Washington pays a call

Philadelphia actor to play first president during Baltimore Book Festival

September 24, 1999|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

George Washington -- or the closest thing to him in 1999 -- has come to town for the Baltimore Book Festival in Mount Vernon, which opens today and continues through Sunday.

Two hundred years after Washington's death, Baltimore book mavens can see Philadelphia actor and historian William A. Sommerfield take on the part of the nation's first president in free performances, and children's story-telling and a short parade at 11: 30 a.m. tomorrow around the Washington Monument.

Sommerfield, 65, was chosen by former U.S. Chief Justice Warren Burger to re-enact Washington's first inaugural ride from his Virginia home of Mount Vernon to New York in 1989. Since then, Sommerfield says, his act has become like a second self, one he has played in 48 states and in England.

"Who did I beat out?" he asked Burger once over lunch.

"You don't want to know," Burger replied. "Charlton Heston."

It's not just that he dresses and looks like a strikingly handsome, distinguished gentleman with a military bearing. It's the way he bows his head when he greets people as "General Washington" -- his preferred title. It's the way he speaks in a Virginia Tidewater voice with a faint English accent. It's the way he holds his silver spoon at the table and his hand behind his back while standing in a period room.

At a lunch gathering at Mount Clare yesterday for 50 members of National Society of Colonial Dames, a group with pre-Revolutionary ancestors, Sommerfield said that George and Martha Washington stayed there as overnight guests of Charles Carroll and his wife, Margaret Lloyd Tilghman.

"The Carrolls were very good friends of the Washingtons, and this was kind of a way station between Mount Vernon and Annapolis," Sommerfield said of the 1760 mansion in Carroll Park.

Sommerfield studied the small ways as well as the larger thoughts that made up the man, not the myth. Through documents and diaries, as well as living at Mount Vernon for three weeks, he developed a keen sense of the personality missing in the pages of American history books.

"History has hidden his humor from us," Sommerfield said.

A reserved man, Washington did not let most people see his lighter side, except for close friends. He once joked that a jackass given to him by a Spanish noble was "too royal for our republican mares."

Somewhat vain, the 6-foot-2 Washington never wore his eyeglasses in public if he could help it. In his first Cabinet meetings, where tempers flared frequently, he stood out for his impeccable manners.

"He was an extremely civil man," Sommerfield said. Thomas Jefferson, his first secretary of state, behaved at one point like a political antagonist, coming close to calling the president a monarchist, but Washington generally kept his cool.

And unlike Jefferson, Washington freed all his 300 slaves in his will, the actor-historian said, and took a step ahead of his time. "Not only were they to be freed, but taught to read," he added. However, the provision was illegal, and few, if any, learned to read.

If there was one question Sommerfield could ask the man himself, it would be about his love life: "How did he feel when he had to leave Sally Fairfax?" Recalling the fetching young woman who later married Washington's best friend, the president wrote that she was the person with whom he spent the happiest moments of his life.

And what president after him would Washington most like? Sommerfield paused, then named the man from Missouri: "Truman, a man who made decisions and stuck by them."

The Baltimore Book Festival will be open from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. today, and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. tomorrow and Sunday.

Pub Date: 9/24/99

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