Publisher Holt is betting that Dolley Madison will capture readers' imagination like John Adams did. Catherine Allgor talks about her biography of Dolley, Perfect Union.
Before becoming a historian, you were an actress. How did you make that transition?
I had a terrible handicap [as an actress] that I had to hide, which was referred to as "intellectuality." I started noticing I was choosing plays so I could get to teach the history. I chose A Man for All Seasons, and I had also done The Belle of Amherst, the Emily Dickinson play, and I had done a lot of research about that. Something was telling me it might be time for a change.
Recently there has been a bio of Martha Washington and Cokie Roberts's Founding Mothers, and now your bio of Dolley Madison. Is this a new twist on our obsession with the founding fathers?
I hope so! I really do, because here's the question that Holt and other people are betting on. There's an audience out there for history books, and of course, the example is John Adams by David McCullough. Men buy that book. Women buy the book, too.... The question is, is the world ready for a serious political biography of a woman written by a woman? And that means not only will all the women who love history buy it, but will other women buy it, and will men buy it?
Reading your description of Dolly as beautiful, charming and, especially, famous, I thought of Jackie Kennedy. Was Dolley the progenitor of the role of first lady, or is that too anachronistic?
It's not anachronistic or even stretching it. Dolley Madison took this role and turned it into an unofficial office and assigned certain responsibilities to it, and she was the model by which all first ladies were measured until Eleanor Roosevelt. She was an anomaly. But Dolley's operating in an era where there's not really a separation between public and private. The fact that Jackie Kennedy redecorates the White House, we think of that as just a woman decorating her house. Whereas Dolley lived in a world [in which] the home was a place for business as well as a place for leisure and emotion. So when she's doing things like having a party or restructuring the White House, that is an act of power. But because she was a woman, her culture couldn't recognize her for this openly, so her fame got twisted and projected and transmuted. Advertisers took advantage of this fame, this power, but they deflected it onto things like cakes and pies and sociability.