- Historic Sites
George Washington’s Beautiful Nelly
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
Miss Eleanor Custis … has more perfection of expression, of color, of softness, and of firmness of mind than I have ever seen before or conceived consistent with mortality. She is everything that the chisel of Phidias aimed at but could not reach, and the soul beaming through her countenance and glowing in her smile is as superior to her face as mind is to matter.”
These extravagant words convey the impression that Nelly Custis, George Washington’s step-granddaughter, made on the distinguished architect of colonial America, Benjamin Latrobe, when he visited Mount Vernon in 1796. And he was not alone; the Polish Count Julien Niemcewitz, another guest at the Potomac estate at about the same time, called Nelly one of those celestial figures that nature produces only rarely, and insisted that she played, sang, and drew better than any woman in America “or even in Europe.” It is one of the small but touching ironies of history that this dazzling young lady, after a youth of extraordinary privilege and corresponding happiness, spent the latter part of her life as an embittered, unattractive matron in a state of constant complaint.
Nelly was the daughter of Martha Washington’s son from her previous marriage. However, the relationship between Nelly and George Washington was like that of father and daughter. Nelly’s real father, John Parke Custis, had died of fever after following Washington to Yorktown as a volunteer aide during the final stages of the Revolution. After their father’s death, Nelly, then aged two, and her six-month-old brother—who bore the impressive name of George Washington Parke Custis—went to live as permanent members of the Washington household. John Custis’ two older daughters stayed with their mother, Eleanor CaIvert Custis, who would later remarry and bear sixteen more children.
Washington delighted in the care of his two grandchildren. Though constantly busy with his personal estate and the affairs of his country, he took the time personally to oversee the education and upbringing of the two young additions to his family. Late in 1785 he began to look for a person who could serve both as his secretary and as a tutor to the children. In one letter to an acquaintance in England he wrote, “I have a little boy something turned of four, and a girl of six years old living with me, for whom I want a Tutor. They are both promising children, the latter is a very fine one.” He sent out other inquiries, including one to Noah Webster, and by early February, 1786, he had temporarily hired William Shaw.
Shaw was soon replaced by Tobias Lear, a twenty-fouryear-old Harvard graduate who had studied in Europe. Washington’s offer to Lear was tempting: “Mr. Lear, or any other who may come into my family in the blended characters of preceptor to the Children, and as a Clerk or private Secretary to me, will sit at my Table, will live as I live, will … be treated in every respect with civility, and proper attention.” Lear’s acceptance of these bright prospects began a relationship with the family that would last throughout Washington’s lifetime.
Recalling her early education, Nelly mentioned not only Tobias Lear but also another tutor, named Gideon Snow, and told of occasions when David Humphreys, Washington’s aide, taught her to recite passages from the Iliad. Nelly would never attend college; that privilege was reserved for boys. But her loving grandparents saw to it that she had the best education society could offer young women of her time.
Nelly’s first opportunity to receive formal classroom training came in 1789 when Washington became President and took his family to live in New York, the first capital of the new United States. The trip from Mount Vernon was marked by a good deal of ceremonial pomp. When Martha and the children arrived in New York in late May, Martha reported in a letter home that Nelly had complained of feeling a bit sick from the carriage travel and that “dear little Washington” seemed lost in the confusion of crowds and parades along the way.
Once settled in the new capital, Martha turned her thoughts to the children’s education. Nelly was privately tutored in music and art, one art teacher being the famed painter, historian, and playwright William Dunlap. Her music instructor was Alexander Reinagle of Little Queen Street, an Englishman who was then writing some of the best music of his century. In addition to these private lessons, Nelly was enrolled with Mrs. Graham of Maiden Lane, a woman who kept a fashionable school for young ladies. Mrs. Graham advertised a curriculum of reading, English, grammar, plainwork, and embroidery, in addition to geography, painting, music, dancing, and French. For at least seven months, Nelly went to the little academy along with the children of several prominent New Yorkers. Then the Washington family left New York for Philadelphia, which had become the second capital of the young nation and was also the cultural center of America.
Nelly was eleven when the Washingtons moved into the Robert Morris house in Philadelphia. Their neighbors were the Morrises—already good friends—who had renovated and occupied the house next door. The Morrises’ daughter Maria became the first of Nelly’s companions in Philadelphia; their friendship had already been launched the year before when Martha and the children visited the Morris home. Now Maria and Nelly began to gather around them a small circle of young girls who were not to take their friendships lightly and who would continue their correspondence well into their adult years.