George Washington’s Beautiful Nelly

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Elizabeth Bordley, nearly two years older than Nelly and Maria, soon joined this select circle. Her father was John Beale Bordley, the man Washington had appointed to receive subscriptions to the Bank of the United States. Young Elizabeth Bordley’s lifelong friendship with Nelly, and the resulting exchange of letters, is our main source of information about Nelly’s life. The circle also included at various times Elizabeth Allen, whose father had served in the Continental Congress, and Susan Randolph.

The life that turned these girls into winsome, chattering teen-agers was the best the nation could provide. Philadelphia was the hub of the world to Nelly; her beloved “Grandpapa” was the President and the idol of his country; Nelly was in love with everyone and everything, and the world seemed eager to return the affection. With some dismay, grandmother Martha wrote home, “I hope when Nelly has a little more gravitie she will be a good girl. At Present- she is I fear half crazy.” But Martha loaded up the whole giggling crowd for rides about town in the presidential carriage, and tolerated a parrot named Snipe and a dog named Frish.

Strict attention was paid to Nelly’s continuing education. She studied art with Jean Pierre Henri Elouis, and her dancing master was James Robaret. She learned languages also, apparently becoming proficient in Italian, French, and Spanish. In writing to her friends, she delighted in the small vanity of carelessly dropped foreign phrases: Votre très humble servante , and de tout mon coeur . She taught her parrot to sing “Pauvre Madeion” in French. Washington, obviously proud of his talented granddaughter, continued her musical training and made her play for company.

 

Nelly once sent a note to Elizabeth Bordley saying she could not come to a party because “we have a large company of the Honorable Congress to dine with us, & I must not be so remiss to go out in the evening as they like to hear musick .” She added, with what was becoming a tendency toward sharp-tongued evaluation of her peers and elders, that the congressmen “do not know one note from another.”

Nelly was beginning to notice young men, not always with approval. One hapless lad she labeled a “little milk and water monkey.” When she was paid compliments and given adoring verses by Andrew Allen, she was flattered by the attention but was not yet ready to take any boy seriously. Still, she was reaching the age when men were going to find her attractive, a few exceedingly so, and Grandpapa Washington thought it time to offer some counsel on the matter. On the occasion of an important social event in January, 1795, when Nelly was off visiting in Georgetown, Washington wrote one of his few letters to her that have survived. In it, he fondly warned her that her current indifference to men would soon change, and advised her to use her reason as well as her emotions in choosing a husband. (See box on page 84.)

In the fall of 1795, Nelly experienced her first prolonged absence from her grandmother. She went to visit her mother at Hope Park, Virginia, a rather isolated estate twenty miles from Alexandria. Then she went on to Georgetown to visit her older sister Martha, now married to Thomas Peter. Nelly found it hard to part with her grandparents. She wrote to Elizabeth Bordley, “I have gone through the greatest trial, I ever experienced—parting with my beloved Grandmama. This is the first separation for any time since I was two years old. Since my father’s death, she has been even more than a mother to me, & the President most affectionate of Fathers. I love them more than any one.”

By May of 1796, Nelly was pleased to write that she would be spending the summer at Mount Vernon with her grandmother. In September she was still at the family estate and told Elizabeth, “I am more & more attached to this place, & in spite of the ague & fever, prefer it to all others.” She had been plagued by malaria and her grandmother had suffered four bouts of it, but she loved Mount Vernon anyway. “I ride sometimes on horseback, walk, read, write French, work, play & always think the weeks go off too fast.” Although Nelly was to return to Philadelphia for the winter, Washington’s second term as President was expiring early in 1797, and in March of that year, the whole Washington family left the capital to return to Mount Vernon permanently. Nelly’s baggage was predictably burdensome. Washington good-naturedly complained to Tobias Lear that “On one side I am called upon to remember the Parrott, on the other to remember the dog. For my own part I should not pine much if both were forgot.” Though Nelly grieved for her lost friends, she was happy to return to the country. “When I look at this noble river,” she wrote to Elizabeth, “& all the beautifull prospects around, I pity all those who are in cities, for surely a country life, is the most rational & most happy of any, and all the refinements of Art and Luxury are nothing in comparison to the Beauties of Nature.”

Nelly had absorbed her grandfather’s strong interest in horticulture. A flower that she loved especially, and mentioned several times in her letters, was the woodbine, or jessamine, an evergreen with yellow flowers that bloomed in April. She wrote to Elizabeth’s father to thank him for one of his works on agriculture, saying that with his instruction she hoped to become “a great Farmer ” in time.