What image do you think of when the name Martha Washington is mentioned? Maybe one similar to this?
Now what image pops into your head when you think about young Martha Washington?
You had to think about it for a second, didn’t you? I faced the same dilemma seven months ago when I was first approached to portray her.
I honestly had never given much thought to the earlier years of Martha Washington’s life. In fact, the first time I told someone I played Martha Washington, their immediate reaction was “But you’re too young to play her!” Through this process, I have discovered most people have a very specific image of our Founding Fathers and Mothers in their heads. Many of those images come from portraits painted later in their lives, after their great accomplishments for our nation had been achieved. But as we all know, how you are remembered today is a direct result of the culmination of years that came before… including our first, First Lady.
So where did I start? I did what many people do when faced with an unknown question, I consulted with Google. I typed in “Young Martha Washington” out of sheer curiosity for what would pop up and one of the first results was a portrait painted in 1757 of a striking dark haired young lady (currently on display at our Art Museums). Her hair is pulled tightly back but you can just make out pearls in her updo. She has a bit of a widow’s peak and a very pronounced nose. She is wearing a blue and gold gown that was typical of the 1750s and is holding a dainty flower in her right hand. Who is this woman? This is Martha Dandridge Custis (eventually Washington).
I’ve had the great honor and fortune to get to know this woman quite well over the past seven months.
You may be wondering how exactly you get to know someone who has been dead for more than 200 years. The answer: research, research, and yes, more research. My dining room table is littered with books, documents, papers, and pictures all relating to Martha’s life, specifically her younger years. Getting to know and understand this woman who lived in this town and walked the same streets I walk to work every day has been a truly unforgettable lesson in human nature.
What I soon discovered was the basic facts of her life are generally framed by the accomplishments of the men in her life. This is a common occurrence in the 18th century. Women are given a secondary role in our nation’s history. And on the surface, Martha has been relegated to the shadow of her illustrious second husband as well.
But if you dig deeper, you’ll find her story is one of an incredible woman who emerges into the light to stand on her own. Yes, in 1731, she was the first of eight children born to John and Frances Dandridge, but did you know she outlived all of her siblings? In 1750, she was married to Daniel Parke Custis at age 18, but have you heard the tale of how she gave a “prudent speech” to Daniel’s tyrannical father in an effort to convince him of her worth? She married Colonel George Washington in January of 1759, but did you know she outranked him socially at the time? Did you know Martha was inoculated from the smallpox and went to each and every winter camp during the Revolutionary War? And my personal favorite—did you know a soldier once yelled at President Washington, “What would you have been if you hadn’t married the Widow Custis?”¹ These are the stories that make Martha’s personal history come to life and start to add dimension to this remarkable woman.
Armed with the facts and the stories, I then started my search for the woman inside of them. For example, I uncovered Martha’s personality by reading letters she wrote to her family and friends. I embraced her fashion by reading the endless accounts of fabric and clothing orders she sent to England (by the way, she was a clothes horse!). And I discovered her interests by researching what books she kept in her library.
I have also driven out to New Kent and walked the very property where she lived. I’ve spent days at Mount Vernon speaking with their curators and historians, holding and touching the garments that belonged to her, taking in the view from the portico—the same view that greeted her every morning. I’ve put all that together to create a living breathing, three-dimensional person.
And what a woman she was. Martha Dandridge Custis Washington was vivacious, charming, intelligent, business-savvy, fearless and compassionate.
In 1802, an Alexandria newspaper described Martha in an obituary, as “…the worthy partner of the worthiest of men.”² Washington himself described her as “an agreeable consort for life.”³ The past seven months have proven to me that Martha was so much more than just a partner or consort. Her accomplishments are just as interesting, and in many cases, even more interesting than the men surrounding her. It’s time to give Martha the spotlight! And I plan to do just that…
My first endeavor as Mrs. Washington will begin on March 2 at the Hennage Auditorium as part of Women’s History Month. It’s a program called, Courage to be Lady Washington. It centers around two moments in her life, and our nation’s foundation, where she hesitated and the great courage it took to follow through. This is the first of many programs planned to bring Martha’s younger story to the forefront (and let George play the supporting role for a change!).
There is a great amount of responsibility placed upon those of us who portray real people. We are in a constant quest to “get it right”, to honor the history of these people, and yet make them accessible to a modern audience. It’s a responsibility that I do not take lightly.
Every morning as I start getting ready for the day, I take a moment to give a little nod upwards in hopes that Martha is smiling down on me. I have had the honor of becoming Mrs. Washington and I’m so looking forward to sharing her remarkable stories with you.
A special thank you to photographers Tom Green and Cindy McEnery for contributing to this post!
¹ Bryan, Helen. Martha Washington: First Lady of Liberty. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002. pp ix.
² Fields, Joseph and McCallister, Ellen. Worthy Partner: The Papers of Martha Washington, The Life of Martha Washington. Greenwood Press, 1994. pp xxvii.
³ Bryan, Helen. Martha Washington: First Lady of Liberty. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002. pp 128.
GUEST BLOGGER: KATHARINE PITTMAN
Katharine is a Nation Builder portraying young Martha Washington for Colonial Williamsburg. She credits her love of history to her mom and dad who took her and her big brother to Colonial Williamsburg and many other historic sites with great frequency as children. She got a degree from Wake Forest University in 2007 with a major in theatre and a minor in history, so yes…she is using her entire degree!
Katharine met her husband, Stewart, at Colonial Williamsburg in front of the Magazine and they now live happily on Duke of Gloucester street with their 6 year old brown hound, Savannah, and 16 year old “beagle thing”, George. She enjoys game nights with close friends, wine tastings at the Williamsburg Winery and endless cups of coffee from Aromas!