In a short, admirable biography, Brady—who has edited several books about Nelly Custis Lewis, Martha Washington’s granddaughter—recreates the life and loves of America’s original first lady.
George Washington was not Martha’s first husband. At 18, Martha—or Patsy, as friends and family often called her—married Daniel Custis, an older man from New Kent County who deeply loved Martha, and took her as his bride despite his father’s controlling opposition. She came into a huge estate when Custis died, and proved an efficient and decisive businesswoman. The dashing George Washington then courted the young widow, though surviving letters reveal that he was deeply infatuated with another woman, Sally Cary Fairfax. Still, Brady is at pains to insist that George felt some affection or esteem for Martha, that he didn’t marry her just for her money. Whatever the case, Martha was certainly smitten with George, and, Brady writes, the pair grew into a deeper love over the course of their marriage. Martha would recall the years at Mount Vernon before the Revolution as the couple’s “golden years.” But politics intervened. During the pre-Revolutionary boycotts of British goods, Martha had to scramble to make sure her household had sufficient windowpanes and cloth. Then came the war, and a whirlwind political career. She found being first lady somewhat tedious—she disliked having to fuss constantly over her hair and clothes. Still, she did much to shape the office, insisting that she was a hostess and a public servant, not a queen. Brady offers a fascinating discussion of the ways Washington’s biographers have caricatured Martha—creating, for example, a “timid” wife who wouldn’t risk overshadowing her husband. Brady corrects that picture without going too much toward the other extreme. Her Martha is not a protofeminist, and she doesn’t attempt to cover up her subject’s warts (she is quite frank, for example about Martha’s failure to share her husband’s “certainty that slavery was wrong”).
Engaging study of a vibrant woman.