With Marc Leepson
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, Nov. 19, 2001; 1 p.m. EST
It may be hard to imagine, but Monticello, the central Virginia estate
of Thomas Jefferson, on two occasions nearly came to ruin after his death in 1826.
Marc Leepson -- whose article "The Battle of Monticello" appeared in Sunday's
Washington Post Magazine and explains how the beloved mansion was eventually saved as a public treasure -- was online Monday, Nov. 19 at 1 p.m. EST, to field questions and comments
about the history of Monticello and other things Jeffersonian.
Leepson, A writer who lives in Middleburg, Va., is the author of "Saving Monticello:
The Levy Family's Epic Quest to Rescue the House That Jefferson Built," recently published by Free Press.
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control
over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
In the 1980s I visited Monticello and asked the guide about the Levy family. The guide had never heard of them.
I discussed this matter with a (non-Jewish) University of Virginia professor who was an expert on Monticello, and he stated that anti-Semitism was the reason for it.
Was anti-Semitism a factor in writing the Levy and Phillips families out of the history of Monticello?
Marc Leepson: The situation has changed since you were there. Beginning in 1984, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which runs Monticello, has made a concerted effort to tell the Levys' story. There is an excellent exhibit on the Levys in the Monticello Visitors Center at the foot of the mountain.
The guides know the story, but often don't have time to tell it during the house tour. The grave of Rachel Levy--Uriah Levy's mother--on Mulberry Row was refurbished and rededicated in 1985.
I deal with the very real issue of anti-Semitism and the Levys' ownership of Monticello in my book, Saving Monticello: The Levy Family's Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built (Free Press, November 2001).
Are architectural plans/drawings available for the house and surroundings? Are there any illustrated books that depict the upstairs rooms that are not open to the public?
Marc Leepson: They have been reproduced in a book titled:
Thomas Jefferson, Architect: Original Designs in the Coolidge Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society...
The editor is Fiske Kimball
The most recent edition I found was by Da Capo Press, 1968.
You may also want to check the Web site of the Jefferson Memorial Foundation, which runs Monticello. The address is www.monticello.org
Falls Church, Va.:
Why didn't the University of Virginia ("Mr. Jefferson's Institution") buy and care for Monticello?
Marc Leepson: The University was young and struggling financially when Monticello was put on the market by Jefferson's heirs in 1827 a year after he died. The same is true when it went on the market again in 1831.
I don't know why the University took no action the next time it was for sale, in 1919. Perhaps because the price tag was too high.
Do tour guides at Monticello talk about the crucial role the Levys played in saving Monticello?
Marc Leepson: The answer is that they know the story of the Levys, but they often do not have time to mention it. They barely have time to touch on much about Jefferson. The last time I took the tour, the guide did mention the Levys at the end.
It seems as if Maud Littleton is vilified in your article. However, I'm wondering if without her efforts to have Monticello handed over to the public, if it would have again fallen into disrepair after Jefferson Levy's death and lost to the country as a national treasure. I in no way support her anti-semitic methodology.
Marc Leepson: There is no way to answer that question. It is possible that Monticello would have fallen into disrepair again. It's also possible that Jefferson Levy's heirs would have continued to keep the place in excellent condition, as he and his uncle had done beginning in 1834.
I had no idea that Thomas Jefferson was financially ruined and that Monticello was in very bad shape when he died. I think it is incredible that Uriah Levy realized the future importance of Monticello. He should be commended.
Marc Leepson: There has been some recent acclaim for Uriah Levy. Most recently, the soon-to-be built Jewish Center and Chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy will be named for him.
The Levys are not the bad guys here and I'm embarrassed at the government's wresting of Monticello from the family. The government had ample time to buy Monticello in in the years before 1831 when it was sitting neglected, untenanted and unwanted.
Marc Leepson: Actually, the government did not take Monticello from Jefferson Levy. A movement to do so failed when a bill that would have condemned Monticello and turned it into a government-run shrine to Jefferson was voted down on the floor of the House of Representatives in 1912. However, two years later Jefferson Levy felt pressured into offering his house for sale to the government. But Congress failed to pass legislation to do so and Levy put the house on the market in 1919.
How did you get interested in the history of Monticello? Do you live in the area?
Marc Leepson: I live in northern Virginia. I got interested in the topic in the spring of 1997 when my aunt and uncle, Sally and Lee Sherman of New York City, visited my family and took a side trip to Monticello. They came back, amazed at the story of the Levys and suggested that I write a book about it. I first wrote a magazine article, which appeared in Preservation in March-April 1998. The response was very strong to the article and it became the basis for my book, which was just published this month.
Marc Leepson: I am pleased to have this opportunity to answer questions about the Levy family and Monticello. For those who are interested there is much more information on this topic on my web site www.savingmonticello.com and and in my book, "Saving Monticello: The Levy Family's Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built. (FreePress)
If the furnishings of Monticello were all sold and dispersed by his heirs, how was it re-acquirred?
