Enthroned Washington: The Naked George

older-gw.jpegThesis: Where there is art, there are art critics. Corollary: Everybody is a critic.

Commemorating George Washington

Houdon's Washington

The most famous statue of GW is in the Virginia State House

Statues commemorating heroes and saints, sages and scenes of glory have been around since antiquity. It was only natural that when the State of Virginia wanted to honor its favorite son, circa 1785, the master French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon was commissioned. He traveled to Mount Vernon to take the General’s measure, literally as well as figuratively. Then he broke all traditional artistic preconceptions, and depicted him fully dressed in his “modern” uniform, with a few discreet allegorical references. It was intended for, and indeed still remains, in the rotunda of the Virginia State House.

By 1832, the centenary of Washington’s birth, Congress was desirous of a statue to grace the rotunda of the Capitol Building, in the City that bears his name. Also, by that time, there was a growing cadre of fine American artists and sculptors. Horatio Greenough (1805-1852), born and raised in Boston and a Harvard graduate, was among them. Despite his academic education, his natural talents led him to art, and, as practically required, living in Italy to study with the masters.

Horatio Greenough

Horatio Greenough, painted by Rembrandt Peale

When Congress commissioned 27-year-old Greenough, they had a few caveats. They wanted Washington to be “larger than life.” They also wanted him to be seated, honoring his statesmanship, as opposed to military accomplishments. And they were prepared to pay the opulent sum of $5000.

The Very Expensive Statue

Greenough was a competent sculptor with a fair body of work during his short life. He died at only 47. But as an accomplished academician, he was also bound to traditional and classical stylistic conceptions. As was popular during that neoclassical period devoted to antiquity, he modeled his creation after the Statue of Zeus, sculpted by Phidias, and considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The statue of Zeus

An “imagined” statue of Zeus, one of the Ancient Wonders. It was destroyed in the 4th Century AD for it’s gold.

Greenough ordered the finest Carrera marble, and produced it entirely in his studio in Florence. It took him eight years. He was so proud of it, that he engraved it on the back, in Latin, “Horatio Greenough made this image as a great example of freedom, which will not survive without freedom itself.”

When he wrote and advised Congress that “Enthroned Washington” (as he titled it) was ready to be shipped, Congress was faced with a problem: getting it from Italy to the USA. In 1840, it was daunting, and Congress dickered and debated for weeks. Finally, they agreed to send an American man-of-war to bring George home. More money.

Another problem: getting the statue from Florence to the port city of Genoa for shipping. It weighed more than twelve tons. It took twenty-two yoke of oxen several days to haul George over the unpaved mountainous Italian roads. Seriously not cheap. One story says that the peasants en route believed the statue to be of some saint, and they knelt and genuflected as it passed by. Maybe.

Yet another problem: When the statue finally arrived in Genoa, they discovered George was much too large for the hatch of the man-of-war sent to bring him home. A merchant vessel with large enough capacity had to be refitted and chartered. More money. A lot more money.

The Trouble With George

Enthroned Washington

Finally, Enthroned Washington arrived at the Washington Navy Yard in 1841. A committee of select Congressmen were designated to formally “receive” the statue. They were horrified to find the Great George Washington was indeed seated (as authorized), but naked to the waist, with a robe in his lap and a section of a toga draping his right bicep. His bare feet were also in full view.

Virginia statesman (and later Governor) Henry Wise commented, “The man does not live and never did live, who saw Washington without his shirt.” (He didn’t say anything about his bare feet, although it is likely that only his servants and Martha ever saw him without his boots, either.)

As word got around about this “un-Washingtonian” image, it appeared that most of the country were like-minded of the sentiment, and convinced that George himself would despair.

Meanwhile, there was another problem: getting the huge statue from the Navy Yard to the Capitol. It cost another $5000. Then, as they finally were about to enshrine George in the Rotunda, they discovered that he was too large for the Capitol doors, and the masonry had to be cut to accommodate the massive statue. Once placed in its reserved spot however, the floor began to sink, so a massive and expensive pedestal was built for additional support.

Enthroned Washington – outside.

It did not take too long for Congress to decide that the Rotunda was not really suitable, so George was removed and replaced outside the Capitol Building. Over the next thirty five years, it was moved a few times, and by the mid-1880s, had already cost the country upward of $42,000.

It had also become a laughing-stock, albeit a respectful one. One jokester, according to Frank Carpenter, a Washington journalist, commented on the outstretched sword in the statue’s left hand and his right hand pointing heavenward. He was sure George Washington is demanding, “Take my sword if you will, but bring me some clothes!” DC winter winds can be bitter cold! And then, of course, the city is full of pigeons.

It was unintended, but it was a scandal.

George’s Final Resting Place

Moving Enthroned Washington to the Smithsonian. A massive undertaking!

