Thursday, January 3, 2019

January 2019


Saving Monticello: The Newsletter
The latest about the book, author events, and more
Newsletter Editor - Marc Leepson

Volume XVI, Number 1                                                         January 1, 2019

The study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.” – Eric Foner


‘TO CONSIDERABLE EXPENSE’: Twenty years ago when I was doing research for Saving Monticello, my main goal was to find as much primary-source material as I could to show as conclusively as possible that both Uriah Levy and his nephew Jefferson M. Levy did, indeed, “save” Jefferson’s house and grounds from ruin.

I wound up digging up plenty of letters, newspaper articles, journal entries, official documents and photographs, and other credible evidence to confirm the premise of the book, that the Levys did save Monticello—Uriah during his 1834-62 ownership, and J.M. Levy during his time starting in 1879 when he bought out his uncle’s other heirs and took control of the place, to 1923, when he sold Monticello to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation (now the Thomas Jefferson Foundation), which owns and operates Monticello today.



One piece of confirming evidence I didn’t come across back then was a short article that appeared in The Washington Post on June 2, 1886. I’m guessing it hadn’t been scanned till recently when I found it on the Proquest Historical Newspapers site, which I often check.

The article talks about Jefferson Levy coming to Monticello and having Jefferson’s grave decorated “in a thoroughly satisfactory manner.”

 It ends with a final sentence that nicely jibes with all the other evidence I found. To wit: Levy “has been to considerable expense in repairing Jefferson’s mansion and the house and grounds to-day are almost exactly as they were in Jefferson’s time.”  

Also in that vein, I recently came across an 1888 WP article describing that year’s Fourth of July celebration at Monticello. I had read several accounts of what JML did to commemorate the Fourth at Monticello. Here’s how I put it in the book:

“Nearly every Fourth of July Jefferson Levy made a point of appearing at Monticello and hosting Independence Day ceremonies. He would assemble the farm employees and guests and read the Declaration of Independence from Jefferson’s music stand on Monticello’s front steps.* After 1889, [his overseer] Frederick Rhodes built catapults and scaffolds for displays of fireworks. Often, a band came from Charlottesville to play patriotic tunes.”

This 1888 article, which I hadn’t seen till late last year, includes some details I hadn’t known. First, that Jefferson Levy had Thomas Jefferson’s grave “covered with elaborate floral decorations.” And that on this occasion Levy read the Declaration of Independence at “the hour of noon” to a “large and distinguished party of guests”—not from outside on the steps, but inside “in the main hall of the mansion.”



*THE FRONT STEPS: When I wrote those words I missed the fact that in Jeffersonian architectural terms, there are no “front steps” or “back steps” at Monticello since neither of the two entrances is the house’s “front.” Instead, Monticello has an East Front and a West Front.
Here’s a good explanation of the no-front-or-back entrance nomenclature situation from the good folks at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation:

“When most people think of Monticello, they envision the dome and west-facing, columned portico shown on the nickel (photo below). But the dome and West Portico are not, strictly speaking, the ‘front’ of the house. In fact, Jefferson never spoke of a single ‘front.’ Instead he spoke of both an ‘East Front’ and a ‘West Front.’



“As in Jefferson’s day, visitors today enter through the columned portico of the East Front into the Entrance Hall. Presumably only the family and their guests ever used the door on the West Front, which opens into the Parlor. http://bit.ly/MonticelloFronts

EVENTS: No events in January as I continue researching my next book, a house history of historic Huntland, here in Middleburg, Virginia. The pub date will be early in 2020.



Meanwhile, there may be a last-minute talk or signing. For the latest on that, or to check out my scheduled 2019 events, go to the Events page on my website at https://leepsoncalendar.blogspot.com
If you’d like to arrange an event for Saving Monticello—or for any of my other books, including Ballad of the Green Beret—please email me.

For info on my latest book, Ballad of the Green Beret, go to http://bit.ly/GreenBeretBook

GIFT IDEAS:  Want a personally autographed, brand-new paperback copy of Saving Monticello? Please e-mail me at marcleepson@gmail.com  I also have a few as-new, unopened hardcover copies, along with a good selection of brand-new copies of my other books: Flag: An American Biography; Desperate Engagement; What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, a Life; and Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

December 2018


Saving Monticello: The Newsletter
The latest about the book, author events, and more
Newsletter Editor - Marc Leepson

Volume XV, Number 12                                                  December 1, 2018

The study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.” – Eric Foner

MEET THE FAMILY: The day of the evening of September 20 when I did a talk on Saving Monticello on the mountaintop, I sat down with a Monticello video crew in one of the upstairs rooms to talk about the Levy family.

