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Aunt Dolley

New this month is our annotated edition of Mary Cutts's memoir of her famous aunt, Dolley Madison. The Queen of America presents both drafts of Cutts's manuscript with an introductory essay and notes by Dolley biographer and Parlor Politics author Catherine Allgor. A reliable guide is especially necessary in this case because it turns out Cutts may have had a few things to hide—or at least conveniently ignore—in her life of the First Lady. Allgor spoke with us about the fine line Cutts walked in her famous memoir.

Q: Your book includes draft versions of the memoir Dolley Madison’s niece, Mary Cutts, wrote about her aunt. The drafts show that Cutts, and her family, changed things in her account. What were they trying to hide?

Allgor: First, Mary lies about Dolley's birthplace as part of a general cover-up about Dolley's father, a difficult man who may have been a bit shady in his dealings. Mary stresses Dolley's charm, but omits that it never got her anywhere with her marital family, the Madisons, who had a low opinion of "Dolly" and would have sued her at a moment's notice.

Q: Dolley had two sons from a previous marriage—William Temple, who died from a yellow fever epidemic—and John Payne, who was a bit of an early 19th Century rebel. How does Mary treat his story?

Allgor: Mary couldn't get away without mentioning Dolley's famous and famously-profligate son, Payne, but she deliberately does not detail the incredibly bad things he did. Payne squandered hundreds of thousands of dollars on booze and gambling. David Mattern, editor of The Papers of James Madison, says that you can trace Payne’s movements by following the trail of debt up and down the eastern seaboard.

Q: How and why do you think Mary tried to spin Dolley’s life in a more positive way?

Allgor: After James Madison's death, the abolitionists attacked Dolley as a slaveholder, so it was perhaps because of this that Mary paints a picture of Dolley as beloved by animals and slaves. If you look at Elizabeth Downing Taylor's book A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons, you’ll see just how much James's valet hated Dolley, and might have sold her out to the abolitionist press.

Q: What was Mary like herself? What were her motives in writing the memoir?

Allgor: This gets to the crux of the book. The Big Story, really, as far as I am concerned, is not with Dolley, but with Mary. Here is this woman, deep in the 19th century, when women were supposed to be private and domestic, while Mary was trying to make a name for herself as a historian and her aunt as a historical subject. A tough task, since Mary also wanted Dolley to appear the "perfect lady." What Mary couldn’t quite contain or cover up is that her Aunt Dolley was a savvy politician and well-connected political player.

The Queen of America, edited by Catherine Allgor and with a foreword by Cokie Roberts, is available now.

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