Jack and Patcy Custis

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is 
To have a thankless child! Away, away!

After hitting the halfway point of Washington:  A Life, I realized the problem.  Randall  presents everything with this hurry-up-and-wait approach.  One point or factoid may be repeated ad nauseam to the point that you sometimes have to flip back a page to make sure you haven’t missed that your current paragraph is a flashback.  It’s not horrible, but it does make keeping a running mental tally of the order in which I want to share…awkward, especially as I’ve been traveling.  

It may be the weekend before I catch up with what I’d like to do, which is trace the dichotomy of the man.  The guy who copied out rules for living as a teenager truly lived by those rules as an adult; the guy who had little formal schooling really taught himself on a wide variety of subjects.  Washington was no Jeffersonian genius (even leaving aside his not figuring out that it might not be Martha’s fault they didn’t have kids together), but he impresses me with all he did learn on his own.

But today’s post is about Jack (who seems to be the ungrateful child Lear only believed his daughter to be) and Patcy Custis, George Washington’s step-children.  So far, we know little of Jack except that he’s indolent with regard to his studies, likes riding his horses, generally insensitive to anything unrelated to him and left school to marry his girlfriend, frustrating GW to no end.

But it was Patcy, whom George seemed to truly adore as much as if she were his own progeny, that broke my heart when I read last night’s section.  Patcy had what was certainly epilepsy, and literally died of a seizure right in George Washington’s arms.  The distress this caused Martha Custis Washington is palpable to the reader, even one who has only hit page 250.  But George Washington’s feelings are rarely displayed for more than a moment–we know he’s petulant when ill-appreciated and ill-rewarded by Governor Dinwiddie and later by the British government.  We know when he’s lock-stock-and-two-smoking-watermelons crazy about Sally Fairfax…which is what leads us to wonder what, other than her money, George loved about Martha…since he seems far less passionate about her.  We know he’s frustrated by Jack, and despondent about Patcy, but only in brief glimpses.

Certainly I don’t want biographers to make stuff up…but it is disappointing to not get into the nittygritty of what makes this man tick.

Nonetheless, poor Patcy.  Not only did she have to die young, but she suffered the ill effects of her mother’s famously bad spelling.  Tsk.

Published in: on January 12, 2009 at 10:26 pm  Leave a Comment  

Babies Make You Plump

I’m afraid I’m far ahead in my reading (8 days in, one-third of the way through the Randall’s Washington: A Life) but behind in my posting on that material.  Last night, I had a decent excuse, as Comcast’s web service just stopped.  Feh.

I really will have to catch up with our hero’s travails, from his spy work to the disaster at Fort Necessity to his new mentor’s demise to his truly icky illness.  But last night, something (or someone) pleasant popped up.  Enter:  Martha Dandridge Custis.  What do we learn about our first First Lady?

Like all the women of her family, Martha was small.  She measured under five feet tall when she was fully grown, nearly a foot and a half shorter than Washington.  In a primitive paining made a year before her first husband’s death, John Wollaston, the same man who painted Sally Fairfax and Lawrence Washington, gave Martha bright, almond-shaped eyes, a small pursed mouth, a high, domed forehead and a trim figure..  She radiated a clam, poised self-confidence.  The portrait does not show her perfect white teeth, a rarity at the time, her tiny delicate hands, or her gentle manner.  After giving birth four times, by the time washington met her she was plump.  She was always elegantly dressed and bejeweled.  Everything in her manner said that she had grown accustomed to wealth and was at lease with her own authority.

Earlier, we’re told she had a tiny waist.  And that George had probably previously danced with her at Tidewater parties.  And by the time she’s 25, a widow with four kids, one under the age of a year, she flirts with him when he comes to pay a courtesy shiva call (OK, not being Jewish, they probably wouldn’t have called it that), leaves his manservant standing by the horse outside (because he said he was going to be out in mere minutes) and then sleeps over all night.  Sounds more like a booty call, but whatever.  One date later, they were engaged.  

And yet he wasn’t over his crush on Sally.  Indeed, they traded (fairly encoded within allusions to Washington’s favorite play, Cato: A Tragedy) some flirty letters.  In the analogy, Washington is Juba, in love with Sally’s Marcia, practically enslaved to her father Cato (for which, read George William Fairfax, her husband).  Washington has been an embarrassment to menfolk and country (England or America…or even Virginia) all during the war, not only writing Sally mash notes, but bugging everyone they knew (save her husband, his best buddy) to act as wingman and get messages to her and prompt her to write to him.  She was well behaved (up until the aforementioned watermelon incident, but eventually she admitted, in code, that she cared for him, too, but all was for naught.  (There was no divorce in Colonial Virginia, so even if she were willing to risk the scandal, she couldn’t have been with George anyway.)

