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Taking the Boring Out of George Washington

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Taking the Boring Out of George Washington

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Taking the Boring Out of George Washington

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

I went to Mount Vernon last week, the home of George Washington in Virginia, on a day when leaves were flying in the stiff wind. I asked visitors waiting in line to take out their wallets, and no, this was not a Public Radio pledge drive.

Ma'am, you got a dollar bill?

Unidentified Woman #1: Uh-huh.

BLOCK: Tell me, when you see that picture of George Washington, how does he strike you? What words come to mind?

Woman #1: Dedicated.

Unidentified Man #1: Statesmanly.

BLOCK: A gentleman.

Unidentified Man #3: He looks like a lawyer.

Unidentified Woman #2: Old.

Unidentified Man #4: Well dressed.

Unidentified Woman #3: Serious.

Unidentified Man #5: He looks a little sleepy eyed there.

BLOCK: Oh, words are daggers to the heart of Jim Rees

JIM REES: There are some people who've commented that Washington must have been born old. Occasionally they use the word boring. That really hurts us.

BLOCK: Jim Rees is the executive director of Mount Vernon, and he says it's high time for a George Washington makeover.

REES: Washington was the most adventurous, the most action oriented, the most athletic and one of the most handsome of all the founding fathers.

BLOCK: Not to mention a great ballroom dancer. And so, a new interactive education center and museum will be opening at Mount Vernon tomorrow with theaters and galleries to try to convey the fullness of Washington's life.

I was there as they were putting finishing touches on the displays, and I walked first into what looks like a CSI forensics lab, with torsos made of foam, a skull, beakers and goggles on display. Mount Vernon turned to forensic science and to forensic anthropologist Jeffrey Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh, to try to physically reimagine George Washington.

JEFFREY SCHWARTZ: On the far right side is a partial jaw with one tooth sticking up, and that was the result of my wanting to reconstruct what Washington's bones were like under his face so I could then to try to de-age him, which is the first time this has really been done. Because I needed to go from the old Washington to the young Washington.

BLOCK: Now the idea was to create three accurate life size wax figures of George Washington, at age 19, 45 and 57. The trouble was, there are no portraits of Washington before the age of 40. So Jeffrey Schwartz and his team worked backward in a kind of forensic time warp. They took the famous bust of Washington by the sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon and the life mask made of the president, and they even took his clothing and dentures, scanned all of that information digitally and tinkered and molded on the computer to create what Washington might have looked like first as a young surveyor in Virginia.

SCHWARTZ: So here we have him as he may have been surveying tracts of land, and he's looking up from surveying equipment, because I didn't want his face to be hidden after doing all that work of making his face the center point.

BLOCK: Better see it.

SCHWARTZ: The center point. We better see it.

BLOCK: And a lovely face it is, with bright blue eyes, a strong jaw, high cheekbones and good color. He stands in a wooded glen as birds chirp in the background. George Washington at 19 has long, auburn hair, and he's tall, over six foot two. Jeffrey Schwartz points to Washington's sloping shoulders. They're pulled back, his belly rounds outward. There's a reason for that.

SCHWARTZ: Washington, as others of British background and his status, had been corseted as a boy. It was not just the girls through adulthood who were corseted, but they were corseted to about the age of five. And what that did was have the effect of pulling the shoulders back and down, and increasing the curve in the lumbar region of the lower spine. One explanation for that is that it produced kind of a ballet dancer pose.

BLOCK: Move on through the galleries, past displays of Washington fighting during the French and Indian War, past a copy of the dress Martha Dandridge Custis wore to their wedding, and you come to George Washington as a general in the Revolutionary War. He's astride his horse, Blueskin, at Valley Forge. By this point, he's 45 and has lost many of his teeth.

SCHWARTZ: Knowing that later in his life he was very reluctant to accept dinner invitations unless the food was soft enough for him to basically squish with his tongue, if you wanted to be simple about it. I think what happened in this period is that he was changing his diet to more fatty foods, more easily ingested foods. So you can see here the normal curve of belly that would have been accentuated just by sitting on a horse is a little more accentuated, which I think reflects the girth that he probably achieved during that time period.

BLOCK: The last wax model of Washington shows him at age 57 being sworn in as the first president of the United States, on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York. This is much the same face that's familiar to us from the dollar bill. His lips are tight, there's some hollowness and tension around the jaw. That's because of his dentures, which were connected by springs.

SCHWARTZ: Here we know that he had only one tooth, so he's holding these structures in his mouth which have springs that are adding pressure and so on, so there is a difference in his face.

BLOCK: It cost more than $1 million to create these three wax figures. For Mount Vernon's executive director Jim Rees, anything that helps humanize George Washington is worth it.

REES: Although Washington has the most familiar face of any historical figure, people don't feel close to him, and I think the number-one reason for that is the lack of photography. If you see those soulful photographs of Abraham Lincoln, you can't help but feel a connection to him. But with Washington, they are mostly very formal portraits, and I think we were kind of putting Washington in the category of the flag and the eagle, in that he was a symbol of America. He really wasn't a flesh and blood, breathing human being.

BLOCK: For the visitors who come here, do you find there are a lot of misperceptions about George Washington, who he was, what he did?

REES: Well, we had kids come here and ask about Washington being in the Civil War, for instance. It's not just little kids. You'd be shocked of how little college kids are taught anymore about American history. There was a survey done not long ago with seniors at the best universities in America, and when asked who was our general at the Battle of Yorktown, more people said U.S. Grant than George Washington. And six percent said Douglas MacArthur. So as David McCullough said, you just can't overstate how little American history kids are learning these days.

BLOCK: What do you think is important for people? Why is it important for people to get a fuller understanding of George Washington?

REES: Well, you know, it's interesting. Scholars are still voting Washington the most important American leader. He put his country first, again and again and again, and in so many cases, he risked everything. Washington, unlike so many leaders today, could be trusted to always do what he thought was right. He wasn't always right, but no one ever questioned his motives, and that's a pretty darn important thing.

BLOCK: The three wax Washingtons will be on display when the new Mount Vernon visitors center opens tomorrow. And yes, the famous false teeth will be on display, too. Contrary to popular belief, they're made of ivory, not wood.

SIEGEL: And you can see the three faces of George at NPR.org.

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