By 1908, with snow, wind, weather and exposure, some cracks were discovered in the back of the statue, and the “authorities” decided George needed to come back indoors. The Washington Evening Star commented diplomatically, that the statue looks “pitiful out in the cold.” The original “castle” of the Smithsonian Institution was deemed the perfect location. The cost to remove, ship and re-install the statue was staggering.

In 1963, it was finally moved at a cost that dwarfed all the others, to the second floor of the Smithsonian’s new Museum of American History, still seated, naked to the waist. You can see it today if you like. We paid a helluva lot of money for it!


Carpenter, Frank G. – Carp’s Washington – McGraw-Hill, 1960.




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Governor Theodore Roosevelt: Kicked Upstairs

roughridingWhen the Spanish-American War ended in 1898, Theodore Roosevelt was a hero!

TR: The Rough Rider

rough rider

Rough Rider TR

Theodore Roosevelt, was a New York Knickerbocker, Harvard graduate, Republican state legislator, cowboy, Civil Service Commissioner and Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley when tensions in Cuba escalated over cruel Spanish rule.

When war was officially declared, he resigned his position, and formed a volunteer cavalry brigade, consisting of the many sides of his personality: New York politicians and policemen, cowboys from “out west,” and Ivy League college fellows. Nicknamed “Rough Riders,” TR’s innate commanding personality maneuvered them to the forefront, and they won a widely publicized victory on San Juan Hill. If he was well-known before, Colonel Roosevelt was now a household name.

The “war” was mercifully short, but the rampant yellow fever and assorted tropical diseases kept the soldiers quarantined on Long Island. For the better part of six weeks, Republican politicians, civic leaders, reformers and newspapermen trekked out to Montauk Point to discuss Colonel TR’s future plans: specifically, his availability as a Gubernatorial candidate.

It was not as simple as it sounded. Barely forty, TR was a well-known maverick. Political parties loathe mavericks – people they cannot control. The reformers loved him, but they worried about the influence of the political bosses. And TR himself, a very savvy politician, knew he could not win an election without a major party behind him – or govern effectively (should he win), without the latitude of his own agenda.

Tom Platt: The Easy Boss

Thomas Platt, the “Easy” Boss

Thomas Platt (1833-1910) was a US Senator and the titular head of the New York Republican Party for more than a decade in 1898. He was nicknamed “the Easy Boss” because of his genial nature, and the fact that he did not “rule” with a heavy hand. A businessman by profession (as opposed to a lawyer), he was shrewd, but willing to listen, to accommodate when/if feasible, insisting he only wanted what was best for New York. It was he who helped incorporate the boroughs of Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens into what is now Greater New York.

“Boss” Platt, who had known Roosevelt for a dozen years, was none too thrilled about backing him as the Republican candidate. He was wary, knowing TR was not a man who could or would “toe a party line.” He might even undermine his influence and power, which was considerable.

But political bosses know their politics inside and out, and usually have a shiny crystal ball into their party’s future success – or failure. NY Republicans in 1898 were having hard times. The newspapers were filled with scandals and corruption that had been uncovered “on their watch.” Reform was in the air. The Democrats were sure to win. Their squeaky-clean, well-respected candidate was Justice Augustus Van Wyck.

Unless, of course, the GOP could come up with a sure-winner!

Platt sent an emissary to Montauk.

Governor TR

young TR

Republican Governor Theodore Roosevelt

Both TR and Platt knew each other much too well to actually demand “latitude” (TR) or party-loyalty-above-all (Platt).

TR was interested in the Governorship, believing he could actually accomplish some good in Albany. It was also a two-year position, which also appealed to him. Other options might present themselves.

TR was breaking all records in popularity and prestige and Platt needed a winner. All he asked for, in return for the GOP’s political support, was that he be consulted about political matters and major appointments.

Consulted is an open word. “A” respectfully asks for “B’s” input/opinion; “B” respectfully obliges, but the bottom line is that “A” is not bound to act according to “B.” At least, that was TR’s understanding of the word. He was happy to tell Tom Platt that he would oblige and consult him often. But he would run a clean campaign, and if elected, a clean administration.

Platt was happy – sort of. The Republican Party supported TR.

He campaigned vigorously, as only TR could, but it was a squeaker! He won by just 1% of the vote. As expected, he governed as vigorously as only TR could.

During the two years of his governorship, he held twice-daily press conferences, levied taxes on public utility franchises (i.e. streetcar companies) that derived their franchise from the state. He signed legislation to improve civil service reform, set wage-hour standards, raised teachers’ salaries, outlawed racial segregation in public schools, expanded the state’s forest preserves, established the Palisades Interstate Park, reformed the Fish and Game Service, and strengthened banking and insurance laws.

TR also quickly learned to “consult” Platt regarding “appointments” by offering him a list of viable candidates to choose from.

But it was not working. The Governor was giving the machine politician grief. Platt and the party he controlled were being softly undermined. They could not handle another two years of Roosevelt.

