WHEN WE last saw Tom and Sally, they were back on the farm,
entertaining friends, watching their children grow up and slowly,
inexorably, going broke.
He was, of course, our improvident third president, Thomas
Jefferson, settling into uneasy retirement at Monticello, his
northern Virginia plantation.
And she was the mysterious Sally Hemings, a Monticello slave,
with whom, according to some historians, Jefferson had seven
"She's a woman who's been erased from American history for no
good reason except that she was inconvenient," says writer Barbara
Chase-Riboud, whose second novel about Hemings and her offspring
will be released in October.
The titillating story of sex, slavery and the president has
been gossiped about, indignantly dismissed and periodically
resurrected since 1802, when a Virginia newspaper reported
scandalous charges of miscegenation during Jefferson's first term
in the White House. It was America's first presidential character
With Chase-Riboud's book about to surface and a new
Merchant-Ivory movie, "Jefferson in Paris," complete with an
on-screen Sally-and-Tom liaison, coming out early next year,
chroniclers are bracing for a new round of an old debate.
"It's all kind of tiresome by now," says Daniel P. Jordan,
president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which runs Monticello
as a museum and national monument. "Nobody has advanced much new
evidence, but some people seem to be absolutely fixated on it."
Nothing has given the story more of a popular buzz in recent
years than Chase-Riboud's 1979 best-selling novel, "Sally Hemings";
her sharp portrayals of an American icon and his impressionable
servant gave the tale a strong whiff of plausibility.
Now, Chase-Riboud, a Philadelphia native who has lived in Paris
for most of the past 33 years, revisits the story in "The
President's Daughter," which follows the meandering life of Harriet
Hemings, Tom and Sally's fifth putative child, a runaway slave
living in Philadelphia and passing for white. Along with the new
book, Ballantine Books is re-releasing the first one in paperback.
In the new novel, Chase-Riboud once again uses the theme of
slavery for a bitter rumination on America's preoccupation with
race. Jefferson, the proverbial "framer" of the Declaration of
Independence, serves as a kind of Rosetta stone for the race issue,
"He embodies the American identity. Anything that touches him,
or his relationship with the world, touches that identity."
The Tom-and-Sally scenario is scornfully dismissed as "totally
out of character" by the patrician historians who guard the
Jefferson legacy. But the same historians acknowledge that
Jefferson once propositioned a friend's wife and that, while in
France, he engaged in an affair with a married Englishwoman. …