The result is a recently released short video in which Monticello’s long-time curator Susan Stein and I give the highlights of the debt we all owe to Uriah P. Levy and his nephew Jefferson M. Levy for their decades of stewardship of Thomas Jefferson’s iconic “Essay in Architecture.”



A link to a one-minute version of the video, entitled “Meet the Family That Saved Monticello,” was sent out to Monticello’s friends and supporters in an email late in November.

You can watch it yourself on YouTube at http://bit.ly/LevyVideo  The Foundation also posted a two-minute version on its Twitter feed.

JML in the SAR: I remember thinking when I learned that Jonah Phillips—Uriah Levy’s grandfather and Jefferson M. Levy’s great grandfather—had joined a Philadelphia military unit during the Revolutionary War that all of his descendants would be eligible for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Sons of the American Revolution.
I pointed out that fact during many of my talks on the book and the family, after giving a brief synopsis of Jonas Phillips’ life.

But I had no idea until a few weeks ago that Jefferson Levy actually did join the SAR, which was founded in 1889. It is a descendants group in which full membership requires documentation that you are directely descended from a patriot—someone who served in the Continental Army or otherwise supported the Revolutinary War



I discovered Jefferson Levy’s SAR membership when a friend and colleague, Maral Kalbian, was digging throuhg 19th century documents on line and found Jefferson Levy’s 1894 application to join the then-new SAR. The image to the left is the application’s first page.

EVENTS: Just one scheduled event in December, a holiday sale on Thursday, December 13, with a group of vendors at a private house near Leesburg, Virginia. I’ll be signing copies of Saving Monticello and my other in-print book from 11:00 to mid-afternoon. Interested? Feel free to email me and I’ll get back to you with details. marcleepson@gmail.com

There may be another last-minute talk or signing popping up before the end of the year. For the latest on that, go to the Events page on my website at http://leepsoncalendar.blogspot.com



If you’d like to arrange an event for Saving Monticello—or for any of my other books, including Ballad of the Green Beret—please email me.

For info on my latest book, Ballad of the Green Beret, go to http://bit.ly/GreenBeretBook
For details on other upcoming events, the page is http://leepsoncalendar.blogspot.com

GIFT IDEAS:  Want a personally autographed, brand-new paperback copy of Saving Monticello? Please e-mail me at marcleepson@gmail.com  I also have a few as-new, unopened hardcover copies, along with a good selection of brand-new copies of my other books: Flag: An American Biography; Desperate Engagement; What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, a Life; and Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler.

November 2018


Saving Monticello: The Newsletter
The latest about the book, author events, and more
Newsletter Editor - Marc Leepson


Volume XV, Number 11                                                                    November 1, 2018

The study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.” – Eric Foner

THE STATUE AND THE MAN:  Two weeks ago the Washington Post’s John Kelly, who writes a popular column on historical matters of local interest, told the tale of the statue of Thomas Jefferson that Uriah Levy commissioned in 1833 and presented to the United States—the one that now stands in the Rotunda in the U.S. Capitol.

How the statue got there is a complicated (and fascinating) story, and one I tell in detail in Saving Monticello.

I noticed a minor error in a quote Kelly used—that Levy rose to the rank of Captain in the Navy; in fact, he was a Commodore when he died in service in 1862. So I emailed Kelly, telling him I read the column with interest, and pointing out the misstatement.



He emailed me right back and asked if I would fill him in on Uriah Levy’s life and Navy career. I accepted in a New York minute and the next day we had a great 45-minute talk.

To my delight, the following Sunday, October 28, Kelly devoted his column to Levy, highlighting his Navy career, including the anti-Semitism he faced, his six courts-martial (mostly on trumped-up charges), and how he spearheaded the successful effort to ban flogging in the Navy. Kelly also touched on the statue and how UPL and his nephew Jefferson M. Levy saved Monticello.

The column ended with a quote from Gaye Wilson, senior historian at Monticello’s Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies—a quote that I completely agree with.

Uriah Levy, she told Kelly, “said that great men’s homes should be preserved as ‘monuments to their glory.’ I think the Levys can be credited with the fact that the house is still standing today.”
Here’s the link to Kelly’s column: http://bit.ly/Kellycolumn 



SEPHARDI IDEAS: As readers of Saving Monticello know, Uriah Levy and Jefferson M. Levy (who owned Monticello from 1834-1923) are descended from Sephardic Jews who fled the Inquisition in Portugal, and in 1733 helped found the city of Savannah, Georgia. The magazine Sephardi Ideas Monthly ran a long interview with me that covered the family’s escape from Portugal and Uriah and Jefferson Levy’s stewardship of Monticello in the October issue of the magazine, which features “essays from the rich, multi-dimensional world of Sephardi thought.

