MARTHA WASHINGTON

Martha Washington was neither beautiful nor brilliant. She lacked artistic skill, except perhaps in fine needlework. The letters she wrote were an incoherent jumble of affection and gossip. When her husband was Commander in Chief or President, she showed no interest in strategy or government. Yet, if superlative ability in one direction is considered genius (as is the case with poets and painters), Martha Washington was a genius. No person could have had a greater gift for human relations.

It was this gift that raised her into the Virginia aristocracy. As Martha Dandridge, she belonged to a family that was moderately prosperous but obscure. This changed when she met John Custis, one of the richest and most correct men in Virginia, who was half-insane. Custis continually blocked the efforts of his son, Daniel Parke Custis, to make a suitable marriage. Daniel was growing into lonely middle age when he met Martha. Diminutive, plump, with well-cut features in a gentle face, the eighteen-year-old girl did the impossible. She charmed the wicked father into allowing his son, then thirty-seven, to marry her. When her husband died eight years later, leaving her with two children, she was the richest young widow in Virginia.

Enter a huge man more than a foot taller than Martha and a few months younger. Aged twenty-six, George Washington was a French and Indian War hero. Earlier, as commander of Virginia's forces, he had year after year defended the frontier from Indian raids. But his personal life was a disaster. He had long been in love with the wife of his neighbor and close friend. Though there is no way of knowing whether or not it was actually consummated, his passion for Sally Fairfax brought him more frustration than satisfaction. It also brought him a deep sense of guilt. His marriage to Martha, undoubtedly an effort to escape, was sweetened by the fact that her property raised him to the top level of Virginia planters.

There is evidence that the marriage at first went badly. But who could

____________________
An earber version of this essay appeared in TV Guide, October 18, 1975, pp. 24-25.

-223-

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