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).
WASHINGTON’S SHOPPING TIPS:
While most biographers concentrate on his military and political glories, a few valiant souls have set out to “humanize” the first president — trying to upset the consensus that he was the dullest man to ever grace the world stage. We now learn the following:
– Whenever he was bored, George liked to go shopping. As an ambitious and rather vain young Virginian landowner, he spent a fortune on his clothes — at age 24 in Boston, he blew 200 pounds, or $15,000 in modern currency, on the latest fashions, while throughout his life he enjoyed preening himself in military uniforms.
– Once he came into money by marrying Martha, George really let himself go: Historians estimate that in the first five years of the 1760s he blew the modern equivalent of $2 million to $3 million. He bought Madeira wine in 150 gallon barrels, invested in the finest thoroughbred horses for his fox hunting passion, and kept a white servant and mulatto slave for his personal needs (in addition to the hundreds working his lands). In 1768, he spent a fortune on a flashy “chariot,” custom-made in London, with fine leather upholstery and his family crest on the doors.
– George was also a keen home decorator. He spent a fortune on Mount Vernon (whose expansion he personally designed). For example, in 1759 he ordered an opulent canopied bed of blue and white curtains, matching window drapes, and seat cushioning “in order to make the whole furniture of this Room uniformly handsome and genteel.” At an auction in 1774, he snapped up a range of mahogany furniture, including a two-tiered chest of drawers, and a large gilt-framed mirror.
– George had unfortunate teeth, which began falling out in his 20s. By the time he was 52, he had all his teeth extracted and then helped design his own dentures: Four sets survive today (one is on display in the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore). Although legend still has it they were made of wood, they were actually finely crafted from a variety of materials — gold, hippopotamus ivory, lead, horse and donkey teeth, not to mention human teeth (which could be purchased on the black market, extracted from the poor; one of his dentists, the Frenchman Jean Pierre le Mayeur, advertised “three guineas for good front teeth from anyone but slaves”). The dentures were held together by fine springs. They were apparently large for his mouth, which might explain George’s unsmiling portraits.
– According to reports of his fellow officers, George loved dirty jokes, but unfortunately none of his favorites survive.
– Whether he got it on with Sally Fairfax or not, George was much admired by women for his athletic figure and personal charisma. He was an excellent dancer and an incorrigible flirt — with charms powerful enough to make Abigail Adams faint, and her husband, Vice President John Adams, seethe with jealousy. Even in his old age, George was not without sex appeal. Not long into his first presidency, after he had slept at a Massachusetts inn, the landlord offered his bed to a newly-arrived stagecoach group. One gentleman indignantly refused to sleep on the used and still-warm sheets, but a “young lady” reportedly announced, with gleeful coquetry: “she would sleep in the sheets… If she could not be where (Washington) was, (she) was glad to be where he had been.” • 30 January 2008
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).