Published in: on January 8, 2009 at 11:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

I Carried a Watermelon

I know I’ve jumped ahead, but I laughed aloud when I read this bit.  

Fort Duquesne was a disaster.  Thanks to his dysentery, Washington almost didn’t make it to the battle, and when he did, it was a cluster****.  Half the men deserted, the other half killed (including Braddock), Washington was the only survivor to survive.  It was a horror, and he was still ill, traumatized and miserable.  And now broke.  He left and went back to Mount Vernon to bring in the harvest.  He was rightfully depressed, but the closer he got to home, the more he learned that the bad strategy Braddock used (which had been on Washington’s advice) earned blame for Braddock, but not for him.  Washington was being hailed a hero.  Even those old meanies, the rude British officers, were praising him.

That reversal of fortune isn’t what tickles me.  It’s this:

A harbinger of this reversal of fortune awaited him at Mount Vernon.  He instantly recognized the handwriting of Sally Fairfax [his not-so-secret crush, the two-years-his-elder, wife of his best friend] on an envelope and tore it open.  Sally was overjoyed at his return.  If he was up to it, could he come over to Belvoir the next day?  Was he up to it! The next afternoon, ignoring his debilitated condition and enlisting the help of h is faithful manservant Thomas Bishop, Washington bought some watermelons and rode as fast as he could over to Belvoir.

This is the greatest discovery of the project so far.  Washington bought some watermelons and rode as fast as he could to his hot, intriguing crush. Who would have thought George Washington was acting out the first  below-stairs scene from Dirty Dancing.  All that’s missing is hearing that he arrived at Sally’s, breathlessly dismounting his horse, wheezing “I carried a watermelon.”

Nobody puts Georgie in a corner!


Published in: on January 8, 2009 at 11:24 pm  Comments (1)  

Heading Into The Seven Years’ War

Did you remember from Social Studies that what we call maize The French and Indian War, everyone else calls the Seven Years’ War?  Well, I hit that point last night.  I’m five days into Randall’s GEORGE WASHINGTON: A LIFE, up to page 132 (slow for me, but this book really drags in places), so I’m a bit more than a quarter of the way through this 502 page tome.  

I want to say to Randall, “It’s not you, it’s me.”  It’s both of us.  But I don’t feel like he’s telling me anything i want to know about Georgie.  I’m getting a lot of “what” but not “why”.   His dad dies, and we get no sense of how he feels beyond recognizing he’s going to have to deal more often with his mom.  Lawrence, his beloved brother, dies (which, by the way, is how he ended up with Mount Vernon, because Lawrence’s widow Nancy loses her little daughter, remarries and escapes from those memories)…and we never get a sense of what this meant for him.

I get that we 21st century folks are much more pop-psych oriented, but I would trade the pages describing his dysentery for ones that gave us a clue what he felt.  There are very few primary sources (diaries, letters, etc.) that aren’t George’s own, and while he might not have said how he felt, surely some nosy nellie must have said “Damn, but that George seems like he needs less surveying and more loving!”

I’ve said little about his early years, aside from his Mommy issues, but I’ll note that when George wasn’t with his mom, he seemed perfectly adequate, a bit nerdy and also a little girlie, which I’ll chalk up to the times.  Nerdy, as he really seemed to enjoy the math and science of the surveying work, but a little busy avoiding the financial woes caused by his mother by flirting with his best friend Fairfax’s fair bride.  Sure, when he was 16 and she 18, it made sense, but in the aftermath of his defeat at Fort Necessity and as he’s heading into the Seven Years’ War, he comes off less like an 18th century stalker and more like a teenager (even at 22) than he ought.  His peeps taught him cards and dancing, but couldn’t be bothered to teach him how to talk to women?

Washington seemed to have mixed results with regard to self-esteem with men, as well as women.  On his way back from leaving Lawrence dying, George stops to curry favor with Governor Dimwiddie (hey, I didn’t make that name up), who, over multiple visits,  eventually takes George under his wing.  But Dimwiddie is a dim bulb at social niceties and ends up screwing our country’s future leader whenever it suited his pocketbook.

Tomorrow, I’ll try to catch up on George’s big success (his diplomatic spy mission), his big failure (which, given  his age, I blame on everyone but George…who sends a boy to do lead myriad untrained, badly militia men, ignores his advice and then treats him like a dog?  

