The truth about the American statesman may not be self-evident A MAN FOR ALL REASONS THOMAS JEFFERSON

December 04, 1994|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Correspondent

Charlottesville, Va. -- Buckled shoes clacking on the pavement, a tall redheaded stranger in a green velvet jacket, ruffled jabot and knee breeches strides through the darkened grounds of the University of Virginia.

He knocks on the door of the faculty club, gets no answer and asks two passing students if there's another entrance. They tell him how to navigate a back passage through a garden, and then one says almost as an afterthought as they continue on their way:

"So, like, you're supposed to be Thomas Jefferson?"

Well, yes. He's back, and not just at this "academical village" he founded in 1819, where his legacy is part of the everyday fabric of life and where descendants like Rob Coles -- a rather eerie look-alike who performs as his famous forebear -- keep the dust from forming too thickly 168 years after his death.

Even outside this preserved hamlet of Jeffersoniana, America's Renaissance Man is suddenly on our minds again.

Films about his life are in the works from producers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory and from documentarian Ken Burns. He turns up on the cover of magazines and on the lips of politicians as disparate as President Clinton and soon-to-be Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. And his exploits are the subject of both academic debate and popular chatter.

But you may not recognize him as the fossilized Jefferson from your grade-school textbook, the aloof, rational philosopher-statesman who penned the Declaration of Independence, served as the third president of the United States, and is revered by intellectuals, architects and even gardeners for his contributions to American life.

Take, for example, the forthcoming and controversial "Jefferson in Paris," the Merchant-Ivory film scheduled for release in March, in which Nick Nolte as Jefferson reputedly falls in love with married socialite Maria Cosway and beds and impregnates his teen-age slave, Sally Hemings.

Hot stuff for a figure immortalized in cold granite on Mount Rushmore and in heroic bronze on the Tidal Basin. It's hard to imagine moviemakers portraying another founding father, a George Washington or a John Adams, for example, in so intimate a fashion. The film is already under attack by some historians and Jefferson devotees as bad history.

"It's a lie. It's shameful," says Bahman Batmanghelidj, a Jefferson fan who has been waging a one-man -- and no doubt futile -- campaign to squelch the movie. "Whether you like it or not, once a movie is produced, it becomes fact. Once people see something, they believe it."

Mr. Batmanghelidj, an Iranian-born developer who lives in Northern Virginia, became enamored of Jefferson as a student at Oxford University in England. The fervor with which he is fighting a fictionalized account of Jefferson's life is indicative of how much passion Jefferson continues to inspire. Mr. Batmanghelidj says that if Jefferson, who was appalled at the concept of miscegenation, is shown to be a hypocrite on that issue, then everything he stood for is open to question. He is particularly devoted to Jefferson for fighting against the establishment of an official religion, such as the Church of England.

"Here in America, we take Mr. Jefferson for granted," he says. "But he has much to offer the world. In Iran, my home country, look at what happens when church and state are not separated."

Others are similarly, if more dispassionately, worried about the movie.

"Bad history can drive out good history," says Dan Jordan, president of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello, Jefferson's mountaintop home. "Look at how Oliver Stone's 'JFK' muddied the waters on historical truth."

Yet he and other Jefferson defenders realize that fighting the film would only get Jefferson's own words thrown back at them.

"They have artistic license to do whatever they want," he says. "Jefferson, above all, stood for freedom of expression."

Mr. Jordan would rather focus on Jefferson as the democratic torchbearer for the ages, whose stirring words inspire modern-day revolutionaries in Eastern Europe and China's Tiananmen Square much as they did the patriots of Colonial America.

He has high hopes for the documentary currently being researched and filmed by Mr. Burns, the maker of "Civil War" and "Baseball" known for his mythopoetic approach to American history.

Mr. Burns has selected Jefferson as one segment of the "American Lives" series he's planning for PBS. He has become so taken with his latest subject that he has built an exact duplicate of Jefferson's garden house at Monticello at his own home in Walpole, N.H.

As for the "Jefferson in Paris" filmmakers -- producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala -- they've defended their approach, saying the public is more interested in Jefferson's personal life and the nature of his relationship with Sally Hemings than in his political philosophy.

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