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.
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.
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.
Her husband proved little consolation for Nelly. Times were hard, and Lawrence seemed not to be a good manager. The Lewises’ fortunes dwindled. Nelly’s letters conspicuously lacked talk of her feelings for her husband, but their marriage appears not to have been a happy one. In the struggle of living on a diminished income, Nelly quite lost her taste for the dancing that had once excited her, and told her friend Elizabeth that she had given up music and painting for “Pickling, preserving, & puddings .” “Indeed I am become a very humdrum character.” It was worse than that; she had become a bore. She was full of self-pity, indulging in a jittery concern for her children that tended toward paranoia, and apprehensive about her own health. She dosed herself constantly with Seidlitz powders to treat her headaches, and in later years claimed that “Without Seidlitz, I could not live.” (The medication was, in fact, onlv a mild cathartic.)
Many of Nelly’s tribulations were real. She was truly plagued by illnesses that became disabling toward the end of her life. She endured the death of seven of her eight children, presiding at the deathbeds of some. When her daughter Agnes contracted a fatal illness while at school in Philadelphia, Nelly hastened to nurse her through the end, and later tortured herself with the speculation that the fifteen-year-old girl might have been sealed alive in her coffin.
Both Nelly’s husband and her daughter Angela died in 1839, and Nelly went to live on her son Lorenzo’s estate. Called Audley, the farm was located in the Shenandoah Valley, and was even more isolated than Woodlawn. “This beautiful autumn I cannot participate in,” Nelly wrote to Elizabeth. “I cannot go out of the house or in a carriage, I stand at the door, & seeing the green wheat, the beautiful mountains, inhale the sweet air, but my limbs are weak & I despair now of ever recovering entirely.” That was in 1850. She died in March, 1852, in total obscurity, with no one to attend her but Lorenzo’s widow.
Among Nelly’s papers at Mount Vernon is an undated scrap intended for Elizabeth, written very late in her life. Her rushing memories had drawn her back to her early teens when she had known young Andrew Allen. He had written her a poem for her fifteenth birthday which she had kept until her marriage. It began with these lines:
“When I was at Morris ville, Andrew passed a day with us,” Nelly wrote; and she had paid a return visit to the Allen home called Neshaminy. Andrew had called Maria Morris and Nelly “sister goddesses,” and had spoken of the Schuylkill River as Nelly’s mirror. Now she was a broken old lady raking through her memories for a bright gem or two.
“How witty and agreeable he was,” Nelly mused. “I certainly should have loved him had I not been too happy and gay to be susceptible.” Instead she had chosen Lawrence Lewis, who wrote no poems, said nothing witty, and, at least to her mind, was not always agreeable.
One more letter made it plain that Andrew was in Nelly’s thoughts. She asked Elizabeth for a likeness of him as he appeared in later life, and then in a single line totaled up the regrets, the unfulfilled years, the misery that had begun when her girlhood ended at Mount Vernon so many decades ago: “Do tell me if he ever spoke of me at all, & what he said.”