”Kicked Upstairs”

garret hobart

The late VP Garret Hobart

In 1896, Garret Hobart of New Jersey (1844-99) was elected William McKinley’s Vice President. The two men became close personal friends as well as colleagues. Hobart, a stranger to political Washington, had also gained the respect of both sides of Congress. When McKinley was considering a second term, Hobart as Vice President was a given. But at only 55, Hobart suffered a massive heart attack and died. The position was open.

In 1900, the Vice Presidency was inconsequential. Honorable and ceremonial, but a political dead-end. Even the VPOTUSes who assumed the Presidency were considered inconsequential, and never even nominated for terms of their own. Hobart’s death was a golden opportunity for Platt to rid himself of his troublesome Governor. He convinced the politicians that Theodore Roosevelt was the perfect running mate for McKinley.

McKinley and Roosevelt in 1900

TR wanted the Vice Presidency as much as he wanted to hang by his thumbs; he had his eye in the top spot for 1904. But Platt, who convinced the powers-that-were that TR was viable, came off smelling like a rose. TR got the nod, and smiled, and held his nose.

On Inauguration Day, 1901, The Easy Boss traveled to Washington, in his own words, “to see Roosevelt take the veil.” And the rest is history.


Corry, John A. – A Rough Ride to Albany – John A. Corry Publishing, 2000

Dalton,, Kathlen – Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life – 2004, Vintage

Roosevelt, Theodore- The Rough Riders – Desert Publications (Reprint) 1992






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Chet Arthur, Tiffany and the 19-Year Screen

The dapper and fastidious Chester Alan Arthur

No question about it, the White House receives a great deal of wear and tear.

Chester A. Arthur: Accidental President

New York politician Chester Alan Arthur

Few people would have ever believed that Chester Alan Arthur, New York “spoilsman” politician, would ever have become President of the USA. Only a few years earlier, his name had been linked to corruption at the Customs House in the Port of New York. While CAA’s personal honesty was vindicated, huge graft and malfeasance had been committed on his watch. He was summarily dismissed.

Nevertheless, he had been, and continued to be, a wealthy attorney and politician. Following the political scandals in the Grant Administration, the Republican party imploded into various factions, and Arthur’s name was eventually floated as an accommodation to mend said factional fences. A Vice Presidency was an insignificant office throughout the 19th century; honorable and ceremonial, but with little impact.

In 1880, James Garfield, another dark horse in the field, won the Presidency; Chet Arthur was now Vice President. When Garfield died six months after his inauguration from an assassin’s bullet, CAA was now POTUS.

Washington political insiders thought poorly of him. The general public knew little other than his reputation as a well-mannered and bewhiskered political hack.

What he was, however, was elegant. Recently widowed at fifty, he was independently well-to-do, with very high standards for his surroundings.

The White House in 1881

The White House in 1882

Nearly every 19th century President inherited a shabby Executive Mansion. Early Presidents were expected to bring their own furniture, although after the “burning of the White House” during the War of 1812, some items were obtained as a permanent part of the house.

The physical upkeep of the White House was always a separate budget item. Congress made sure the mansion was painted regularly and that the grounds were well kept. But the decor, especially in the “public” rooms, took hard wear. Table and chair legs wobbled, furniture was stained. Carpets were worn, and in some places, threadbare. Visitors to public receptions regularly clipped fabric from drapes or cushions for souvenirs. Nearly every administration had a real need to “re-do,” and periodically Congress came through with some money. Most Presidents, cognizant of the expense and temporary occupancy, only fixed the essentials.

When Chester Alan Arthur (1829-1886) assumed the Presidency, the public rooms were dated and dingy. To CAA, that was not an option. He refused to move in until changes were made. It was the Gilded Age. Money was available. Congress obliged and allocated funds.

Louis Comfort Tiffany

Louis Comfort Tiffany, artist, artisan and decorator

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) was to decorative arts like Henry Ford was to motor cars. The son of Charles Tiffany, premier jeweler of New York City, LCT demonstrated artistic talents at a very young age. Following a basic education, he studied painting with George Inness, and at various art academies.

Early on, he became enamored with glass making, the Art Nouveau artistic movement, and interior decor in general. With the Tiffany name and money as well as his own talents and leadership, he opened his own glass making Tiffany Studios in 1878. His creations became popular among the wealthy. An opportunity to redecorate the Mark Twain House in Hartford, CT made the young man’s reputation, as well as his personal fortune.

The Tiffany Screen

President Chester Arthur sent for America’s 32-year-old premier designer and decorator. Tiffany was tasked to select the carpeting and fabrics and furnishings for many of the public rooms, but the piece de resistance, was a 50-foot long stained glass screen supported by faux-marble columns, for the downstairs corridor.

