondence to use as we had with Abigail Adams or Dolley Madison. And so in that sense, she's been an unknown woman, and many writers, particularly male writers about Washington, choose to think of her as very dull, and not having much influence. But I have not found that to be the case as I've really done my research.

NEARY: Why did she destroy all the letters?

Ms. BRADY: Why did any lady of those times? Because she had given up enough of her private life to the public and she and her husband both had suffered from nasty newspapers, from counterfeit letters and she had no wish at all to have their love letters appear in the national press and be made fun of or even be admired. That was their private business. It wasn't for others to know.

NEARY: All right, well, thanks so much for joining us today, Patricia.

Ms. BRADY: Thank you. It's been great.

NEARY: Patricia Brady is an historian and the author of "Martha Washington: An American Life." She joined us from member station WWNO in New Orleans, Louisiana. Tomorrow, most of us have visions of life after death. Maybe it's one big bureaucracy and God lost control of the work flow. That's one of the tales in David Eagleman's new book. What's your version of the afterlife? Join us tomorrow.

This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

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