Marc Leepson: When the Foundation took over in 1923, they made a strong effort to reacquire Jefferson's furniture and furnishings. At first, the goal was to have only Jefferson's furniture and furnishings, no reproductions or period pieces. The Foundation was successful in purchasing many items and in having descendants donate things. But they later changed their minds and now some of what you see at Monticello are period pieces.
Hello. Where exactly is Monticello located? I'm from Prince William County and I'm ignorant about my own state of Virginia.
Marc Leepson: Monticello is three miles south of Charlottesville in central Virginia.
Is it true that UVA is where Jefferson lived?
Marc Leepson: Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. But did not live there. He lived full time at Monticello beginning in 1809 when he retired from the presidency until his death in 1826.
It is inexcusable to me that Maud Littleton had the gall to accuse the Levys of neglecting Monticello. I mean, my god, Jefferson himself had let it fall into disrepair. The Levys should be commended for spending the money to shore up the building.
Marc Leepson: You are correct. I hope that my book helps to show the important role the Levys played during their 89-year stewardship of Monticello.
Who was it that had the love affair with Sally? Thomas Jefferson or his brother?
Marc Leepson: My book begins on the day Jefferson died in 1826. It, therefore, does not deal with the Sally Hemings question. You can learn about that on the Thomas Jefferson Foundation web site: www.monticello.org
Will the black descendants of Jefferson ever be buried at Monticello?
Marc Leepson: I would suggest you ask that question of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello. Their Web site, www.monticello.org, contains a page on which you can submit questions.
What inspires you more about this story? Jefferson or the Levys?
Marc Leepson: That's a great question.
Thomas Jefferson is very inspiring. He was a man of enormous talents and vision. Monticello itself is very inspiring.
However, for me, the Levys were the focal point of the story. It was amazing to me that they owned Monticello--and saved it from ruin on two occasions--for 89 years, longer than the Jefferson family owned it. And yet, their story is all but unknown. I hope my book does a small part in remedying that situation.
Did Jefferson Levy actually live at Monticello or was it a vacation home for him? How did he maintain the grounds? Did he have people farming it for him?
Marc Leepson: Jefferson Levy lived in New York City. However, he visited Monticello often. He spent many summers there. He had a fairly large staff running the place, including a terrific superintendent named Thomas Rhodes, who wound up working there for 50 years. And, yes, the land was farmed.
Did you go to UVA?
Marc Leepson: I did not. I went to George Washington University in Washington, D.C., both graduate and undergraduate. I majored in history.
How long did it take you to write your book?
Marc Leepson: It took a year--approximately six months of research and six months of writing. The editing process took an addition six months or so. I had a head start in researching because I had written a magazine article on the topic a year earlier.
Have you written other historical books? And how did you do the research for this one? Mainly by looking through old newspaper racks and books or did you also spend a lot of time at Monticello?
Marc Leepson: My previous book was The Webster's New World Dictionary of the Vietnam War.
I did spent a lot of time at the Research Department of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello. Another great resource was the Special Collections Dept. at the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia. And I did read an awful lot of old newspapers.
How is the content of the tour guides' talk decided? It seems that as new information -- for instance about the Levys and Sally Hemmings -- becomes available that the talks should incorporate this information.
Marc Leepson: The Foundation determines that. I would direct you to their Web site, www.monticello.org
Did you interview any Levy descendents for your book?
Marc Leepson: Yes, I did. The descendant who has spent the most time researching the topic, Harley Lewis, was extremely helpful to me. There are no direct descendants of either Jefferson Levy or Uriah Levy, though. Both had no children. The both did have many siblings, though. Harley Lewis is the granddaughter of Jefferson Levy's brother, Louis.
This is an incredible story. The Levys owned Monticello longer than Jefferson yet they aren't even a footnote in the history of the building. It seems as if they should be PROMINENTLY thanked for their role in saving Monticello. With some sort of public display at Monticello. And I hope your book brings more attention to the Jefferson Foundation folks. Between covering up this and the Sally Hemmings information, they really drop in my estimation.
Marc Leepson: The plaque at Rachel Levy's grave, which was placed there in 1985 during a public ceremony attended by Levy family descendants, tells the story well and gives the family the credit they deserve. The grave is on Mulberry Row not far from the house.
The official guidebook also has a page on the Levys and, again, gives them the proper credit for their stewardship. So does the exhibit at the Monticello Visitors Center on the bottom of the mountain.
What, in your opinion, was it that made Monticello so difficult and expensive to maintain, even for Jefferson?
Marc Leepson: There were several reasons. One was that Jefferson's debts mounted greatly after he retired there in 1809 and he couldn't afford to do proper maintenance.
Another was that he was often inundated with visitors. Sometimes relatives would come and spend months, along with servants and slaves. It was not uncommon for the 30,40 or 50 people to be staying there. This led to much wear and tear.
Wonderful piece. I look forward to reading
your book. Maud Littleton sounds as if
she had some emotional problems,
veering as she did from an obsessive
desire to remove Monticello from the Levy
family toward what appears to be an
equally obsessive religiosity. Why did
people take her so seriously?
