Get out your best china and polish that silver! Don a feathered turban, and settle in for a chat about a woman who was not only one of the greatest hostesses in the history of party throwing, but a woman who was an extraordinary networker, before networking was cool. Not just another first lady…the first, First Lady.
In this episode we shine the spotlight on a woman who lived in one, Dolley Payne Todd Madison.
Dolley Payne was not born of high society, but into a simple Quaker family in North Carolina in 1768. Dolley- her given name- true!- was the third of eight children born to John and Mary Payne. The family moved when Dolley was young, first to Virginia and then to Philadelphia.
This tall, dark haired, blue eyed beauty married a Quaker lawyer, John Todd when she was 21. The couple had two sons. Tragically, John and the youngest son ( who was only 3 months at the time) died of yellow fever when Dolley is 25. This event unleashes the rest of her life that plays out like a classy, well mannered, dynamic soap opera!
A widow, and single mother of a young son, John Payne Todd, Dolley lived fairly well on the inheritance from her husband. She was charming and beautiful and attracted many suitors, but caught the fancy of two particular men: Aaron Burr and James Madison. (And this is a neat little soap opera-y tidbit for those of you who like your history gossip: Burr, who was married at the time, apparently was waiting for his wife to die so that he could propose to Dolley.)
However, Burr begrudgingly introduces James to Dolley—what with his being married and all, he really had no reason NOT to introduce them. James and Dolley then marry after a very brief courtship and Dolley must leave the Quaker faith because James in not one of them. And Aaron? He goes on to become VP under Thomas Jefferson- then kills Alexander Hamilton in a duel. How is that for a few juicy storylines?
Back to Dolley and James… he adopts John Payne and they never have any other children. He is it. And his life is another soap opera –one story arc after another, that John Payne.
But James Madison? First he becomes Secretary of State under Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson is a widower, so Dolley is called up to act as hostess for certain Presidential events. And NOW our dear subject has found her true calling in life! She does an amazing job entertaining delegates, playing politics while NOT playing politics, and charming all of Washington.
Her role continues as James Madison is elected the fourth president and Dolley moves into the White House. She defined the role of the wife of the president – she really was the hostess with the mostest. She proves time and again that she is a woman to not be messed with! As if that wasn’t enough she seals her patriotic cred by saving valuables, including a ginormous portrait of George Washington, as the British are burning her city including the White House. You can’t write drama like this! This is some really good stuff!
And her clothes! This woman is a fashionista! She is setting trends, rocking turbans, sniffing her snuff- and we talked about all this in the podcast! You know us with the clothes…we kinda get excited. And, yes, since we like to tie past times to present times as often as we can, we compared her to Sarah Jessica Parker- another style icon who rocked some pretty far-out fashions, too.
James serves two terms as President, she serves many official dinners, is rumored to have had the first Easter Egg Hunt on an as yet unlandscaped White House lawn, and helps fund-raise for a couple of exploring dudes named Lewis and Clark. She is one busy woman!
When James retires, they return to his family estate, Montpelier, in Virginia. By this time, John Payne has done a couple of stints in debtor’s prison and has some nasty drinking and gambling habits. When James dies, Dolley is left with the debt of John Payne and sells part of the estate to help keep her son out of debt.
Dolley moved back to Washington in her old age and declining economic status, but she is STILL so widely liked that she is supported in part by those in her community. She sells Presidential papers to congress, and gets an honorary seat in Congress so that she can watch the proceedings. She advices several wives of Presidents who come after her, and even her last public appearance was at a Presidential dinner with James Polk. Remember, this is a woman who has held no elected office, but she is still such a part of the process that she continued to be included throughout her life.
She died of unknown causes at age 81. At her funeral, Zachery Taylor first used the term “First Lady”. She wrote the book on the position, it is fitting to us that the title is part of her legacy.
In a yet one final soap opera worthy note, her son John Payne outlived her by only 2 years, and died of typhoid fever.
But don’t close the book on this woman! Her hostessing is so legendary the Zinger company in the 1930’s will name a snack cake line after her….even if they spelled her name wrong. Silver patterns are named for her, and her name is synonymous with entertaining to this day!
Time Travel With The History Chicks
Really, this is one amazing woman, you should throw a party in her honor! Wear turbans with ostrich feathers and rant about the sad demise of the hat. Learn even more about this amazing woman with a strong core, a vibrant mind and a personality like no other by clicking over to PBS and watching the American Experience done about her. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/dolley/player/
*And we bow, once again, to all that is amazing about PBS American Experience*
For even MORE about her…head over to The Dolley Madison Project : Virigina Center for Digital History. This site has EVERYTHING you need to know about Dolley- there are even pics of Dolley dollies! http://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/madison/index.html
Check out the Official White House Page: http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/first-ladies/dolleymadison
Road trippin’? Montpelier estate: Two hours from Washington, DC in Orange Virginia is Madison’s Montpelier estate. It underwent a massive (read; KA-CHING!) restoration in 2008, and you can visit and tour and see what life looked like when Dolley was mistress of the estate! http://www.montpelier.org/index.php
If we got you excited to learn even more about this woman, or if you were already fascinated by her, tell us about your experience! Does she make you want to have your dual hankies (one for the rough work, and one for polishing)? Or maybe just give you a desire to wear a really rockin’ hat or wallpaper a room in red flocked paper? As for us, we are going to polish our silver and raise our crystal goblets to toast the legacy and memory of this extraordinary woman!
As always, music for our podcast comes courtesy of Music Alley. Visit them at music.mevio.com.