I’m eager to read more about Washington’s experiences under General Braddock, his new patron.  Both Dimwiddie and Braddock have their problems, but Braddock strikes me as the more honorable and worthy mentor, so far.  We’ll see.

Published in: on January 5, 2009 at 11:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

Perhaps it’s not the worst simile…

…but when Willard Sterne Randall reports that “The resulting stalemate was about to burst like a beaver dam in a spring freshet, sweeping away the French”, I think I strained a muscle rolling my eyes.  

Yes, at this point (about which I’ll post later), the situation of the French teamed with the Algonquins (the Native Americans, not Dorothy Parker’s pals) against the English and the Iroquois was, indeed, a powder keg.  But Randall’s cutesie phrasing is especially appalling given that a dozen pages later, he practically writes a series of action adventure scenes suitable for Washington & Christopher Gist to be played by Johnny Depp and Daniel Craig.

And please don’t write in to point out that Depp is too old and too short and too weird to play a 21-year-old Washington. I don’t watch action movies and at least both of these guys could believably manage running off, getting their canoe cracked against ice shards, avoiding getting shot and living to heroically delivery the intel.  You wanna complain about casting, get your own blog. <g>

Published in: on January 3, 2009 at 7:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Biography Selected

The plan was to start this project the abridged version of Douglas Southall Freeman’s WASHINGTON: AN ABRIDGEMENT IN ONE VOLUME BY RICHARD HARWELL OF THE SEVEN VOLUME GEORGE WASHINGTON, as noted on the reading list in the blogroll. At 780 pages, it makes one wonder just how abridged it could be!  Indeed, the version as revised in 1995 (listed simply as Washington) comes in at 896 pages!  

I’d wanted to begin reading a few nights before New Year’s Eve, to get  a running start, but the version on hold at my library wasn’t available.  So, I  went with another worthy option on the big bio list,  GEORGE WASHINGTON:  A LIFE by Williard Sterne Randall, probably better known for his book on Benedict Arnold.

Having only made it  67 measly pages, the most compelling bits and pieces relate to his wacky mother, Mary Ball Washington. I don’t  doubt that all the bits and pieces related to his great, great grandparents in England had an impact on the events and issues surrounding his life, but as previously mentioned,  I’m not a historian. I also got a bit tired of the ancestors who married women named Anne, and when one Anne died, replaced her with another Anne.  Nor have I much interest in how much happened up to the death of Gus (OK, Augustus) Washington, Mr. Father of our County’s dad.  

But Mary Ball Washington?  Surely her special flavor of crazy had an impact in ways large and small.  But just for a taste of her background, through what was apparently not any fault of her own, her parents and grandparents dropped like flies, leaving her a pretty healthy legacy of furniture, livestock, money (lots of money, which she both squandered and hid), slaves, land, livestock…and horses.  Oh, this chick loved her horses.  (I’m making no Catherine the Great  connection, but you’re welcome to have at it!)  She was a wild horeswoman, and not interested in getting married off.  And why would she have been?  She  had everything a woman needed in those days for self-determination and power.

But she did, eventually, marry widower Gus, becoming mother to his three kids and moving all of her crap into the already crowded-with-crap little brick house at Pope’s Creek in Virginia.  Eleven months later (February 11, 1732 under the old English Calendar…the switch from which will probably be discussed in future posts), she gave birth to George.  But what matters to me is what happened while she was pregnant, and please reader, look away if you are at all squeamish.  The summer of her pregnancy, the family and some friends were having a post-Church meal when a thunderstorm rolled in and lightning hit the house and killed a little girl who was visiting.  Mary was sitting so close to the child that she was also shocked.

Randall believes that this sets up an explanation for much of Mama Washington’s weird fears and odd behaviors (like rarely going farther from home than church and expecting George to stay close and have fealty only to her), though some early tales make me wonder if she didn’t start out a bit wacky.  Nonetheless, weird parents yield kids with weirdnesses of their own, dissimilar often, but quirks nonetheless.  

So, if you’re ever time traveling and visit a Tidewater family for Sunday lunch, don’t sit too close to the little girl near the pregnant horsewoman.  Just as a precaution.

Published in: on January 2, 2009 at 11:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

Walking With Presidents

Earlier this week, the dental hygienist (Look, Ma, no cavities!) saw me reading Fellow Citizens: The Penguin Book of U.S. Presidential Inaugural Addresses and gave me a funny look.  I explained that in anticipation of my 2009 project to try to read a definitive biography of each American president, I was going to review their inaugural speeches.  She gave me that patient look reserved for small children and confused seniors and commented that I must love to read history.