You can read the entire article on line at http://bit.ly/SephardiIdeas


EVENTS:  Here are my November events:
·         On Saturday, November 3, I will be doing a talk on Ballad of the Green Beret for the Freedom Hill DAR chapter’s monthly meeting in McLean, Virginia
·         I’ll be speaking about Saving Monticello on Sunday, November 4, at the Bier Baron Tavern in Washington, D.C., as part of the Pints and Profs program (current and former college profs speaking at bar/restaurants in D.C.), starting at 6:00. Ticket info at profsandpints.com 


·         On Tuesday, November 6, I’ll be speaking about Saving Monticello at the monthly meeting of The Madisons of Montpelier Daughters of 1812 chapter in Gordonsville, Virginia.
·         At the monthly meeting of the Anne Marie Fitzhugh chapter on Saturday, November 10, in Springfield, Virginia, I’ll present a talk on my Francis Scott Key biography, What So Proudly We Hailed.



If you’d like to arrange an event for Saving Monticello or for any of my other books, please email me at marcleepson@gmail.com 

For info on my latest book, Ballad of the Green Beret, please go to http://bit.ly/GreenBeretBook
For details on other upcoming events, go to http://leepsoncalendar.blogspot.com

GIFT IDEAS:  Want a personally autographed, brand-new paperback copy of Saving Monticello? Please e-mail me at marcleepson@gmail.com  I also have a few as-new, unopened hardcover copies, along with a good selection of brand-new copies of my other books: Flag: An American Biography; Desperate Engagement;  What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, a Life; and Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler.


Thursday, October 4, 2018

October 2018



Saving Monticello: The Newsletter
The latest about the book, author events, and more
Newsletter Editor - Marc Leepson

Volume XV, Number 10                                                                    October 1, 2018

The study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.” – Eric Foner


‘ALSO AT MONTICELLO’: While doing research for my next book—another history of an important American house (details to come later)—I came across a document I’d never seen: Jefferson Monroe Levy 1897 passport application.

I knew Jefferson Levy had to have had a passport because, as I wrote in Saving Monticello, he made many trips abroad—primarily to England and France—after he’d made a fortune in real estate and stocks in the mid-1890’s.

Aside the satisfaction of adding the application to my Saving Monticello files, it was interesting (and illuminating) to read what Levy wrote in the application about where he lived. To wit: he was “now residing at 66 East 34th Street in the city of New York, and also at Monticello, Virginia.”

I also found it interesting that Levy wrote that his late father, Jonas Levy (Uriah Levy’s brother) was born in New York City and was a citizen of the United States, and then added the words, “born in Philadelphia.” Here’s the entire application as it appears on ancestry.com:




PRESIDENT CLEVELAND (con’t.)  The folks at Monticello were pleased to learn that, as I wrote in last month’s newsletter, a second president—Grover Cleveland—had paid a visit during the Levys’ ownership. Until I found a recently digitized Washington Post article detailing that July 1888 occasion, the only presidential visit we knew about was a 1903 trip up the mountain (on horseback) by President Theodore Roosevelt.

In the W.P. article, the reporter noted that Cleveland, who was not svelte, decided not to climb up a short incline to pay his respects at Jefferson’s grave site. Cleveland, instead, sat in his carriage for a few minutes peering up at the obelisk marking Jefferson’s grave, then ordered his driver to move up to the house. I used the modern-day photo on the right to illustrate the site that Cleveland saw.

Bill Bergen, the outstanding Monticello guide, found a Cleveland-era photo of the same spot (below), and kindly sent it to me. 



This more accurately shows what Cleveland saw that day—that is, that there were no steps. So he would have had to make his way up the small embankment in the rain, another probable reason why he decided not to get out of the carriage.

SEPTEMBER 20: I had a memorable day at Monticello on Thursday, September 20. My wife Janna and I drove up to the Mountain around 12:30 that afternoon, and took a 1:15 tour of the house, led by the great guide, Bill Bergen. We learned many things, and Bill kindly allowed me to add a few thoughts about Jefferson Levy during his concluding remarks to the tour group outside on the portico. That’s Bill with me after the tour.



After the tour we took in the new Sally Hemings exhibit—a short but moving, enlightening and brilliantly executed multi-media experience. After that, we went back down to the Visitors Center for a quick lunch at the cafĂ©, and then I signed books at the Gift Shop. Folks who were attending the evening’s reception for Monticello donors started coming in and I was happy to sign books and talk to them.  

