Sunday, May 20, 2007

May 20, 1768:

Dolley Madison's Birthday

It's difficult to imagine now, but a yellow fever epidemic swept through Philadelphia in 1793, virtually shutting down the new federal government. Two of the victims of the disease was a young attorney named John Todd Jr. and his son William. Todd's wife (and other son) survived, however. Her name was Dorothea Dandridge Payne Todd, but she is better known to history as Dolley Madison.

She married the future Fourth President of the United States, James Madison, about a year after being widowed. Madison didn't become president until 1809, but Dolley was a presence in the White House long before that, serving as hostess on many occasions during the administration of the Madisons' close friend, Thomas Jefferson. has this to say about her: "With more conscious effort than either of her two predecessors, and with an enthusiasm for public life that neither of them had, Dolley Madison forged the highly public role as a President's wife, believing that the citizenry was her constituency as well as that of her husband's. This would establish her as the standard against which all her successors would be held, well into the mid-20th century... She fortified her role of hostess by the visual effect of both the executive mansion and her own person, redecorating the public rooms in a style grand enough to impress foreign diplomats and dressing in a regal, yet simple manner. Her ebullient personality, although often masking deep-seated worry, had the effect of relaxing her guests, regardless of their political views. Dolley Madison also exercised political influence by utilizing all the acceptable forms of behavior for women at the time, through correspondence, entertaining and cultivating personal alliances with the spouses of important political figures. On numerous occasions, she sought to place supporters, friends and family members into official government positions.

"Her legend was made lasting, however, by her conscious act of symbolic patriotism in the hours preceding the burning of Washington by British troops during the War of 1812. She famously refused to leave the White House before being assured that the large portrait of George Washington was removed from the walls and taken safely away from potential destruction or defacing by the encroaching enemy."

And what of the snack cakes? (Spelled "Dolly" in the case.) The web site of Interstate Bakeries Corp. puts it this way: “ 'Cakes and pastries fine enough to serve at the White House.' That is how Roy Nafziger, IBC’s founder, described his Dolly Madison snack cakes at their introduction in 1937. Roy’s fascination with the First Lady Dolley Madison lent him the name and inspiration to create a high-quality snack fit for a socialite like Madison yet affordable for everyone."


Kevin Deany said...

Dolley Madison was, I believe, the the first First Lady to inspire a movie. Ginger Rogers played her in the 1946 biopic "The Magnificent Doll" with Burgess Meredith as James Madison and David Niven as Aaron Burr. It's been years since I've seen it, but I remember it being pretty good. If memory serves, there's a pretty good sequence where they are trying to evacuate the White House before the British come to burn it down during the War of 1812. Would like to see it again, but I don't think it's available on VHS or DVD.

I know Jackie Onasiss inspired "The Greek Tycoon," but don't know of any other movies specifically about First Ladies.

Anonymous said...

Were you aware that Mary Tyler Moore played Mary Todd Lincoln in Gore Vidal's Lincoln, a mini-series broadcast in 1988? The focus was on Lincoln himself, but Mary Todd Lincoln was a major role. Checking the cast list discloses lots of interesting casting in this film - not having seen it, I couldn't say whether the casting is good or bad, just interesting - including Sam Waterson as Lincoln himself, Clevon Little as Frederick Douglass and John Houseman as Winfield Scott. That last bit of casting can't be any odder than Sydney Greenstreet, who played Gen. Scott as a glutton in They Died with Their Boots On. ANK

Kevin Deany said...

I never saw that mini-series either. There have been other First Ladies portrayed on-screen, of course, including Joan Allen as Pat Nixon in Oliver Stone's "Nixon", and Ruth Hussey played Andrew Johnson's wife in the 1942 biopic "Tennessee Johnson." I'm sure there are others. I guess my original post referred to movies specifically about First Ladies themselves.

Anonymous said...

There's one called "The President's Lady" with Susan Hayward as Rachel Jackson. I remember watching it late night: in the days when there were late night movies, of course. carlotta

Holly C. said...

Not to be picky, but Dolley Madison was born Dolley Payne, the daughter of John Payne and Mary Coles Payne. Her first husband's name was John Todd, and of course she did marry James Madison. Her name therefor became Dolley Payne Todd Madison. Seems silly, but details matter.

Her iconic status in popular culture began in the late 19th century with advertising.

And at some point her collateral descendants or historians decided that Dolley was too silly a name and couldn't be real. There was a push for Dorothy and Dorothea, or at least Dolly. It was, indeed, Dolley.

Anonymous said...

Dolly Madison is actually a really brave women.She saved the white house treasures and important papers & documents.When the British attacked, she was the last to be in the White House. Beat that Holly C.

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