The entrance hall with the Tiffany screen

Another view of the entrance hall with the Tiffany screen

An old architectural screen had been commissioned for the corridor by President Martin Van Buren some 45-years earlier to block the draft, but while the structure was still solid and reusable, the panels were plain glass.

Young Tiffany had become expert with bits of opalescent colored glass enclosed by a metal casing, and fashioning them into a mosaic of flowers, birds and scenes of nature, creating true works of art, whether it be lamp shades or stained glass windows. Completed and installed in 1883, the screen for the White House corridor, incorporating eagles and flags, was his masterpiece, luminescent in the evening, when the gaslights of the White House chandeliers were lit. It was magnificent, especially since it reflected light from both sides of the panels.

The memorial window for Ellen Arthur

As an aside, President Arthur also became enamored with stained glass. Coincidental to the Tiffany screen, St. John’s Church, across Lafayette Park, had engaged a French firm to design and install stained glass windows. The President endowed one of those windows in memory of his wife who had died in early 1880.

A half dozen years later, under the Benjamin Harrison Administration, electric lights became part of the White House. The harsher light seemed to negate the vibrant colors of the screen, and electric light was deemed more important than a beautiful screen.

Only nineteen years after it appeared on the ground floor of the White House, the Tiffany screen was removed by the Theodore Roosevelt Administration, as part of a huge renovation project. (The Conservatory with its beautiful plants and flowers was also a casualty. The area was used for the West Wing, also deemed more necessary.)

Later and Still Later

The Tiffany screen was dismantled in 1902, and subsequently was lost in a fire.

The Tiffany Screen, as painted by Peter Waddell

In 2007, however, contemporary artist Peter Waddell was commissioned by the White House Historical Association to recreate, on canvas, the glory that was the Tiffany Screen. Painstakingly researching the various colors on the many Tiffany glass palettes, a 55”x72” painting depicts what is consider by many, one of the lost treasures of the White House.

The stained glass window at St. John’s Church, dedicated to the memory of Ellen Herndon Arthur, is still there.


Barzman, Sol – Madmen & Geniuses: The Vice-Presidents of the United States – Follett Publishing, 1974

Greenberger, Scott S. – The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester Alan Arthur, De Capo Press, 2017





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Franklin and Eleanor: The Chasm

Young Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a 5th cousin to Eleanor Roosevelt.

The Commonalities of Childhood

Descended from Dutch ancestors slightly post-Mayflower, both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelts were New York Knickerbockers, an aristocratic old-line status.

Both Franklin (1882-1945) and Eleanor (1883-1961) came from wealthy and privileged families: Franklin from the Hyde Park-Hudson River branch, Eleanor, from the New York City branch. But past the name, rank and bank accounts, there was little commonality.

young FDR

Young Franklin Roosevelt

Franklin was the only child of the second marriage of his much older father. His doting mother doted, and most of his youth was spent in adult company. He developed a self-assured and outgoing personality.

young eleanor

Young Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor’s father Elliott, was the younger brother of Theodore, man-on-the-rise. Her mother was a well-born but remote socialite who died when Eleanor was eight. Elliott, a hopeless alcoholic, died when she was ten. Raised by a somewhat dotty maternal grandmother, Eleanor had a desolate and lonely childhood. She was shy, withdrawn and lacking in confidence.

But both were intelligent, well-educated, and raised according to the late Victorian social conventions.

Franklin and Eleanor: The Early Years

The distant family connections between the Roosevelt branches precluded close or frequent contact (although young Elliott stood godfather to infant Franklin). But when Franklin was studying at Harvard, and Eleanor, having made her obligatory society debut, was volunteering her time at a settlement house on New York’s Lower East Side, they met by chance, and recognized each other from a previous gathering.

They became friends from the start, finding commonalities of character, interest and the qualities both had hidden beneath the superficialities. They fell in love.

Sara Delano Roosevelt was a doting mother.

By this time, Franklin’s father had died, and his mother was less than enthusiastic about an early marriage. She was also disapproving of Eleanor: physically plain, inward, and her inheritance (while substantial) was inadequate for Sara Delano. She made several attempts to maneuver out-of-sight to connect with out-of-mind.

It didn’t work. They maintained their relationship, and married in 1905. Uncle Theodore, now the Republican POTUS, gave the bride away.

The growing differences between their personalities was apparent early on. Franklin was naturally outgoing and accommodating, happy to live the life of ease that he had been born to. He became a lawyer, but coasted lackadaisically through junior level duties – for five years.

The young Roosevelt family

Meanwhile Eleanor, the dutiful wife, bore six children in the first ten years of marriage. One died. Her opportunities, other than the conventions of the wealthy, were limited. And boring.

Then too, they lived either with or very close to Sara Delano Roosevelt, her formidable mother-in-law. That included relinquishing household management and child-raising. Household duties can easily be done by others, and Eleanor’s maternal instincts were not as well-developed as Sara’s. “Granny,” by her own admission, raised the children; Eleanor “merely bore them.” Eleanor became resentful, and withdrew even more.

