New magazine draws intriguing portrait of Jefferson, 'America's Mona Lisa'

MAGAZINES

November 13, 1994|By Bruce McCabe | Bruce McCabe,The Boston Globe

Thomas Jefferson is hot. Documentarist Ken Burns is planning a major project on him for public television. Nick Nolte is to play him in the coming Merchant-Ivory film. More books are due.

The renewed interest in Jefferson is raising intriguing questions about him.

Why did he never remarry?

What did he mean by "pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence?

Why did he own slaves?

And what about Sally Hemings, the young slave reputed to be his lover and the mother of four of his children?

These are some of the questions raised and addressed in Joseph J. Ellis' thoughtful "American Sphinx: The Contradictions Thomas Jefferson," the cover story in this month's impressive premiere issue of Civilization: The Magazine of the Library of Congress.

Washington is "just too patriarchal," Lincoln "more respected," but Jefferson more loved -- "Jesus, who came to live among us," as Mr. Ellis describes him, "light, graceful, inspiring."

Mr. Ellis calls Jefferson "America's Mona Lisa" and refers to his "disarming ideological promiscuity," noting that both William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow were sure that Jefferson agreed with their positions on evolution and that Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt both claimed him as their guide to the problems of the Great Depression.

The piece is full of fascinating personal information, such as that the wrist that wrote the Declaration of Independence never healed properly after Jefferson broke it vaulting over a fountain in Paris while rushing to meet Maria Cosway, the object of his affections.

Gender woes at 'SNL'

Tom O'Neill's "The Incredible Shrinking Women of 'Saturday Night Live' " in the December US is an incisive dissection of what's looking more and more each week like a fitfully twitching corpse, a white male one at that.

Mr. O'Neill writes that "SNL" has become a Harvard boys' club that isn't interested in hiring women, let alone using them properly, because it can't grasp the idea of women being funny.

The show's gestalt is captured in a backstage anecdote about performer Chris Farley, who, it is said, was set up by his male colleagues for a practical joke in which he would be formally charged with sexual harassment in front of his (real life) family at a season-ending wrap party.

Someone who was in on the planning of the joke says that more work went into that stunt -- an actor had to be cast for it and documents had to be fabricated -- than went into that week's

on-air show.

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