February 2020

Alexis Coe

Chiseling away at George Washington
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Although it’s as well researched as any of the myriad George Washington biographies out there, Alexis Coe’s You Never Forget Your First approaches its legendary subject with a healthy dose of irreverence. We asked the historian a few questions about what it was like to tackle the life of the ultimate Founding Father.

You infused a fairly serious subject with humor and liveliness. How did you do it?
That’s the ultimate compliment! If history is boring, it’s the historian’s fault. I happen to have a dark sense of humor, and I realized early in my career that it was a useful tool—but not the only one in my arsenal. Being funny, being original, being analytical . . . it all requires serious mastery over a subject. Years of careful research and a critical eye allowed me to be funny in one chapter and dead serious in another and, hopefully, seamless in the transition. Oh, and lots and lots of drafts! 

What did you want to bring to the table as a female biographer that would shine a new or different light on Washington?
Previous biographers and I agree on the big goal of a Washington biography, which is to chisel away at the marble statue he’s become, but we go about it very differently. I questioned things they took as a given, and a whole new world opened up to me.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of You Never Forget Your First.

What was your research process like? 
Why are people sleeping on Founders Online, an open access site through the Library of Congress?! I had the absolute best time reading 18th-century letters on there—so much so that I found myself messing around after work hours, too. I highly recommend using random search words like “slut.” You’ll get Jefferson lecturing his daughter, and Washington’s old house manager writing to say that his slut died in the straw, which editors took to demonstrate Martha’s love of dogs.

Your research reveals Martha Washington to have been a reluctant public figure. Were she and George a good match for the life he chose?
They were both homebodies, but when they were in public roles, Washington got to have a lot more freedom and fun with it. But I do think they were a good match. He got the rich widow he needed to make it big, and she got the hunky, same-age husband she hadn’t had the first time around. They worked hard to make each other happy. That meant she had to spend a lot of time out of Virginia, and he had to raise her ne’er-do-well son and grandson. 

If anyone could have changed the fate of black people in America, it was George Washington.”

One of the most fascinating aspects of your book is your unflinching reporting on Washington as a slave owner. How much does his reliance on enslaved labor tarnish his legacy?
If anyone could have changed the fate of black people in America, it was George Washington. No other founder had the stature, the reputation, the popularity. He could have set a powerful example in Virginia, then the biggest state in the country, by emancipating his slaves, but he didn’t until he was near the end of his life. He knew the world was changing and that he would be judged. And let’s not forget, he passed the buck to Martha. Half of Mount Vernon’s enslaved population knew they would be free when she set them free or died, and it’s pretty clear her fear of being murdered or burned alive motivated her to sign their manumission papers. She didn’t do the same for those she enslaved outright. 

Did this project change your feelings about Washington?
When I came to this project, Washington was a portrait, a hero, a myth. He wasn’t necessarily a real person to me, but now he is, and people are complicated. There are things I like and admire about him, and there are things that absolutely repulse me.

I had no idea our first president faced so many illnesses! And they had such names: carbuncles and bloody flux and quinsy. How much of an impact did Washington’s health have on his politics?
He took far more risks with his health than he did his politics!

What are your favorite books about American presidents?
I love anything by Doris Kearns Goodwin, whom I’ve had the great fortune to work with. I was so scared to show her the manuscript, and her blurb means the world to me. Also, Annette Gordon-Reeds’ work on Jefferson is incredible.

Your book Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis is being developed into a movie. How involved are you in that process, and what’s it like?
I went to Memphis with Jennifer Kent, the director and screenwriter, and walked and talked Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward for days. Since then, I’ve read drafts of the screenplay and given some feedback, but for the most part, I trust Jen! She’s managed to stay true to our girls and the spirit of the book but is also making something that’s also totally her own.

What do you think our Founding Fathers would think of the current state of American politics?
I can only speak for Washington. He would be enraged by the level of foreign influence Trump entertains and horrified at how Republicans continue to support him in order to stay in power.

You can invite any three presidents to a dinner party. Who would you choose?
Washington, of course, although he would probably be too distracted by technology and a woman wearing pants to focus. Still, I’m interested in experiencing his charisma, because that’s the hardest thing to get from descriptions. For that reason, let’s throw John F. Kennedy into the mix, too. And I’d love to talk to FDR! But honestly, with that crowd, I doubt I’d get a word in!

Author photo © Sophia Rosokoff.

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