A Novel

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She had the president’s ear and the nation’s heart.

She’s the wife of the fourth president of the United States; a spirited charmer who adores parties, the latest French fashions, and the tender, brilliant man who is her husband. But while many love her, few suspect how complex Dolley Madison really is.

Only in the pages of her diary—as imagined by novelist Rita Mae Brown—can Dolley fully reveal herself. And there we discover the real first lady—impulsive, courageous, and wise—as she faces her harshest trial: in 1814, the United States is once more at war with mighty Britain, and her beloved James is the most hated man in America.

From the White House receptions she gaily presides over to her wild escape from a Washington under siege, Dolley gives us a legend, made warmly human. For there has never been a first lady so tested—or one who came through the fire so brilliantly.


"Full-blown and vibrant."—Booklist

"[Dolley P. Madison] is revealed as an enchantingly imperfect First Ladyè. Eight years of research went into this book, and it shows. Brown's version of the day Dolley salvages the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washingtonè is a humdinger."—Chicago Tribune


31 December 1813, Friday
What a liar and a hypocrite I’ve become. Tomorrow Jemmy and I host our New Year’s gathering, to which all of Washington is invited, and I must pretend that all is well and getting better.
All is most certainly not well and indeed getting worse.
Little sister Anna says that thirteen is an unlucky number, and in 1814 all will be right. I laughed when she told me that because our dear, departed mother would have scolded her severely for holding on to superstitions.
Mother would have scolded me, too. The Society of Friends, whose strictures she followed with such conviction, abhors war and will do nothing to help in its prosecution. Perhaps it is better that she is not here to see her daughter as wife of a wartime President. Then again, she endured my being cast out of the Society of Friends when I married James, so perhaps she could endure my current situation.
Curious, how whenever I think of Mother, I also think of Mother Amy. She found ways to soften Mother’s rules as well as ways to infuriate her. Mother Amy carefully selected her head rags. The more brilliant the color, the more she liked them, and oh, how Mother would complain of the luxury of the world that had extended even to the dress of Negro servants. Mother Amy would hum and go about her business. She’d tell me that God enjoyed many things that Quakers did not.
The older I get, and I am getting older, the more I realize that Mother Amy may have been the most sensible person I’ve ever known. What a sin it is, what an abomination, that one human being should own another.
The Southern legislators are using slavery to keep the war fever running high. The latest rumor is that the British may foment a slave rebellion.
Such a froth of speculation! Anna says, why bother to discover the truth of the situation? The rumors provide such constant entertainment.
I do have Payne’s education to look forward to in the coming new year. He promises he will attend the College of New Jersey as soon as he returns from accompanying Albert Gallatin on the peace commission in Russia. It now costs three hundred dollars a year to attend the college. I fear the enticements of the town of Princeton, New Jersey, will surely surpass the cost of enrollment. Who can afford such an education these days?
These cheap tallow candles smoke something fierce. My eyes are smarting and my head is, too. I can’t seem to put my thoughts down in sequence tonight; they’re flying in and out of my head like bats.
A good night’s sleep will clear my head and I will continue this on the morrow, God willing.
The road in front of the White House looked like chocolate pudding, its peaks and valleys frozen in the January cold. A huge gouge in front of the President’s mansion resembled a bomb crater.
Curly-haired Daniel Webster, a first-term representative from the state of New Hampshire, had proclaimed Washington The Great Dismal, but then Northern congressmen had never liked the city, while Southern and Western congressmen seemed to enjoy themselves thoroughly.
The Madisons shared New Year’s Day with everyone. Even the critical Northern senators and representatives trudged through the frozen muck to celebrate the coming year and to share fervent hopes that the cursed war would end.
Those wishing to make a dashing impression might rent a carriage or arrive on horseback, but most walked. The city, exorbitantly expensive, soon taught all but the most profligate that they would have to budget while living in the nation’s capital.
The simple, elegant door to the sandstone building, painted white, remained open as throngs of people jammed inside; no one seemed in the least hurry to leave. The food, the wine, and the company were enticements to all save the most misanthropic. Besides, what better place for gossip and intrigue than at a party hosted by the President and his wife?
The Marine Band boomed in the anteroom, causing the elderly Vice President, Elbridge Gerry from Massachusetts, to remark that he hoped they could fight better than they played.
Dolley Madison glided from guest to guest. She adored being surrounded by people. Whether they were friends or foes of the Administration, her humor and tact never seemed to be affected.
Most of the guests, including the Cabinet members, who should have known better, assumed that Dolley was the warm heart of the Administration while James provided the cool brain. Only James Madison and Edward Coles, who was Dolley’s cousin and the President’s private secretary, knew that when Edward became seriously ill the year before, Dolley had assumed his duties. She was better informed than anyone in the room save the President. Her genius lay in disguising the fact.