In 1911 things changed. FDR, a diffident attorney, had been recruited as a candidate for the New York State Senate – on the Democratic ticket. With “Uncle” Theodore’s blessing, he leaped at the opportunity, won, and discovered his true calling: politics. His wife shared the interest, insights, and their mutual amusement at Sara’s disdain.

Taking an active part on behalf of Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 election (again with Uncle Theodore’s blessing), he earned himself a position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy when Wilson won. It was a post held 25 years earlier by TR.

They moved to Washington, DC. Without Sara.

The Widening Chasm

Lucy Mercer

While FDR (as he was beginning to be called) slipped easily into his new role, Eleanor was still at loose ends. She was expected to pay and receive social calls, which she considered a pointless waste of time. But her schedule was filled with so many obligatory activities that a part-time social secretary was engaged.

Meanwhile, according to their eldest son James many years later, after their youngest son was born in early 1916, and having done her duty in the procreation department, Eleanor announced that she did not want any more children.

In 1916, birth control was controversial – and even taboo. It had originally been encouraged for those who could not afford the children, let alone the mothers whose health and strength were ebbing quickly. Eleanor was not in that category. Finances were never a problem.

But Eleanor was a conventional woman – then. If a woman did not want children, the only solution was separate rooms, sometimes with a lock on the door.

The Roosevelt family

They were still young. FDR was 34; Eleanor not quite 33. She apparently did not care about the physical intimacy. He, perhaps, felt the void.

Her happiest times were at their summer house on Campobello Island. It was hers to run, sans Sara. FDR joined them from time to time when his duties in Washington permitted. Nevertheless, he was always the “fun” parent; she, the dependable one.

The Chasm Erodes

When the War in Europe (WWI) began, and with a half dozen servants to tend to their house and the babies, Eleanor began volunteering some time via her one true-love: being useful. She made sandwiches and poured coffee for departing doughboys, and later assumed management for some of the Red Cross stations. She found it far more fulfilling than the mundane and useless day-to-day social activities she hated but where he was comfortable.

The chasm had been there for a long time. Whether or not they were consciously aware of it, Franklin and Eleanor had grown apart.  The lifestyle he enjoyed, she loathed. Her social secretary, Lucy Mercer, still in her early twenties, was pretty, well born, and trained to societal conventions.

Lucy was enchanted by the charming and handsome FDR; he found the young woman an engaging escort when Eleanor was out of town.

It was most likely unintentional, but they fell in love.





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Martha Washington’s Agony: Patsy Custis

When Martha Dandridge Custis married George Washington, she had two little children, ages four and two.

George Washington, Stepfather

Early etching of Martha Washington

Martha Dandridge had married Daniel Custis when she was eighteen. Eight years later, he died, leaving his widow with a vast estate and two small babies, John (Jack) and Martha (Patsy). Two other babies had died in early childhood.

A little more than a year later, Martha married Col. George Washington of the Virginia militia. Her two children had no memory of their natural parent; Washington was always “Father.”

Image result for paintings of George Washington and Jack and Patsy Custis

George Washington, an affectionate stepparent.

According to Virginia law, George Washington,  stepfather, became legal guardian to the children, and was an affectionate parent.

Patsy Parke Custis

The only known likeness of young Martha (Patsy) Custis

The first documented instance of any health problems concerning little Patsy was when she was around five. GW’s papers indicated that she experienced “fits and fevers.” Even today, early childhood fevers and convulsions are not uncommon, albeit unquestionably unsettling for the parents. They are usually short-lived, with no long-term problem.

No other occurrence is documented about Patsy until she was about eleven, approaching puberty. The underlying cause is difficult to determine more than two centuries later, but needless to say, in the 1760s, medical science was unequipped to treat it.

Epileptic seizures have been around since Biblical times. Even then, it bore a stigma, but it appears that the Washingtons were not squeamish. They recognized and understood the nature of the problem, but it was intensely private, contained solely within the family circle.

Epileptic seizures can manifest in many different ways and in many varying degrees. Some episodes last only seconds and are barely noticeable – even to the patient. Some are fainting spells; some are half-conscious flailing about; some are rigidly frozen. Patsy’s episodes appear to have been severe, violent and fairly frequent.

Nevertheless, Patsy was a pleasant child and young woman. Her rare portraits depict a pretty young lady of poise and presence. She played the spinet. She sewed. She was accomplished at the minuet and reels. She maintained as “normal” a life as possible.

Young Womanhood: 1770

A wealthy young (i.e. marriageable) Virginia woman of sixteen, circa 1770, could look forward to some of her happiest years. It was a social time; parties and balls abounded. Patsy Custis, with breeding and money, would have had lovely gowns, jewelry and dancing shoes. With the Washington esteem and influence, invitations to the finest homes would have been forthcoming. Add to that her good looks and pleasant disposition, the likelihood that she would be popular is a fair assumption. She could look forward to a happy time of courtship, and hopefully, a kind and affectionate husband.

