The Swan and the Duckling

When Jack Custis died in 1781, his wife Eleanor Calvert Custis became a widow at twenty-five with four young children. The two oldest girls stayed with their mother while Martha Washington took in the very young other daughter and the son to lighten Eleanor’s burden. The arrangement was sensible enough, but it also had the effect over time of making these siblings virtual strangers. That was inevitable given their ages: George Washington Parke Custis (Wash) was a mere babe in arms, and his sister Eleanor Parke Custis (Nelly) was two. Over time they came to regard the Washingtons more as parents than grandparents, and the attachment to their mother Eleanor because increasingly tenuous until it almost did not exist at all.  When Nelly was sixteen, Martha planned for her to spend the winter with her mother. Nelly dreaded the prospect.  

Nelly at 13

Nelly at 13

Nelly Custis could do no wrong. In part, this was because she was genuinely sweet natured. But it was also because with Nelly the Calvert and Custis lines had achieved something visually miraculous. The beautiful child became a stunning girl during Washington’s presidency in New York City and Philadelphia, where she was ten at the beginning and eighteen at the end. Nelly was schooled and groomed and admired as she attended girls’ academies and received private instruction. Long hours of practice made her an accomplished musician. Washington appreciated her talent so much he bought her no less than two expensive imported pianos. He could never carry a tune himself, but when Nelly played it was magic, and he noticed how everyone listened. He also saw how men in deep conversation with one another lost their train of thought and stopped in mid-sentence when Miss Custis entered a room. 

Another girl who grew up at Mount Vernon could not have been more different. George Washington’s brother Samuel had married five times by the time he died in 1781 at age forty-seven. He left nine children. One was Harriot, who was only five when her father died. Washington felt sorry for her bad luck to have had a father who saved too little, drank too much, and died too early. After being shuffled around among relatives, she wound up at Mount Vernon when she was nine. She had never known her mother and had hardly known her father. Nobody seems to have given her much guidance. 


Young Harriot the “tomboy"

Her stay at Mount Vernon lasted seven years and must have been emotionally mixed since Washington eventually found that he did not like her, and possibly she gave him reasons not to. He thought she was lazy, knew she was unkempt, and bemoaned her tomboyish ways that ruined her nicest clothes. He briefly considered sending her to boarding school when she was fifteen but decided there would be little point. On the other hand, Washington ensured that Nelly Custis received the finest instruction at the best schools. He never found fault with Nelly for rough-housing (Martha once described Nelly as “a little wild creature”) or chastised Nelly about her careless dress, even though a family friend once said the girl looked as if her “clothes were thrown on with a Pitchfork.”    

Nevertheless, as Nelly grew older, she blossomed. The architect Benjamin Latrobe was more than smitten with Miss Custis. Nelly, he said, embodied “more perfection of form, of expression, of color, of softness, and of firmness of mind than I have ever seen before or conceived consistent with mortality.” The Polish expatriate Julian Niemcewicz caught a glimpse of her returning from an outing and felt his jaw drop. “The divine Miss Custis,” he marveled, was never prettier than “with her hair blown by a storm.” Henrietta Liston, the wife of the British minister, bluntly sang Nelly’s praises with the simple observation that among the belles of Philadelphia she was simply the “most beautiful.” A large part of her charm was that Nelly Custis could not see what all the fuss was about. 


Nelly — “the most beatiful girl"

Harriot grew older but did not blossom. Washington was often irritated with her. Sadly, she knew this, as the timid tone of a simple request by a growing girl with eccentric spelling indicates. “I have not had a pair of stays since I first came here," she said; "if you let me have a pair I should be very much obleiged to you, and also a hat and a few other articles. I hope my dear Uncle will not think me extravagant for really I take as much care of my cloaths as I possibly can.”   

While Washington served as president, these two girls became young women. Nelly was a graceful swan who thrived in Philadelphia society; Harriot remained an awkward duckling at Mount Vernon. She learned to cope, cheerful nonchalance her best defense. She did not brood over her provisional place in the household or nurse resentments. Rather when she was 17, Harriot was sent to live in Fredericksburg with George Washington’s younger sister Betty Lewis in the hope that “town living” would burnish her a bit. Washington worried that she would be a burden on his sister, especially as to the expense of dressing someone so careless with her clothes. “This much I know,” he wrote Betty, "that she costs me enough to place her in [them].” With patience and motherly grace, Betty Lewis told her brother to calm down. There was, to her thinking, something to Harriot.

