Welcome home, George

Rumbling movie theater seats and wax figures -- made using modern forensics -- bring the father of our country back to Mount Vernon

November 19, 2006|By Alan Solomon | Alan Solomon,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

MOUNT VERNON, VA. -- For a century and more, it was about the house.

A Mount Vernon spokeswoman: "It kind of evolved into a decorative arts tour."

Wallpaper and bed linens.

And George Washington?

The man of whom historian Peter Henriques wrote: "If ever a man deserved secular immortality and eternal remembrance from a grateful nation, that man was George Washington"?

Well, we were left with the white-mopped guy on the dollar bill whose grim lips hid false teeth and who slept -- beside the largely anonymous Martha -- in the house when he wasn't busy fathering a country.

That was about it.

Meanwhile, playwright Edward Albee borrowed their names for his charmer, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Sample dialogue:

Martha: "You make me puke."

George: "That wasn't a very nice thing to say, Martha."

Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee, a noted Virginia contemporary who would later beget Robert E., gave us this upon the great man's passing: "First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen."

Some years later, noting the habitual futility of the Senators baseball team, a scribe redefined Washington: "First in war, first in peace and last in the American League."

Unkindest cut: "Washington's Birthday" as a holiday disappeared and in 1971 was merged with Lincoln's once-celebrated birthday into "Presidents' Day," thus lumping greatness with the likes of Franklin Pierce.

In other words, while Washington withered into something between a caricature and a punch line, Mount Vernon became the weakest link in a high school spring-break experience that included the Capitol, the White House, the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum and hotel pillow fights.

That started to change a little in recent years. New books (notably last year's David McCullough epic, 1776) stirred interest among those who still read books, reviving Washington's legacy as warrior, innovator and leader. So have a couple of movies, including The Crossing, a 1999 made-for-TV job focusing on that Delaware River maneuver and starring Jeff Daniels that's said to be better than you'd expect.

But now. ...

What's officially called "George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens" last month unveiled a major change of mission. They didn't changed the name, but here's a suggestion:

"The George Washington Show, Starring George Washington, With Wife Martha, the United States of America and Its Predecessor Identities, Assorted Slaves and Redcoats and Special Guest Star -- Mount Vernon, the House."

It's actually exciting. In other words, it's not about chintz anymore. It's about Washington -- easily in time for his 275th birthday (Feb. 22, if you've forgotten).

It's about movie theaters with chairs that rrrrummble.

And it's about the teeth, which, by the way, were not wooden. They're tooth, mostly animal.

"They're pretty amazing too," says Jim Rees, Mount Vernon's executive director, "because you can't imagine putting them in your mouth and wearing them."

They're on display in their own gallery ("like the Hope Diamond," says spokeswoman Stephanie Brown). Other stuff here to be seen and pondered: a sword, wine cups, clothing, buttons, manuscripts, snuff boxes -- all manner of things Washington and all the genuine articles, most of which have been stashed away in private collections and Mount Vernon storage just about forever.

That's only part of the story, and it's the story that's the key here.

Adding dignity

Everyone knows Lincoln. Composer Aaron Copland serenaded him in a musical portrait ("Abe Lincoln was a quiet and a melancholy man. ..."), Raymond Massey parlayed him into a career, schoolchildren presumably still recite his Gettysburg speech, and there may be no more inspiring work of art in this country than the capital's Lincoln Memorial, especially at night.

Washington, by contrast, remains an expressionless dandy with white hair (he didn't wear a wig, by the way -- it just looks like one).

There's a famous painting by Grant (American Gothic) Wood that shows Washington confessing his cherry-tree crime -- a child's body with the Gilbert Stuart dollar-bill head.

"It drives me crazy," says Rees, "how he is used in a comic fashion."

Washington's monument in the capital is basically a tall but generic obelisk. It could just as easily be the Millard Fillmore Monument.

Why so much Abe and so little George?

"One word -- photography," Rees says. "The Lincoln pictures are so soulful and dramatic and compelling."

Washington did leave an image -- of perfection, which doesn't lend itself to speculation or screenplays. He never told a lie. His troops seem to have loved him. He was elected to the presidency twice by unanimous vote -- and there were no charges of tinkering. There was no scandal, personal or otherwise. He lived well. He paid his taxes. He died at home, at 67, in bed, of natural causes.

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