But it became obvious early on that it was not to be. Patsy could not have been oblivious to her fate. It likely devastated her devoted mother, who had enjoyed two happy marriages.

Cures, Treatments and Frustrations

As affectionate and caring parents, George and Martha Washington consulted many physicians. They came from Alexandria, Fredericksburg and even Williamsburg, the Colonial capital, in the hope that something could be done to ease Patsy’s distress. One physician came from Baltimore at least ten times during a five year period.

Money was no object. They tried drops, “Nervous Powders” and potions, various drugs of herbs and barks, “a large Julep,” mercury and ether. They bled her, purged her, and took her to the medicinal waters at Warm Springs, Virginia. They even had a special iron ring made for her to wear, supposedly to prevent a seizure from happening.

Changes in her diet and lifestyle were suggested, including regular mild exercise and drinking barley water and eating cool food.Nothing seemed to work. On the contrary, her “fitts”, as they were called in Colonial times, increased in frequency and intensity as time went on.

In the summer of 1770, George Washington kept a private and discrete record of those occurrences in his almanac. Over a period of 86 days, Patsy suffered episodes on 26 days – sometimes twice in a single day.

The Eleanor Calvert Connection

Young Eleanor Calvert, Jack Custis’ bride.

Eleanor Calvert (1754-1811) of Maryland, was born to Charles Calvert, illegitimate offspring of the 5th Baron Baltimore. The wealthy family lived in Prince George County, Maryland.

John Parke (Jack) Custis.

Eighteen-year-old Jack Custis, being tutored in Annapolis  attended a party in 1773, met 15-year-old Nelly Calvert and was enchanted. The feelings were mutual, and they became engaged a short time later.

George Washington was reluctant, since he planned to send his stepson to Kings College (now Columbia University) in New York. Jack was always a lazy student, disinclined toward scholarship, but Washington still held lingering hopes. However, once he met the Calverts (who he liked) and the charming Nelly, he too was enchanted and  agreed to the engagement, on the condition that Jack at least try a few months at Kings College. He also suggested that Nelly visit Mount Vernon.

She arrived only days before Patsy’s unforeseen death. The two young women bonded immediately, to the delight of Martha Washington. Her daughter’s health had deeply curtailed her activity, so any diversion and friendship was warmly welcomed. Patsy seemed happier than she had been in months.

In midafternoon of June 19, 1773, Patsy went upstairs to get a letter from her brother Jack in New York, when Nelly heard a strange noise. Running to investigate, she found Patsy on the floor in the throes of a severe seizure. The Washingtons came immediately and carried their poor daughter to bed. She never recovered, nor made a sound.

On June 19, 1773, George Washington wrote in his diary, “At about 5 PM today, poor Patsy Custis died suddenly.”

“Without a word, a groan or scarce a sigh.”

The Comfort

Martha Washington was devastated. Now three of her four children were gone. Despite knowing the Washingtons for such a short time, Nelly Calvert stepped into the breach left by a daughter, and was sincerely devoted to the grieving parents. When she married Jack not long thereafter, she became their daughter, and even as a remarried widow years later, remained their daughter as long as George and Martha Washington lived.


Bourne, Miriam Anne: First Family: George Washington and his Intimate Relations, 1982, New York, NY, W.W. Norton

Brady, Patricia – Martha Washington: An American Life – Viking, 2005


A Cryptic Record of a Family Tragedy: The Unhappy Progression of Patsy Custis’s Epilepsy



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Dolley Madison’s Son Payne Todd: The Final Blow

dolley in 1840

The Venerable Mrs. Madison

Dolley Madison’s son, Payne Todd, had always been a disappointment.

Payne Todd in Brief

Dolley Madison (1768-1849) had been married to John Todd, a Quaker lawyer, for three years. Then he died, leaving her with a two-year-old son.

When she remarried, her new husband was the only father Payne Todd (1792-1852) knew. James Madison, more grandfather than father, was indulgent, supportive, helpful and affectionate. But like his wife, he was disinclined to administer the discipline that all children require from time to time. 

On the asset side, Payne grew up to be good looking like his mother, courteous and well mannered. His courtly bows were praised. His disposition was charming, again like his mother. He made friends easily.

But try as they did, neither James nor Dolley Madison seemed to make academics, hard work or profitable employment part of Payne’s agenda.

By the time he was 21, he was well on the path to dissipation from wine, women and wagering.

Madison’s Problem

James Madison, stepfather

James Madison, eighteen years older than his wife, had waited a long time to marry, and he adored her. Since Payne displayed acute disinclination toward every opportunity Madison provided for schooling, his stepfather finally tried other approaches.