Anna Cutts sensed her older sister’s political acuteness, but she never probed. Eleven years younger, she felt as much Dolley’s child as her sister, since Dolley had helped raise her.
Anna watched the shiny black curls shake with laughter as Dolley said something to Henry Clay, who at thirty-seven was a dynamic Speaker of the House. She then moved on to the dainty wife of Dr. William Thornton, the man who had designed the Capitol and had been appointed superintendent of the Patent Office by President Thomas Jefferson, a post he still held.
Mrs. Thornton thought herself an expert on fashion, believing that her French heritage dictated an innate sense of style. Although Mrs. James Monroe, having recently visited Paris, considered herself the repository of current style, Anna Maria Thornton somehow stayed one jump ahead of Elizabeth Monroe. Now Anna observed Mrs. Thornton silently appraising Dolley’s pink satin gown enhanced by thick ermine. The great, white velvet turban with its ostrich plumes wiggled before Mrs. Thornton’s envious eyes as she and Dolley chatted. Yes, a few ladies wore elaborate headdresses on the Continent, but Dolley had given the turban her own personal stamp. Mrs. Thornton, believing herself to be the understudy for the job of President’s wife, as did most women in the room, was quietly determined to eclipse the First Lady in attire. To date, not only had she not succeeded, but Dolley, with her uncanny sense of fabric and color, outshone her.
James Monroe, Secretary of State, was mired in a discussion with John Armstrong, the pompous Secretary of War. Despite his fashionable wife, Monroe refused to abandon silk stockings, breeches, or his tricorn hat. Anna thought he looked ridiculous. To those Republicans who cared for power, he also looked like their next presidential candidate when Madison’s term was over.
Dolley cheerfully finished with Mrs. Thornton and whirled over to her sister.
“I don’t know who’s more ambitious in this town, the women or the men,” Anna giggled.
Dolley smiled. “I expect Mrs. Thornton is the moon to her husband’s sun.”
Anna accepted the delicious punch a waiter presented on a silver tray. She whispered, “How much did you have to pay for the extra waiters?”
“Thirty-five cents.”
“That’s not so bad.”
“Not so good either, but I was lucky that the senators from the Carolinas and Georgia were willing to let their servants work here today.”
“Congress really ought to give you more money.”
“Congress realizes that last year our debt was some five million and this year my husband thinks it will double.”
“You could live in a tent to economize.”
Dolley laughed. “Before this war is over, we might have to. Can’t you just envision it? French John in a tent?”
Just then the majordomo, French John—Jean Pierre Sioussat, born in the city of Paris and now in the prime of his exuberant life—strode through the room with Uncle Willy, Dolley’s turquoise-and-yellow macaw, on his shoulder.
“Madame, Uncle Willy wishes some champagne.” French John bowed very low and Uncle Willy walked across his back, much to the amusement of Rufus King, the distinguished senator from New York, rumored to be a likely candidate for the presidency in 1816 for the Federalist Party—the party whose sole purpose seemed to lie in opposing James Madison and anyone else who did not put the economic interests of the North first. Senator King, bald on top, combed the curly hair on the side of his head forward. It lent him a noble, Roman air so long as he wasn’t exposed to a strong wind.
“Uncle Willy may have some of mine.” Dolley gaily allowed the bird to drink from her glass.
“Even the animals of the earth worship you.” Senator King held up his own glass. He meant it. There were few people who didn’t like Dolley. Even vitriolic John Randolph, the former representative from Roanoke, Virginia, and a bitter foe of Madison’s, liked Dolley, and he hated women.
However, recognizing Dolley’s unusual ability to bring out the best in people did not deter the President’s enemies from using her against him. New England newspapers were hinting that Dolley was having an affair with the French minister, Louis Serurier. They also hinted that James Madison was impotent; after all, Dolley had borne two sons by her first husband and yet no children by James. Those Puritan Yankee traders thrilled to sexual secrets under the guise of rooting out scandal. Dolley loathed the rumors but prudently never responded to them. It would only add fuel to the fire.
A rustle among the crowd and a rush to the door let Dolley slip back to her husband for a moment. Never comfortable in large groups, the President stood like a statue while people paid their respects.
“Your usual triumph.” James squeezed Dolley’s hand.
“Don’t count your chickens—the party’s not over yet. John Armstrong still has the opportunity to offend someone before we blow out the candles.”
“Most likely it will be me,” James whispered.
“You know what Mother Amy used to say.” Dolley leaned closer to her husband’s ear.
“Dolley, I’m always suspicious when you attribute a phrase to Mother Amy.”
“She was a loquacious woman.”
“She …” James smiled. He never could get around Dolley. “Well, dear, what did the philosopher of Hanover County tell you?”
“The higher a monkey climbs, the more you see its red behind—and how John Armstrong believes he’s climbing!”
The President laughed out loud, unusual for him. Onlookers strained to catch tidbits of the conversation.

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