Andrew Parks, a young Fredericksburg merchant, thought so too. He came calling, and Betty was mildly apprehensive as it became obvious that Harriot was falling in love and would be wounded when it didn’t work out. When Parks proposed, Betty was relieved that the plain girl wasn’t being trifled with. Even more, Betty was pleasantly surprised when she learned that Harriot had said yes, but on one condition. Mr. Parks would have to obtain her uncle’s consent. Betty had been right. There was something to Harriot. 

George Washington did not think much of Andrew Parks. It wasn’t that Parks was, at best, of middling means — Washington was no snob — but he wanted his niece to wait so he could in retirement broaden the field for her with guests at Mount Vernon.  He lamented that he had not helped her cast her net more widely, but Harriot didn’t mind. She was not a net-casting kind of girl. Her Andrew was just fine for her, and Washington finally consented to the match. Harriot married her fellow in July 1796. Her uncle sent her a wedding present of £30. Her sincere thank- you note made plain that the sum dazzled her.

Betty Lewis died in the spring of 1797 just as Washington was retiring to Mount Vernon from the presidency, and he wanted to do something to help her family. Washington wrote to his nephew Lawrence Lewis, Betty's 30-year-old son whose wife had died seven years earlier, asking him to live at Mount Vernon and help entertain evening guests. Providing overnight visitors with conversation burdened Martha and bothered him. Lawrence could restore their usual bedtime of 9:00 p.m., but Washington was careful to tell him that the position carried no salary, only room and board. 

Lawrence quickly became part of the household, a pleasant young man, if a bit shy and self-effacing. Everyone liked him for that, but it was Nelly who surprised everyone, including Lawrence and likely herself as well. Within a year of Lawrence’s arrival, the young woman everyone described as the most beautiful person they had ever met had fallen in love with Washington's shy nephew. They married on Washington's birthday in 1799 in a candlelight ceremony at Mount Vernon. Ten months later, the Washingtons had a great-granddaughter, Frances Parke Lewis. The girl would be called “Parke” by her family.

Nelly and Lawrence Lewis lived at Mount Vernon until Martha's death in 1802 and then at Woodlawn on the property left them by George Washington after his death in December 1799. But unhappiness shadowed the most beautiful girl’s life, mostly by taking away the people she loved, beginning with Martha. Nine years later, Nelly’s mother Eleanor died. Nelly and Lawrence had eight children, but only four lived past early childhood. After they had acquired Audley, a plantation in western Virginia, Lawrence began spending more time there, and he and Nelly grew apart. By the 1830s, she was living with their daughter Angela and her husband in Louisiana.

The blows continued to fall. Angela died suddenly in 1839 as did Lawrence. Nelly buried him at Mount Vernon. She spent the rest of her days at Audley, at first with her son and his wife Esther, and after his death in 1847 with his widow. It was a lonely life. 

The passing of her friends and the fading of her beauty she could bear, but living long enough to see her children die drained away all joy. (Only Parke —  the girl born at Mount Vernon just weeks before George Washington's death — survived her.) Nelly traveled occasionally out of boredom, and President Zachary Taylor invited her to the White House during a visit to Washington, D.C., but these were empty events for a withered and shrunken lady. She suffered a stroke and died at Audley on July 15, 1852. She was buried at Mount Vernon, the place where she turned heads, struck men speechless with a smile, and finally fell in love with the bashful fellow who married her only to drift away. 

While the swan lived a life of glitter on its surface and sadness coursing beneath, the duckling simply lived. Harriot and Andrew Parks would not be celebrated. They would not move in fashionable circles, visit the White House, or turn up in the memoirs of famous people. Instead, Andrew and Harriot Parks moved quietly through the years in the western part of Virginia where they raised seven children. 

From the duckling came swans. Her granddaughter married a prominent Washington attorney. When Harriot Washington Parks Tallmadge died in February 1940 at age 91, she was the great-grand-niece of George Washington. Harriot’s line, in the end, was his closest kin.

Disheveled and careless, the girl who tore her nicest clothes and skinned her knees lived in the shade of beauty and confidence for all of her young life. Betty saw something in her, though, and Betty was right. Harriot in her own way was confident that things would turn out well.  

The duckling was right. 

( Heidlers Photo Credit: Don Jones, Studio Nine Commercial Photography)  © David and Jeanne Heidler 2020