As president, Madison sent the young man, then about twenty, as secretary to a small delegation appointed to St. Petersburg, Russia, hoping a diplomatic venue would be to his liking. It was. Payne loved the cosmopolitan lifestyle, particularly since he was treated like a Crown Prince. He was soon seen at all the gaming tables in the capital, quickly losing most of the generous allowance and then some that his stepfather provided.

When the delegation disbanded, Madison left the group in Paris, and began a gambler-alcoholic existence. He seldom wrote home unless it was to his stepfather (rather than his mother) asking for money, usually large sums.

The Montpelier plantation was too much for Dolley in her elder years.

Madison quietly sold off acreage from his large estate to pay Payne’s debts, rather than cause pain to his beloved Dolley. Eventually, she became aware (as did most of the country!) of the extent of Payne’s dissipation (which included Debtors’ Prison), but she never knew the extent of the money his stepfather advanced, including the heavy mortgage on Montpelier. Every effort the Madisons made to help Payne sustain himself, including an adjoining plantation to run himself, seemed doomed to failure. All his “business enterprises” were little more than disastrous get-rich-quick schemes. Nevertheless, Dolley loved her son, never spoke ill of him, and always claimed “he had a good heart.”

The only existing likeness of John Payne Todd

When James Madison died in 1836, he was eighty-five. His once-thriving plantation was in serious financial decline. His will named Dolley as his chief heir, but he also left a complex and complicated series of bequests to assorted charities, nieces and nephews that would take years to fulfill. Dolley, already in her late sixties, could not manage the plantation and finances herself. Payne, by now a dissolute alcoholic, was ill-equipped to help. She eventually sold the plantation and moved back to Washington, where she had many friends – and very few funds.

The Poor Widow Dolley 

Anna Payne Causten and her aunt Dolley Madison

Having taken a great loss in the sale of Montpelier, largely due to her son’s dissipation and debts, she rented a small house near the White House, bringing with her a few old retainers, and her niece Anna Payne Causten, who had been her devoted mainstay during James Madison’s last years.

The former president had spent those elder years annotating his diaries from the Constitutional Convention fifty years earlier, believing them to be invaluable to the country he helped found. This was his major bequest to his beloved Dolley; he expected them to be published, valued at $100,000 – enough to provide for all his bequests – and his widow.

Dolley had enlisted her son’s help in finding a publisher, but Payne proved inept as ever, and nothing came from it. Congress finally authorized funds for a partial purchase, but it was inadequate. Dolley was broke. She was neither an experienced businesswoman nor did she have a natural head for finance. Always a loving and doting mother, she had given Payne her power of attorney. As usual, he bollixed up the sale of Montpelier to a point that Dolley could no longer go back to Virginia: she would be inundated with lawsuits and outstanding claims and debts.

Dolley’s house in DC. It is still there.

Most of the existing correspondence between Payne Todd and his aging mother were either about needs: usually his, or finances and property: usually hers. There is the expected courtesy, some genuine affection, but little indication of a desire to help her.

Dolley had outlived her closest kin. Like Madison’s family, they were all into the second generation, with strife amongst everyone, usually about money. Payne Todd was all she had, despite his incompetence and dissolute habits.

It was her devoted niece-companion Anna Payne Causten who provided the day-to-day assistance and affection that Mrs. Madison had always generously provided to others. 

Dolley Madison best remembered.

Nevertheless, Dolley held her head high and maintained her consummate dignity and grace in public. Most people believed she had comfortable means, but the truth was that she was suffering financially.

The Battle of Wills

Dolley’s will had been written nearly a decade before her death, but by 1849, as her health declined, she wanted to provide for Anna. When Todd got wind of her inclination, he turned up at her bedside, lawyer in tow, with a new will, making him, her only son, sole heir of his mother’s estate. Her frail condition could not stand up under the stress and duress. She signed it.

Very shortly thereafter, when another nephew, an attorney, learned of that subterfuge, he drafted (and she signed) another will, dividing whatever estate she had left between Payne Todd and Anna, who would otherwise be left destitute. Dolley could now rest easy…

However…The battle of wills was fought for nearly three years – by then, both Payne Todd and Anna Payne Causten had died.


Angelo, Bonnie, First Families: The Impact of the White House on their Lives – 2005, HarperCollins

Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power 1789-1961, 1990, William Morrow




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Nellie Taft Writes Her Memoirs

The elegant FLOTUS Helen Herron Taft

This is a sad story with a delayed happier ending.

Nellie: Discovering the Ambition

Helen (Nellie) Herron (1861-1943) was smart as a whip, and as ambitious as Caesar. She had the ambition to want things, and the ambition to work for them. But she also had a yin-yang nature that was deeply rooted in the womanly conventions of the 1870s, designed to keep the smart and ambitious woman in check.

