Wednesday, February 3, 2016

February 2016

Saving Monticello: The Newsletter

The latest about the book, author events, and more

Newsletter Editor - Marc Leepson

Volume XIII, Number 2                                                                     February 1, 2016

DETAILED & FASCINATING: Any article that ends with “Stop at the Monticello gift shop and buy ‘Saving Monticello: The Levy Family’s Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built,’ by Marc Leepson. It’s a fast-paced but detailed and fascinating read” is worth revisiting. So I’m pleased to present excerpts of Judith Fein’s excellent 2011 article on the Levys and Monticello that appeared in the L.A. Times. It contains a good summary of the heart of Saving Monticello. You can read the entire article at:

I’ve never met an American who didn’t have a soft spot in his heart for Thomas Jefferson, and who didn’t love Monticello. …After Jefferson retired from the presidency, he went to live full-time in Monticello, and the house is a testament to Jefferson’s architectural genius; in fact, he called it his “essay in architecture.” The 11,000-square-foot neoclassical mansion has 21 rooms, and from the moment you walk past the stone columns and set foot in the reception and waiting room, with its grass-green floor and museum-like exhibits of natural history specimens and Native American and African artifacts, you know you are in the domain of a man of taste, knowledge, broad interests and probably unlimited resources. Alas, even presidential resources can run out. Unlike today’s politicians, the first men who helmed our fledgling nation often left office penniless and in debt. Jefferson was no exception. By the time he died, he was in the hole some $100,000 ($2 million today), and it took decades for his heirs to eliminate the debt.

His heirs could not afford to keep Monticello and, to the shock and sadness of everyone who adored and admired the book room (which held more than 6,000 volumes), bedroom (where his bed was surrounded by the latest gadgets and technological inventions), dining room (with its dumbwaiters, hidden in the fireplace, which brought wine up from the cellar) guestrooms, art collection and dome room, the plantation had to be sold.

Historical treasure or not, no one wanted it. In 1827, Jefferson’s daughter and grandson auctioned off his slaves and other possessions, right down to stored grain and farm equipment. The empty house decayed from lack of upkeep. Finally, the estate was purchased by James Turner Barclay for $7,000, but he held onto it for just three years. And this is where our story begins.

A hint about the estate’s next owner is still at Monticello, on Mulberry Row, next to slave and work cabins, prodigious vegetable gardens and mulberry trees. There, a rather nondescript tomb is the final resting place of Rachel Levy, [above] mother of Monticello’s third owner, Uriah P. Levy. The plantation remained in the Levy (pronounced “levee”) family for 89 years. In fact, it is postulated that Uriah Levy was a founder of America’s historic preservation movement because, at that time and well into the 20th century, there was no great interest in maintaining historical homes and sites.

….It is thanks to Uriah Levy that the clock and other possessions and designs of Thomas Jefferson are available to tourists today. If he hadn’t spent a huge amount of money on the restoration and upkeep of Monticello, it would have sunk into sad dilapidation.

….When he died childless, his odd and obscure will was contested by his family heirs for l7 years as the house decayed. Finally, in 1879, his nephew Jefferson Monroe Levy (the name certainly suggests family patriotism), gained the title to the property. He was a handsome and fabulously wealthy New York lawyer, real estate mogul, stock speculator and three-term U.S. congressman. He never married and indicated on several occasions that he dedicated his life and fortune to the upkeep, restoration and refurbishing (in true Jeffersonian style) of Monticello.

….. J. M. Levy opened Monticello to vast numbers of tourists, claimed to live by Jeffersonian principles, lavishly entertained luminaries like Theodore Roosevelt, foreign ambassadors and U.S. congressmen, but was still attacked for being a latter-day Shylock and exploiting Thomas Jefferson’s memory. There was a movement to wrest ownership away from him and hand it to the government. ….J.M. Levy, who had lived the high life for so long, was beset by financial difficulties, and, after holding out as long as he could, finally agreed to sell Monticello for $500,000 to the government. … Finally, the asking price was met by a private group — the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.  Reportedly, J.M. Levy burst out crying when he signed over the deed to his beloved estate.  He died insolvent before his 72nd birthday.

When you go, pause for a moment at Rachel Levy’s tomb. If you have the inclination, thank Uriah and Jefferson Levy for preserving what is now one of the most beloved tourist destinations in America.

By the way, the Monticello Shop lists Saving Monticello among its best-selling books:

MISQUOTES:  SM Newsletter subscriber Anna Berkes, the Research Librarian at Monticello’s Jefferson Library who also runs the on-line Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, is—well—encyclopedic in her knowledge about Mr. Jefferson. I just came across a fascinating entry she wrote in the Encyclopedia called “Spurious Quotations.” It’s a carefully annotated list of more than fifty quotes that have been attributed to the Sage of Monticello—quotes that are made up.

A few examples:
  • “Beer, if drunk with moderation, softens the temper, cheers the spirit, and promotes health.”
  • “Governments constantly choose between telling lies and fighting wars, with the end result always being the same. One will always lead to the other.”
  • “Without God, liberty will not last.”

A Jefferson Quote—not

So we can add Thomas Jefferson to the oft-misquoted list headed by Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, and Abraham Lincoln. Speaking of which, I recently learned that a Twain “quote” I had been quoting for decades, is made up. I’m sure you’ve heard it: “I spent the coldest winter of my life on summer in San Francisco.” Twain also didn’t say, “Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”
To read all the spurious Jefferson quotes, go to the entire entry, go to

EVENTS:  I have just one event in February—a talk on Francis Scott Key at The Glebe retirement community in Daleville, Va., on the 15th—as I am continue operating in full-time writing mode on  my next book, a biography of Barry Sadler, the U.S. Army Sergeant who wrote and performed “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” The pub date has been changed. It’ll now be in March of 2017.

If you’d like to arrange an event for any of my books, email  For more details on upcoming events, go to, the “Author Events” page on my website,

Facebook, Twitter: If you’re on Facebook, please send me a friend request. If you’re on Twitter, I’d love to have you as a follower.

Gift Ideas:  If you would like a personally autographed, brand-new paperback copy of Saving Monticello, e-mail me at

Or go to order copies through Second Chapter Books in Middleburg, Virginia. We also have copies of Desperate Engagement, Flag, Lafayette, and What So Proudly We Hailed.