The Magazine

First First Lady

Martha Dandridge was more than just Mrs. George Washington.

Jan 16, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 17 • By RACHEL DICARLO
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Martha Washington

An American Life

by Patricia Brady

Viking, 276 pp., $24.95

FINDING ENOUGH NEW OR INTERESTING material about Martha Washington to fill a whole book promises to be a daunting task. Compared with other first ladies of her time--like the opinionated spitfire Abigail Adams or the renowned political hostess Dolley Madison--Martha Washington doesn't seem to offer much glamour apart from her marriage to George. Even that topic, her relationship with America's most famous Founding Father, proves difficult to investigate. So intent was Martha on keeping her marriage to George private that, at his death, she burned some 41 years' worth of their correspondence. Only five letters survived the flames.

Using those letters, along with a smattering of Martha's correspondence with friends and family, various anecdotal accounts of her contemporaries, and a vast knowledge of 18th-century American life, Patricia Brady has produced a full and dazzling new biography of the first first lady--from her days on the Dandridge family farm to her final years as the widow Washington.

Brady weaves Martha's story--her childhood, two marriages, motherhood, devotion to her husband during the Revolution, and her role as First Lady--together with George Washington's career, while drawing special attention to the qualities in Martha that are often overlooked. She reveals a shrewd businesswoman, a patriot, and a president's lifelong confidante.

Martha Dandridge, nicknamed Patsy, was born a fourth-generation Virginian on her mother's side. The Dandridges were planters, but not wealthy by any stretch, which meant they did much of the work themselves. Young Martha killed and plucked fowls; made dyes, soap, and home remedies; sewed clothes, curtains, and linens; stuffed pillows and mattresses; beat the dust out of rugs; cured meats; and washed the clothes every week in a big boiling kettle.

But she also learned how to be a lady. Martha's family, like most Virginia planters, revered the manners of the British aristocracy, and so they taught her how to sit, bow, dance, manage her skirts, and ride a horse stylishly. At 17, the pretty young Martha had met every nearby bachelor and widower. (The striking illustration of her on the book's front cover will surprise anyone who pictures a plump, frumpy, gray-haired Martha Washington.)

Despite the lack of a substantial dowry, she got engaged to Daniel Parke Custis, the son of one of the wealthiest men in the Virginia colony. When his father, Colonel John Custis, by all accounts a mean and miserable man, found out, he flew into a rage and threatened to throw the family silver into the road rather than let a Dandridge girl use it. In an early testament to her character and gumption, Martha managed to arrange a meeting with the colonel himself. Her charm impressed the old man so much that he consented to the marriage. As amusing evidence of Colonel Custis's crustiness, Brady includes the epitaph he insisted be placed in his will:

Under this Marble Tomb lies the Body

of the Honorable John Custis, Esq.

of the City of Williamsburgh and the Parish of Bruton

Formerly of Hungers Parish on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and

County of Northampton the Place of his Nativity

Aged 71 Years and yet liv'd but Seven Years

Which was the space of time He kept

A Bachelors house at Arlington

This inscription carved at his express orders.

With Daniel's father gone, it was a happy and prosperous household. Martha had been transformed from a simple farm girl to a gentrified member of the plantation elite. The author doesn't gloss over the fact that the Custises, like all planters, owed their prosperity to the 300 slaves who tilled the fields. At that time only a few Americans, mostly Quakers, had begun to speak out against the evils of slavery. The Custises were not among them. Martha treated her slaves kindly, but believed black servitude to be the natural order of things.

Times got tough for the new family after two of their four children died. Then Daniel, too, fell ill in the summer of 1757, and soon followed them to the grave. Martha, as the widow of a property-owning man, found herself in a unique position: She was free to make any decision she liked about her future. It would have been eccentric for her to remain unmarried, and so by the spring of 1758 she had two suitors.