Modern voyeurism is filter for Jefferson's historical affairs.

April 16, 1995|By Richard Brookhiser | Richard Brookhiser,New York Times News Service

Even as politics have come to be dominated by tales of scandal and misconduct, so two film projects about long-dead leaders, Washington and Jefferson, will plunge us into the character issue of the 18th century -- at the risk of importing the intellectual vacuity of the 20th.

"Jefferson in Paris" opens in Baltimore Friday and focuses on the years from 1784 to 1789, when Thomas Jefferson was America's minister to France. But aside from one scene in which Jefferson inspects a copy of the Declaration of Independence chez Lafayette and another that has him signing papers with Dutch bankers -- the International Monetary Fund of the day -- all we see is personal. Indeed the film's director, James Ivory, and producer, Ismail Merchant, give us Tom's spring break in Paris.

And what a break it is. A widower in his 40s, Jefferson (played by Nick Nolte) has two love affairs, one platonic with Maria Cosway, the socialite wife of the English painter Richard Cosway and herself a miniaturist, the other not platonic with Sally Hemings, his teen-age slave.

Jefferson's flirtation with Maria (played by Greta Scacchi) was revealed through a series of letters they exchanged after the Cosways left Paris for London in 1786.

Jefferson began the correspondence with a dialogue between his head and his heart: head berating heart for allowing itself to become entangled; heart insisting on primacy in its own sphere.

Mr. Merchant and Mr. Ivory take minor dramatic license with this relationship, presenting bits of the head-and-heart dialogue as a charade played by Jefferson and the Cosways on a picnic.

The story of Sally Hemings (Thandie Newton), a young slave girl he brought to Paris from Monticello in 1787 and took home again two years later, is more problematic. The movie accepts an account given in 1873 by Sally's son Madison Hemings (James Earl Jones), that has never been proved and, in the absence of genetic testing, is unprovable.

Hemings claimed that he and three siblings had been fathered by Jefferson during an affair that lasted nearly 40 years and that all four had been freed from slavery in fulfillment of a pledge given their mother.

Jefferson's overseer at Monticello denied the story, and the Jefferson family maintained that Sally's children were sired by Peter or Samuel Carr, Jefferson's nephews. All had an interest in protecting the president's reputation, of course, even as Madison Hemings had an interest in claiming a president as his father.

But the story had already been dragging after Jefferson -- "like a dead cat," in the words of the historian Winthrop Jordan -- for decades before Madison spoke.

It first saw print in 1802, thanks to the infamous James T. Callender, a one-time journalistic hit man for Jefferson's party who then turned to bite the hands that fed him. It was taken up by abolitionists, who wished to show that not even a critic of slavery could escape the system's snares, and by English travel writers like Mrs. Frances Trollope, the mother of the novelist, who were eager to scuff the pretensions of the young Republic.

Mr. Merchant, Mr. Ivory and their screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, represent the return of this travel-writer mind-set.

The sensibility of "Jefferson in Paris" is deeply Tory: Jefferson is a hypocrite on the slave issues; his French friends, who point this out to him, are shown playing with a model guillotine. The personal is the political, and the movie suggests they are both botched jobs. ("Thomas Jefferson: A View From the Mountain," a documentary that will be shown on public television next month, addresses Jefferson's life as a slaveholder from a more somber, historic perspective.)

The movie "George Washington," due next year, may be a more balanced project. Robert Redford will star and will produce with Oliver Stone. According to someone close to the production, the story will cover the life of Washington from the French and Indian Wars to the end of the American Revolution.

But romance will intrude here too, in the form of Sally Fairfax, the great crush of Washington's youth -- and the wife of George William Fairfax, his neighbor and a distant in-law.

The Washington-Fairfax relationship was revealed in a handful of letters published in 1877, all that survive of a more extensive correspondence. Twentieth-century historians like Samuel Eliot Morison posit an affair of the heart, describing Washington's renunciation of Sally as the first of his many noble resignations.

More recently, though, the historian and biographer Richard Norton Smith has wondered how much could have taken place secretly in a society as given to gossip as the plantocracy of Tidewater Virginia. Intelligent women took an interest in Washington all his life, and Sally may have simply been the first.

My guess is that George, who was two years younger, took Sally's attentions more seriously than they were intended. He maintained his friendship with the Fairfaxes, husband and wife, after marrying Martha Custis.

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