Marc Leepson: She was a formidable woman. She was very wealthy and had many influential friends. She spent a lot of time and money lobbying for her cause and won over many influential people, especially in Washington. That included many members of Congress, President Wilson and Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan.
Wait -- if the Levys ARE properly credited at Monticello, then why the book?
Marc Leepson: The book tells the entire story of what happened to Monticello following Jefferson's death. That includes the period of 1826-1831 when the family still owned it but was forced to sell. The period of William Turner Barclay's ownership, 1831-34; and the Civil War period when the place was confiscated by the CSA. No one has told this story beforee.
I found your article"The Battle of Monticello" quite amazing. I enjoyed reading it and plan on picking up a copy of your book. You mentioned in the article that Jefferson's daughter fled the almost-empty mansion after her father's death. You also mentioned that Jefferson Levy signed the deed conveying Monticello and it's belongings to the foundation. When people tour Monticello now, whose furnishings are they looking at? Did the foundation try to recover as much of Thomas Jefferson's furnishings as possible or are we seeing a combination of both families?
Marc Leepson: Thanks.
Yes, the foundation has recovered much of Jefferson's original furniture and furnishings. Some was donated; some was purchased.
The foundation also sold all of Jefferson Levy's furniture, which he conveyed with the place when he sold it. He had amassed many rooms full of period pieces, mostly French. But the Foundation only wanted Jefferson furniture there and sold all of Levy's.
Have you had any reaction from the folks that run Monticello to your book?
Marc Leepson: The people at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation have been extremely kind to me. They helped me a great deal with the research and everyone there who's read the book has praised it. That includes Susan Stein, the curator, and Daniel Jordan, the Foundation's president.
I would love to write a book, though I doubt I have the skill required. So, do you make enough from book writing to earn a living or do you also have a regular job?
Marc Leepson: I'm a freelance writer. It can be difficult to earn a decent living from freelancing. Having a best-selling book, though, can help enormously.
What lessons from how Monticello became a public trust can you apply to other such historic places?
Marc Leepson: Monticello was unique in many ways. It is not a public trust. It is run by a private, non-profit foundation. That said, though, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation does a great job with Monticello. I believe it's managed as well as public trust properties.
I think Monticello should have stayed in the Levy family with no pressure to sell. What if the situation was reversed and Uriah Levy had built the house and Jeffersons lived in it afterwards? The government and laws would NEVER have compelled the Jefferson family to sell it to the Levys or to make a shrine to Uriah Levy.
Marc Leepson: Remember, the government never did succeed in compelling Jefferson Levy to sell. However, the campaign to do so was very real, and came fairly close to success in the House of Representatives.
Who oversees the private foundations that run places like Monticello and Mt. Vernon?
Marc Leepson: Monticello and Mount Vernon both are run by private, non-profits. They are completely independent.
Did you receive any guidance from the faculty of the History department at UVA?
Marc Leepson: I did not. However, I did spent many, many hours doing research at the University's Alderman Library. And I did get help from an anthology professor at UVA who had done research on Jefferson Levy and his business dealings in Charlottesville.
Are there other books published on this subject, or that touch upon this part of Monticello's story? If so, in your estimation what was missing from them or would be considered misinformation?
Marc Leepson: Until my book, there was not a lot about the Levys and Monticello. There is a 1960s biography of Uriah Levy, Navy Maverick. But it is woefully undocumented. It even has Uriah Levy buying Monticello in 1836--two years after he actually did.
Nothing of substance at all had been written about Jefferson Levy or James Turner Barclay (who owned Monticello from 1831-34). So my work on them in my book fills a void.
The Foundation in June did publish a monograph on the subject.
You don't sound like you're a huge Jefferson fan or even obsessed like many people are who write books about historical subjects. So what is it about this story that gave you the will power to write an entire book about it?
Marc Leepson: The book actually is not about Jefferson, although you can't get too far from him when writing about his house.
What drove me to write the book is that no one had told this amazing story in depth beforee. No one had recounted in detail how Uriah Levy and Jefferson Levy saved Monticello from almost certain ruin. I wanted to remedy that situation and I hope I have.
Do you think this book will give you entree to write others? If so, have any topics in mind?
Marc Leepson: This is my fourth book. It has gotten good reviews and I do hope that that situation will lead to another book. I have several ideas in mind. I have spent most of my writing career specializing on the Vietnam War and Vietnam veterans and the next book, I hope, will be about an aspect of that war.
Front Royal, Va.:
No question, just a comment: I think the subject of this book would make an incredible movie.
Marc Leepson: I agree. Uriah Levy, especially, led an amazingly colorful life. He was, in many ways, a larger than life figure. I can see a movie about him.
And I can see a movie about the Levys and their role in saving Monticello.
I am open to offers.
Has anyone else written about the Levys?
Marc Leepson: The Foundation has published a monograph.
© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company