We then drove back up to a parking lot near the house and walked over to the tent on the lawn where I did a sound check and the IT folks got my PowerPoint set up. Then back into the house where I sat down in one of the upstairs rooms for a video interview that the Foundation will be using on social media and for marketing.

We were back out on the lawn at 6:00 for the reception before the program. There was plenty of food—of the heavy hors d’oeuvre variety—and beverages. I opted for water as it was a muggy evening. I talked to a bunch of friendly people, including two Jefferson descendants, several guides, and other Monticello staffers.

Luckily, the rain that threatened did not materialize.

The program began at 7:00 with welcoming remarks from Leslie Bowman, who heads the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Susan Stein, Monticello’s long-time curator whom I have known and admired and worked with for nearly twenty-five years, spoke a bit about the Levys, and then gave me the best introduction I’ve ever had—and I’ve had more than a few over the years.

Then it was up to me to tell the story of the Levys and Monticello to around seven hundred people. My allotted half hour sped by. There were good questions from the audience, and more than a few folks came up to me afterward to chat. We left at around 9:00. A long, great day.



Special thanks to Leslie Bowman, Susan Stein and Mary Scott-Fleming, who did the logistical arrangements.

EVENTS:  Just one for me in October. On Tuesday, Oct. 16, I’ll be doing a talk on Saving Monticello in Norfolk for the Colonial Dames Tidewater Chapter.




If you’d like to arrange an event for Saving Monticello—or for any of my other books, including Ballad of the Green Beret—please email me at marcleepson@gmail.com 

For info on my latest book, Ballad of the Green Beret, please go to http://bit.ly/GreenBeretBook
 For details on other upcoming events, go to http://leepsoncalendar.blogspot.com

GIFT IDEAS:  Want a personally autographed, brand-new paperback copy of Saving Monticello? Please e-mail me at marcleepson@gmail.com  I also have a few as-new, unopened hardcover copies, along with a good selection of brand-new copies of my other books: Flag: An American Biography; Desperate Engagement; Lafayette: Idealist General; What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, a Life; and Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

September 2018




Saving Monticello: The Newsletter
The latest about the book, author events, and more
Newsletter Editor - Marc Leepson

Volume XV, Number 9                                                                      September 1, 2018

The study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.” – Eric Foner


CLEVELAND AT MONTICELLO:  Speaking of a discovery, I had a delightful one a few days ago while going through 19th century newspapers on the Proquest Historical Newspapers digital archive, a version of which my local library in Loudoun County, Virginia, provides to all library card holders.

I found a long Washington Post article that describes in detail an event that took place at Monticello in 1888 that I had never run across before: the June 27th visit by President Grover Cleveland.
I had thought—and said so countless time in talks I’ve done on Saving Monticello—that only one U.S. President had visited from 1834-1923 when Uriah Levy and Jefferson M. Levy owned the place. That was Theodore Roosevelt, who rode up the mountain on horseback on June 17, 1903. I describe that memorable occasion in the book.  

As I wrote, TR had been in Charlottesville attending commencement ceremonies at the University of Virginia, arriving by special train from Washington. On his ride up the mountain Roosevelt “wore riding britches, puttees, an easy coat, and well beaten hat, modified [Rough Rider style],” a witness reported. Jefferson Levy and his sister Amelia Mayhoff gave Roosevelt and company a private tour of the mansion.

Related image

President Cleveland was running for re-election in the summer of 1888. He would lose to Benjamin Harrison, but would regain the White House after winning the 1892 election, becoming the only U.S. president to serve non-consecutive terms. As TR did, Cleveland took a special train to Charlottesville to attend what Post reporter David Lewsley called “the graduating exercises” at the University.

Image result for grover cleveland
President Cleveland
Cleveland, a conservative Democrat—and the first member of his party to win a presidential election since 1856—also took time in C-ville to meet with “the most eminent surviving leaders of the ex-Confederacy,” as Lewsley put it, “to sit at the same table with them, to eat and drink with them, [and] to make speeches in reply to toasts proposed by them.”

After all that palavering, eating, and drinking, Cleveland and company paid a visit to Monticello. The party set out at 5:30 on a wet June afternoon.

Cleveland had balked at first, but U.S. Senator elect, 68-year-old John S. Barbour Jr. (below), who had been instrumental in bringing Cleveland to Charlottesville, convinced the president that “it would never do for him to return to Washington without having seen the home and the grave of Jefferson,” Lewsley reported.
Image result for senator john s. barbour virginia
Sen. John S. Barbour, Jr. 
So the cavalcade of “forty or fifty” carriages with Cleveland’s in the lead took off “dashing and splashing and rushing through” downtown Charlottesville. The “whole town” was “out on the streets shouting and waving flags, handkerchiefs and hats,” Lewsley wrote. “The house fronts were completely covered with flags and bunting fluttering in the breeze.”