Young Helen Herron

When she was in her mid-teens,the Herron family spent time in the White House visiting close friends, President and Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes. Nellie was more than entranced. She was inspired. Here was where she wanted to live. As First Lady.

Since she couldn’t counter the mid 1870s, she realized that if the White House on her long-range horizon, she would have to marry it.

Nellie: Marrying the Ambition

At twenty five, Helen Herron married William Howard Taft, four years her senior. They had courted pleasantly for three years, and she conventionally said “no” three times. Then she said “yes.” Taft was a big, gentle teddy bear who sincerely loved the savvy young woman with a sharp wit – and tongue. More importantly, he had impeccable credentials with an arrow pointing toward high office in Washington.

Like the Herron, the Tafts were from Cincinnati with eastern antecedents. Will’s father was a widely respected attorney, and cabinet secretary during the Grant Administration. Will was first in his class at Yale, returned to Cincinnati to study law, passed the bar easily, and had begun a career in public service. Republican public service.

The only snag was that Will was appointed to the bench at a young age, and loved being a judge. His highest ambition was a seat on the Supreme Court. Nellie assiduously devoted most of her enormous energies to channel those judicial ambitions to a better address on Pennsylvania Avenue. She read all the newspapers, knew all the players and the issues, and made sure they attended all the see-and-be-seen events. She was happy to skimp on her own personal comforts to fund political dues.

Nellie: The Hubris of Ambition

The old saying is to be careful what you wish for. Nellie wished and it came true, largely in part to her encouragement, her channeling, and the fact that Will Taft sincerely wanted to please his wife.

Nellie Taft at work.

In 1909, William Howard Taft became President. Nellie was now First Lady with a long agenda of FLOTUS activities – well within the “conventional” purview of 1909 First Ladydom: Social activities, cultural activities, educational activities.

But only a few weeks into the Taft Administration, on a party-cruise down the Potomac, Nellie fainted. But it was not a faint. It was a serious stroke that left her with aphasia.

Aphasia is a condition resulting from a blood clot in the brain that impairs the patient’s ability to speak coherently and to read and write. It also can cause the face to droop on one side. But her physical health was not impaired. There was no crippling.

More of a Sad Story

Taft was devastated. Aside from truly loving his wife, he had counted on her considerable political savvy in a job he never really wanted. Now she couldn’t help.

Nellie Taft after her stroke. The change is obvious.

Even sadder than her new limitations, her “transmitter” functions were damaged, but her “receptor” functions were intact. Nellie could understand everything. Her memory was only slightly impaired. If you asked yes/no questions, she could nod with proper response. But she could not elaborate on the answer. She improved, albeit with some residual speech impediment. She could, at least in part, make several of the traditional FLOTUS decisions – but she could not appear in public.

Her daughter took a year off from Bryn Mawr College to help. Her three sisters rotated long visits to help. The President spent hours with her whenever he could.

Several months later, another less-severe stroke forced her to refocus her ambition: on her health, like it or not. Politics now became secondary.

It took the entire Taft term to regain most of her lost abilities.

Nellie: Recollection of Full Years

Of course she was deeply depressed. She got what she wanted and could not enjoy it. She understood everything, but she could not communicate publicly. It was agonizing for her to help arrange a state dinner or receptions that she could not attend. She was also politically shrewd enough to understand that her husband was destined to be a one-term President, and she worried about their post-Presidential finances. Yale University came to their rescue with a Chair of Law for Taft. They moved to New Haven CT, which she loathed. She was bored.

Her “autobiography.” Written well before WHT was CJ.

Both Tafts had their greatest dreams fulfilled. She became FLOTUS and he became CJ of the SCOTUS

In part to help combat her mother’s depression, her daughter suggested that Nellie write her memoirs. No other First Lady had done that – at least so far as anyone knew. (Julia Grant had written hers some twenty years earlier, but they had not been published.)

Nellie dictated her experiences to her daughter, who crafted them into a nice, albeit not exciting, book. She focused on her childhood and youth. On her marriage, family and travels. But mostly on her happiest five years in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th Century, when Taft was its Governor-General. Nellie was First Lady there. The four years she spent in the White House was a briefer chapter, mostly devoted to table settings, menus and guest lists. She had wanted to do so much more.

Nevertheless,  in 1914 Recollection of Full Years, by Mrs. William Howard Taft, was published by Dodd, Mead to modest success.

Nellie lived to be 83, with a quiet, but interesting and reasonably active life.

She saw her husband appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, his greatest ambition. She saw her children married and very successful. She saw her daughter become Dean at Bryn Mawr College. She saw several grandchildren.

And perhaps most importantly, a long line of politically distinguished Ohio Tafts still look back to their matriarch with pride.


Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – Nellie Taft: The Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era – 2005, William Morrow

Ross, Ishbel – An American Family: The Tafts – 1964, World Publishing

Taft, Mrs. William Howard – Recollections of a Full Life – Dodd, Mead, 1914


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