A Word About Fathers and Daughters

I want to say a word about fathers and daughters.

Jefferson was a complex character. He was an intensely private man. He was married just once, between 1772 and 1782, and the family tradition is that his dying wife Martha asked him never to remarry. We don’t know if that is true, but we do know that Jefferson never did remarry. He fell in love one more time, or pretended to, in Paris, in 1786, to the Anglo-Italian painter and musician Maria Cosway. She was, by the way, already married. Whether Jefferson and Sally Hemings had a romantic life we just don’t know. In fact, we don’t really know if she was his mistress.

If you asked Jefferson what was the most successful relationship of Jefferson’s life, he would almost certainly point to his marriage to Martha Wayles Skelton. He wrote that they shared ten years of uncheckered happiness. In short, he lied. No relationship of that duration is without its moments, and Jefferson, as a lover of Lawrence Sterne’s sentimental novel Tristram Shandy, was prone to exaggerate the level of harmony in his key relationships.

Martha "Patsy" Jefferson Randolph by Thomas Sully, 1836.

If you ask me what the most successful relationship was in Jefferson’s 83-year life, I can answer unequivocally that it was with his elder daughter Martha, whom he called Patsy, at least when she was young. The other adult daughter Maria (Polly), who died in her 25th year, always believed that her father preferred her older sister. She was right. Martha Jefferson was essentially a female version of Jefferson—tall, masterful in all that she did, disciplined, socially graceful, and competent through the roof. She adored her father, and was a fierce and lifelong protector of his privacies, his sensitive spirit, and his reputation. She knew his faults, or some of them. She said once, “My father never gave up a friend—or an opinion.” The potency of that last phrase depends on how long the pause is after friend, but there is a wonderful irony about it.

In some respects, Patsy was Jefferson’s significant other, even his soul mate (though he would despise that term). I mean nothing prurient about my assertion that Martha was Jefferson’s life partner in all the ways that matter this side of the bedroom. They were, to use Jefferson’s favorite vegetable if not his favorite cliché, two peas in a pod.

Whenever I speak publicly as Jefferson and someone asks me about his relationship with his family, I find myself choking up when I talk about Jefferson and his daughter. I can say unhesitatingly that the best relationship of my life is with my own daughter, who is now twenty-two years old. She is at once my beloved child, my hope for the world, my heart’s heart and my soul’s soul, my travel partner, my fellow student of irreverence, my best friend, my travel and my unindicted co-conspirator.

I’d rather spend time with her than with anyone on earth. The fact that we are soul mates and have an almost uninterrupted relationship of harmony and adventure is something I could never have predicted, not in a thousand years. I thought my child would be an anti-intellectual biker chick who lived for the Real Housewives and the Kardashians. There is, after all, karma.

If God called me (but he won’t even return my calls), and asked me to write out a daughter on one of the narrow lined yellow legal pads I use in my research, what kind of personality she would have, what sense of humor, what her passions would be, what her basic outlook on life would be, how she would express her soul’s energies, I would order up my daughter.

She has brought me my greatest joys. She has taught me what love really is. She has brought light and lightness of being to my otherwise studious and often enough melancholy existence. She has kept me honest. She has filled my heart to overflow for more than two decades now. I say this carefully, because I want to get it right. She has almost single handedly redeemed the life project for me.

I just spent a week with her in London, Stratford, the Lake District, and Scotland, where she is finishing up a degree in Elizabethan history and writing her thesis on Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World, which he wrote as a state prisoner in the Tower of London.

We spent five or six hours talking about Raleigh—and seeing Shakespeare plays, including at the Globe in Southwark on the bank of the Thames, debated the merits of John Donne, and rowed a boat out into Ullswater Lake in the Lake District to re-create a famous moment in William Wordsworth’s epic of his unfolding imagination, the Prelude.

I have been divorced now for 20 years. I have never remarried. I get Jefferson. I believe that friendship is the highest form of human relationship, and I now know that a father’s love of his daughter is without question the epitome of human joy.

Our next adventure is to Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Why? Because we are both students of that moment when the Roman Republic spilled decadently into the Roman Empire. And in its own appalling way, Caesar’s Palace is one of the best representations of Rome at the height of its empire and opulence that we have. Oh, yes, we will go to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles too.