Well, I love to read, and I love history, but I don’t necessarily love to read history.  Too often, it’s about battles (which never interest me) or tariffs (Smoot-Hawley, anyone?), which never interest anyone.  But I am fascinated with people, and particularly with leaders.  What makes someone follow, swear loyalty to and be willing to wage wars at their command and brave snowstorms to support their candidacy?

So, to lay out the ground rules, which I may change at any time, here are the details:

  1. I’ll be reading about the presidents in chronological order.  Duh.
  2. The key is a definitive biography, not the definitive biography.  I’m not a real presidential historian–I only play one on television.  So, I’ll leave that to the wisdom and skills of the esteemed  Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Which books I read is not open for discussion or debate.  If you feel there’s a much better book than the one I’ve read, feel free to say so, but I’m not  obligated to borrow or buy it. Remember,  I’m doing this for me, not for you.  🙂
  3. I’ll get guidance, and when available (at the library, mostly likely) and practicable,  I’ll try to select a title from the THE ESSENTIAL PRESIDENTIAL BOOK SHELF: A SELECTIVE READERS’ AND COLLECTORS’ GUIDE By Tom Trescott and Dan Weinberg.  However, as noted in #2, the selections are up to me.
  4. I’m not going to review the books.  I am going to comment on them, but I’m more interested in commenting on the lives and decisions and lives of the presidents themselves, the people surrounding them, and the events of the eras.  Hopefully, I’m more Entertainment Tonight than TMZ.
  5. I’m doing this because I miss Professor (Richard) Polenberg.  Over two decades ago at Cornell, I took three of his classes, two big lecture-hall courses, where we just sat back and he told the thousand or so of us some great stories that just happened to be about American history, and one 15-person seminar where I’ve never tried so hard to be worthy of the person from which I was learning.  Professor Polenberg rocked (and I presume, still rocks), and failing being able to sit in his class somewhere on Cornell’s campus twice a week and find out how the country got this way, I’m going to read some books about some presidents, and figure out what I can on my own.
  6. And finally, as dazzling as Professor Polenberg’s classes always were, I really wouldn’t be here without William Daniels (yes, Mark Craig from St. Elsewhere and Mr. Feeney on Boy Meets World).  His voice, as John Adams in the musical 1776, on the Sunday morning broadcasts of Broadway Bound (just before Breakfast with the Beatles) filled my Cornell weekends with inspiration.  Commitment!

I see fireworks.

I see the pageants and pomp and parades.

I hear the bells ringing out.  I hear the cannons roar.

I see Americans.  All Americans free, forever more.

Well,  that (semi-apocryphal) Adams made the decision to accept the South’s terms in order to get the Declaration signed.  What does that compromise say about leadership, anyway?

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  First  comes General G. Washington.

Published in: on January 1, 2009 at 6:37 pm  Comments (2)  

New year, new projects


Although I’ve been blogging professionally since 2007, my alter ego, Paper Doll, appears at Blog Central at OnlineOrganizing.com.  If you were looking for something specifically about professional organizing or getting organized, please visit me there.  

This blog is largely unplanned, is likely to be less dutifully edited, and is a work in progress.  Actually, I hope it will be many works in progress.  But first, a little background.

I realized that as my professional blog is on a proprietary platform, if I didn’t do something soon, I’d be just about the only person under 70 who didn’t know how to use mainstream blog software.  I realize that platform (and Livejournal, where I’ve also played a bit) can’t be very much different from WordPress or Blogger or whatever becomes the next big blogthing, but nobody likes to be left in the dust.  Thus, one main purpose of this blog is to experiment and learn the blogging skills everyone else seems to possess.

Second,  I’m hoping to use this as a platform to write about things that have nothing to do with my professional life.  I love organizing and writing about organizing, and I’m sure I’ll be mentioning that occasionally here, but I’m really just hoping to use this as a space to speak my piece and track my personal projects.

Third…about these mysterious projects.  The first endeavor is presidential.  Of which, more later.

If you’re one of the two people I anticipate will be reading this, thanks.  If you’re someone else and either know me or are interested in the project(s), great.  If you’re someone very much else, and plan to write mean or profane comments, please know that they’ll be automatically stripped, so not only won’t you see them, but they won’t bother me in the least, because I won’t be seeing them either.

Ok, that’s it.  You’ve got some time.  Go have another New Year’s Day meal.  I’ll be back later.  🙂

Published in: on January 1, 2009 at 5:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
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