When George Met Sally
Martha was by Washington's side in war and politics. But was there another woman?
With his powdered wig and poker face, Washington looks so standoffish in his painted portraits that historians were naturally delighted to discover a touch of human frailty: While engaged to Martha, it now seems possible that he was boffing his best friend’s wife, the foxy Sally Fairfax. Others, more cautiously, say it was only a crush.
The evidence rests on two mysterious letters sent in September 1758, when George was a social-climbing, 26-year-old farmer-turned-army colonel writing from the front lines of the French and Indian War, and Sally was the belle of Virginia, a pretty, sophisticated and flirtatious minx two years his senior. George had met Sally several years earlier, when she married his Anglophile neighbor, G. W. Fairfax, in Mount Vernon, Virginia. The Washingtons and Fairfaxes were old family friends, so young George spent many nights playing cards, dancing, and enjoying amateur theatricals at the luxurious Fairfax mansion. Then, in 1757, while he was still recovering from “bloody flux” or dysentery he had, a little unconventionally, invited Sally to visit while her husband was away in London. The pair evidently got on like a house on fire: The poorly educated Washington, from a socially modest family, was dazzled by the lovely, refined, and aristocratic Sally. She was also attracted to the studly young George, who had a modicum of fame for his war exploits and was tall (over 6’ 2”, a giant for the period) and handsome, with gray-blue eyes and auburn hair tied in a short pigtail — a dashing effect, despite poor teeth and mild facial scars from a childhood bout with smallpox.
And so the next September, when Sally wrote to congratulate him on his engagement to the rich, plump, and good-natured widow Martha Dandridge Custis, George wrote back with a convoluted letter implying that his real passion lay with her, Sally. (“Tis true, I profess myself a Votary to Love — I acknowledge that a Lady is in the Case — and further confess, that this Lady is known to you… I feel the force of her amiable beauties in the recollection of a thousand tender passages that I wish to obliterate, till I am bid to revive them — but experience alas! Sadly reminds me how Impossible this is.” His love, he goes on, is “an honest confession of a Simple Fact — misconstrue not my meaning — ‘tis obvious — doubt it not, nor expose it, — the World has no business to know the object of my Love, declared in this manner to — you when I want conceal it…”) In the second letter, he explicitly compares himself and Sally to the fictional characters Cato and Juba — a pair of secret lovers in a famous literary work of the time. (“Do we still misunderstand the true meaning of each others Letters?” he writes. “I cannot speak plainer without — but I’ll say not more, and leave you to guess the rest.”)
Alas, it appears that, while George and Sally were quite possibly in love, the idea of an actual affair is the product of frustrated historians’ vivid imaginations. But as with so many bedroom sagas, we will never know the truth. Naysayers point out that there is no hard documentary evidence of consummation, and that George would hardly have risked his honor and career by indulging in a furtive liaison with Sally because of his friendship with her husband and father-in-law. Moreover, he was wildly ambitious, and already showing a stern self-discipline; their relationship, says the historian Joseph J. Ellis, fell under the category of “forbidden love,” and was the first sign of the self-denial that would characterize Washington’s life. His marriage to Martha, while perhaps inspired at first by her huge wealth, blossomed into a very happy and durable union; and before the Revolutionary War tore Virginia apart — Sally’s husband declared himself a Loyalist and took her away to Britain — the foursome were close friends and visited often.
Romantics, however, will never quite be convinced that a 26-year-old George would have been entirely ruled by pragmatism and social convention; after all, there is no evidence proving that they didn’t consummate their love. The pair’s later correspondence was tinged with regret. A year before his death in 1799, by then one of the world’s most famous individuals and in his late 60s, Washington wrote frankly to Sally in Britain that he had “never been able to eradicate from my mind those happy moments, the happiest in my life, which I have enjoyed in your company.” Then again, he included a note from Martha in the same letter, so the ambiguity of the message will forever remain.
SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Cary, Wilson Miles, Sally Cary: A Long Hidden Romance of Washington’s Life, (New York, 1916); Ellis, Joseph J., His Excellency: George Washington, (New York, 2004); Fitzpatrick, John C., The George Washington Scandals, (New York, 1929); Randall, William Sterne, George Washington: A Life, (New York, 1997); Unger, Harlow Giles, The Unexpected George Washington: His Private Life, (Hoboken, 2000).
SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Ellis, Joseph J., His Excellency: George Washington, (New York, 2004); Foster, Thomas A., Sex and the Eighteenth Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America, (Boston, 2006); Unger, Harlow Giles, The Unexpected George Washington: His Private Life, (Hoboken, 2000).
Tony Perrottet's new book, Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a Cabinet of Curiosities (HarperCollins, July, 2008; napoleonsprivates.com). He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.
Homepage image from Matthew Field via Flickr (Creative Commons).