Cleveland sat with Virginia Gov. Fitzhugh Lee in that first carriage, an open one “drawn by four white horses driven by a skillful black man with a footman beside him in the box.” Another important fact that Lewlsey noted: President Cleveland, a large man, and Governor Lee “together probably [weighed] about 600 pounds.”

It was a rough slog up the mountain. The road, Lewlsey—who could turn a phrase—noted, “is of clay, very red, and when wet, as it had been made by the rain that day, very tough and sticky. Pulling through a bed of putty would be lubrication itself by contrast.”

Many of the carriages didn’t make it to the top. But Cleveland’s—despite that not inconsiderable weight disadvantage—did. The first stop was Jefferson grave. It wasn’t a big hit.

For decades after Jefferson’s death visitors had vandalized his gravestone, taking dozens of chippings out of it. His family, which owned the graveyard at Monticello, began lobbying Congress in the late 1870s to build a new one. After years of wrangling, in April 1882, Congress appropriated $10,000 for a new monument over Jefferson’s grave and for other improvements to the graveyard site. A new, 18-foot granite monument was placed on Jefferson's grave that fall. Repairs were made to six other graves, a new iron fence was installed, and the entire site graded, re-seeded, and re-sodded.

The paint and gold gilding on the fence looked “quite fresh” six years later, Lewsley reported. However, everyone—including the president—decided to stay in their carriages and not make the short climb up to the graveyard.

Related image

That’s because, as Lewsley put it, there “seemed to be nothing to invite them to alight.” The monument “looked cold and forbidding,” he said. The tall iron railings were “haughty, exclusive, and threatening. There did not seem to be a gate or an opening in them anywhere. There was no way to get up close without climbing up the hillside on which the grass was wet and clay soft.”

Cleveland sat in his carriage for a minute or two, and “without raising his hat or making any outward sign to show that the poetry in his soul was moving within him,” ordered the driver to move up to the hill to the house.

The entrance to the house “was guarded by two dull red brick pillars” and an iron gate, Lewsley wrote. There was a sign on an oak tree that said, “No shooting or hunting will be permitted on these grounds. Jefferson M. Levy, owner.”

Levy was on hand, along with several family members Lewsley didn’t identify, to greet the president and his party. But he only allowed those with invitations to enter the house.

Of all things, Levy had several “gray-coated State Militia” men standing with fixed bayonets outside the door to keep out the uninvited. “If anyone attempted to intrude,” Lewsley wrote, “he found a bayonet or two pointed at him.” There also was a “big Irish tiger in Levy’s livery,” Lewsley said, “who is on the ground for such service every day.”

Cleveland and company were ushered into the Parlor where Jefferson Levy and “his family” (most likely his sister Amelia Mayhoff and her husband Charles) greeted them and gave them a tour of the house.

The Levys, Lewsley noted, “try to preserve as much of the old order of things as is practicable, but the furniture and fittings have had to be somewhat modernized to meet the requirements of living to-day.”

Cleveland enjoyed his visit “immensely, taking an eager interest in what was told him by the Levys.” The last stop was a “nice new visitors’ register that had been procured for the occasion,” Lewsley wrote.

The first autograph was “Grover Cleveland, Washington, D.C.”

EVENTS: Just one event on the calendar for September, but it promises to be a memorable one. I’ll be doing a talk on Saving Monticello at Monticello on the West Lawn on September 20. It’s the annual event for Monticello supporters.
I have more events coming up in October, November, and December. Stay tuned.
For info on my latest book, Ballad of the Green Beret, please go to http://bit.ly/GreenBeretBook 

Image result for marc leepson talk

If you’d like to arrange an event for Saving Monticello—or for any of my other books, including Ballad of the Green Beret—please email me at marcleepson@gmail.com  For details on other upcoming events, go to http://leepsoncalendar.blogspot.com

GIFT IDEAS:  Want a personally autographed, brand-new paperback copy of Saving Monticello? Please e-mail me at marcleepson@gmail.com  I also have a few as-new, unopened hardcover copies.
Or go to marcleepson.com/signedbooks.html to order copies through my local bookstore, Second Chapter Books in Middleburg, Virginia. We also have copies of Desperate Engagement, Flag, and What So Proudly We Hailed, and Ballad of the Green Beret.