This local writer unmasks The real First Lady—Martha Washington.
by PAUL A. GREENBERG
In a culture obsessed with Britney’s latest escapades and the trials and tribulations of Hollywood celebrities from Jackson to J-Lo, will the reading public cotton to a tome about a woman who died exactly 203 years ago? New Orleans-based historian Patricia Brady is banking on it, particularly since she spent the better part of the last year constructing what promises to be one of the most well-researched biographies of a U.S. First Lady ever written. Brady’s book, “Martha Washington: An American Life” (Viking, 2005) hits bookstores this month. For those whose consciousness only makes room for the Martha who spent last year in Camp Cupcake, there’s another Martha in town, and she is about to significantly alter that grandmotherly image you’ve carried with you since grammar school. Brady’s Martha Washington is a strong, multi-layered figure whose influence on the Father of our country has probably never been adequately measured.
“Martha was always in the background as somebody I liked, but I always thought of her as just a grandma,” says Brady. “I decided it’s time to rescue her from that to talk about who she was before she was First Lady. How many people really know that when she married George Washington she was 27 years old, already a widow and had lost two babies?”
Brady, 62, a native of Texas who has lived in New Orleans since she attended Newcomb College, now calls herself “almost a native.” From her exquisite Uptown high-rise condo-minium with unmatched views of New Orleans and the Mississippi River, Brady says the idea of writing a Martha Washington biography came to her during a trip to Washington, D.C. in 2000. “I was there for the bicentennial of the White House and I was with some friends from Mount Vernon,” she says. “It suddenly stuck me—there really is no good biography of Martha Washington. I knew there was a time when she was young, lively and pretty and I wanted to explore that.”
Part of the exploration was uncovering a miniature photo of Washington in her 40s that Brady gave to the “bone lady” at Louisiana State University forensics laboratory. “They do age progressions, so I asked who could do an age regression,” Brady says. “She told me her assistant, a forensic imaging specialist could do it. In a week’s time she came up with this portrait of a young woman who was pretty, in an elegant ladylike way—not Hollywood movie star looks, but very pretty.”
Brady says she came to feel “very protective of her. I thought ‘I’ve rescued her.’ Wouldn’t you just hate to have only pictures of yourself in your 60s? I wanted to show her as she really was. I was trying to illustrate with words, but to make them more visual. The publisher and I decided to have a portrait painted of her, which we had done by Michael J. Deas.” (Deas lives in New Orleans.) Deas’ portrait now graces the cover of Brady’s book.
Piecing together Martha Washington’s life experience was not easy. “She did the worst thing to me,” Brady says. “After George Washington died she burned all of their correspondence. Whenever they were apart they wrote to each other once a week, but only five of those letters have survived, although letters to her niece and sister exist and were very useful. All of the dialogue is out of authentic papers, letters and such.”
That meticulous attention to details surprises no one who knows Brady, who founded and ran the publications depart-ment at the Historic New Orleans Collect- ion for two decades. Until now, everything she ever published was in a scholarly vein, but this time she intends to reach the masses with an aggressive promotion campaign. “If there are two people standing on a corner looking at a car wreck I’ll stop and talk to them about this book,” she says. In the fall she will appear at the Carter Center in Georgia, and talks are underway for stops
at other Presidential libraries. A longtime active participant in the Tennessee Williams/ New Orleans Literary Festival, Brady and her book will no doubt figure prominently in next year’s events. She has already appeared with journalist/author Cokie Roberts on the History Channel’s special “Founding Mothers,” and more television appearances are imminent.
Meanwhile Brady is enjoying peaceful days in her spacious, airy condo, surrounded by her art collection (heavy on works by Louisiana artists) and her massive book collection. When time allows, she can be found bicycling along the levee bike paths and mixing with longtime friends and associates. That may all be about to change once the book finds its public. Martha Washington wrote once in a letter to her niece, “I am more like a state prisoner than anything else. There are certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from.” After more than two centuries, Brady is about to liberate Martha and expand those bound-aries in a most compelling way. •