George Washington’s Beautiful Nelly

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As much as Nelly loved the country life, it was hard for her to stay away from the stimulation of society. After little more than a month at home she went up to Washington for the races, and reported to Elizabeth about a ball at the Union Tavern. She evidently attracted quite a bit of attention by dancing six times with a new acquaintance, Charles Carroll. He was the son of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, a wealthy lad whose estate, Homewood, would later become a part of the Johns Hopkins University campus in Baltimore.

Nelly resented the rumors caused by her dancing with young Carroll. “I wish the world would not be so extremely busy, & impertinent,” she wrote Elizabeth. “E. P. Custis desires not its notice, & would thank those meddling reporters never to mention her name. I wish they would also allow her to Marry who she pleases , & when she pleases without perpetually engaging her to those she never had a chance of marrying and never wished to be united [to].”

There was no way for Nelly to enjoy the obscurity she claimed to want. By now she was such a charmer that the world—certainly her world—was hopelessly her captive. One visitor to Mount Vernon, Joshua Brookes, detailed her appearance: “She appeared to be about twenty, dressed in white sprig muslin tied around her waist with a skyblue silk cord with six round balls at the end, head-dress fillet round her head and hair hanging down in ringlets between three turns of the fillet; no powder, about 5ft 4 high, middling stature and size. Silk stockings. Black shoes with large roses. She appeared modest, well-bred, intelligent, and sensible, has a piercing eye, grecian nose, made judicious remarks and conversed with propriety.”

The wonderful days raced by. “I never have a dull or lonesome hour, never find a day too long,” Nelly wrote to a Philadelphia friend. She finally got her fill of dancing, however, and confided to Elizabeth in the spring of 1798 that she didn’t want to dance again until the next winter: “I almost lamed myself last Winter.”

 

Later in 1798 a new member was added to Washington’s household staff. Lawrence Lewis was a nephew of Washington’s, a thirty-year-old widower whose wife had died in childbirth seven years earlier. He was, as Nelly would later write, “not the most energetic of men,” and of course he was much older than she. (“Connect yourself with a person of congenial age,” Washington had advised Nelly’s sister a couple of years earlier, “for youth and old age, no more than winter & summer, can be assimilated. …”) But at a time when she might have chosen any man of wealth and attainment in the nation, Nelly fell in love with Lawrence Lewis.

“Cupid, a small mischievous Urchin, who has been trying sometime to humble my pride, took me by surprise,” Nelly wrote to Elizabeth. “When I had abused & defied him, & thought my heart impenetrable, he slyly called in Lawrence Lewis to his aid, & transfixed me with a Dart, before I knew where I was.”

The wedding was planned for February 22, 1799, the President’s birthday. Because Nelly was still a minor, and Washington not her legal guardian, he went up to Alexandria and arranged a guardianship so that he could consent to the marriage.

There was some controversy over what Grandpapa should wear to the wedding. Nelly wanted to see him resplendent in a handsome new uniform which had been made for him. It was splendidly embroidered and topped by a “magnificent white plume” given to him by an old friend, Major General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Washington would have nothing to do with the flashy outfit. He wore his old Continental blue and buff uniform with a cocked hat and plain black riband cockade. But before he packed the new uniform away, he gave Nelly a beautiful plume.

 

During that summer, Nelly and Lawrence rode off for a honeymoon in the mountains, then made protracted visits to the homes of friends. A house called Woodlawn was being built for them within sight of Mount Vernon, and they remained at the old family estate until the new place was ready for them.

George Washington was now an old man. “My glass is almost run,” he liked to say. And on December 12, 1799, he contracted the illness which was to cause his death two days later. Nelly was herself ill from the birth of her first child. Perhaps she knew, as she sobbed and tossed through the days of despair between Washington’s death and burial, that nothing could ever again be the same for her. Her one consolation lay bundled warmly in a crib by the fireplace: Frances Parke Lewis.

Washington’s death began a chain of events that turned Nelly from a smiling, happy girl into an embittered old woman. By 1804 she had lost two children and the grandmother she loved so much. “I look back with sorrow, & to the future without hope,” Nelly wrote to Elizabeth. “It appears to be a dream long passed away, so heavily has time passed to me.” For all the love and care that her doting grandparents had lavished on Nelly, they had not provided her with a reserve of inner strength and self-reliance. George and Martha were the bulwark on which she depended; with both of them dead, she could not cope with the real and imagined troubles which beset her.