There was a slight smile on her lips as she began to burn paper. She burned through the afternoon. The last to go were her diaries . . . There, before her, in a small neat script, was the account of hours; every visit with its date and length of stay Thomas Jefferson had made to Monticello from the time she had returned to Virginia with him . . . Like an abbess at her devotions, she repeated each date . . .She burned it. She felt a deep calm. She no longer feared anything; not death itself."
- from "Sally Hemings" by Barbara Chase-Riboud
This is a love story, says the dark, reedy woman. Her voice laden with the cultivated tones of black Americans who have lived in Europe, is tight and her eyes are flashing, not like fire but like a warning, because Barbara Chase-Riboud, 38, had to start defending her book before she finished it.
Yet "Sally Hemings" stands as much more than a historical romance about the liaison for more than 38 years of Thomas Jefferson and his slave mistress. This is the saga of a famous black who subliminally yearned for freedom but didn't ask, choosing custom over courage. This is a story about a love bond between a book and its author, between a 20th-century black woman, internationally known as a sculptor and poet, who went to Paris and fell in love and married a French photographer, and her subject, the 18th-century slave who at age 14 went to Paris and fell in love with her master, one of the world's most powerful men at that time. This is the story of a rekindled controversy and the firing squad that Jeffersonian purist historians always form when the Hemings affair is mentioned. It's the story of Chase-Riboud's journey home to set the interpretation of the book, if not the historical record, straight.
Smiles are not Chase-Riboud's handouts. This is a serious lady. Besides she's still sleepy, having just snatched a nap. Tea and talk revive her. "This is what we know about Sally Hemings, scraps and pieces," she says, holding her muscular, sculptor's hand. "There's a bill from the boarding house on Rue Scene, her passport, the ledgers from the Jefferson household on how much he spent on clothes, the slave inventory at Monticello, the memoirs of her son, Madison," Chase-Riboud adds. "Then the newspaper accounts of 1802 when the story broke in the American press. At one point she was the most talked-about woman in America."
To this skeleton, the author added imagination. She walked the same streets of Paris, scoured American and French libraries, and ended up with a tender story of a faithful, sometimes ambiguous woman. Some would argue that she used too much license and creativity.
Ever since the book proofs were circulated, letter have been arriving at the offices of Seaver Books/Viking Press in New York from Dumas Malone, the Publitzer Prize-winning Jeffersonian scholar, and others, generally charging "unsupported facts." Chase-Riboud takes some delight in the facts that once a proposed television deal was announced, the controversy heated up.
"I have learned it is one thing to write a book and explore a character," she says. But I have also learned about the presumed rights to interpret American history, even fictionally. Some people think this is a one-race, one-culture, one-sex country, or at least that their's is the only outlook. But I think they got more upset when they learned the vast public would see this story on television."
Sitting in a friend's art-filled apartment, Chase-Riboud leans back in an easy chair, shaking her long, coal-black hair in a soft, feminine movement. She's long on thoughts but spare of words, the mark of her choice of poetry and sculpture. She hasn't set out to defend the Jefferson Hemmings relationship, or enshrine it in any way. She is simply telling a story that intrigued her. What she is more worried about right now is the marketing of the story's interracial and passionate themes. "It is not an exploited, sexual treatment of their story. It is a historical romance, told from a point of view of Sally Hemings. It shows the bond and tragedy of the races. And it is a touching and powerful love story, in no way demeaning Jefferson, a great historical figure," Chase-Riboud says.
As she talks of her discovery of Hemings and Jefferson, you sense Chase-Riboud admired their protection of one another. She had to acquire that admiration herself. "My greatest problem was letting Sally Hemings be an 18th-century slave woman, void of any of my 20th-century ideas," says Chase-Riboud. Her own life has been lived with the worldliness that this century's struggle for equality provided. Born in Philadelphia, Chase-Riboud was trained at the Tyler School of Fine Arts and Yale University and has been an active artist. She has exhibited her sculpture at the Metroplitan Museum of Art and currently has a show at the Bronx Museum of Fine Arts.
After studying in Europe, she settled in Paris and married Marc Riboud, a noted photographer, and blended the careers of artist, wife and parent. In 1965, she went with Riboud to the People's Republic of China, creating her own historic footnotes as the first American woman to visit China after the Revolution. Five years ago, she published her first book of poetry, "From Memphis and Peking," and, about the same time was introduced to the Hemings story by the popular history of author Fawn Brondie.
"I was struck by irony, the complexity of the relationship. It struck me as being very reflective of a lot of American history," Chase-Riboud explains. Originally, she intended to write an epic poem, then expanded to a diary. "But the total story took hold of me," she says.
Though she would be the first to admit she's not a historian, Chase-Riboud chose the backdrop of the early days of the Republic - through Jefferson's two terms as president, his retirement and death - to tell the story of the black and white families of Monticello and had five children with Jefferson, according toerson's wife, since Hemings mother was a mistress to Martha's father. Hemings lived all her life at Monticello and had five children with Jefferon, according to Chase-Riboud and Brodie, some of whom passed for white. A widower when he met Hemings, Jefferson never developed a relationship with another woman. He also never freed Hemings. At an auction of his possessions after his death, she was priced at $50.
"When she became a political issue, Jefferson never denied her. And he never married again. The important thing to remember is that he had a very thin skin and was capable of rage. But he never turned on Sally Hemings as a political liability," says Chase-Riboud, her voice reflecting of Jefferson. She speaks of him and Voltaire as great thinkers. "Basically, at first I didn't admire anything about the relationship. Here he was 43, just finished a tragic affair with an English woman, and he sees this young girl who looks like his wife. No portraits of either woman exist. But I ended up admiring their love, their fierce defense of their children, now they were allowed to run away at age 21. Plus she might have influenced him on his politics.But her victories were small."
One of Hemmings' political influences, Chase-Riboud contends, was the excised portion of the Declaration of Independence that denounced slavery. "I felt she was an influence on his life, that they talked about politics, and it was a blow to him to have this portion removed," she says.
In her research Chase-Riboud found more clues to the closeness of the politician and his slave wife in a photograph of Jefferson's bedroom showing a staircase to an alcove above his head, where she believes Sally Hemings stayed. "But the most moving part of the research was the slave inventory of Monticello. Suddenly to see them all listed as products. There she was age 57, priced $50," says Chase-Riboud excitedly.
But on the strongest fictional moment, based on the actual final irony of Sally Hemings' life, was her listing as white by a census taker. "That was the arbitrary stroke of racism. He didn't want Jefferson haunted by miscegenation. But Sally Hemings had lived as a black woman, an ambiguous life to be sure, but I was sure she was angry at that gesture."
So the writer created a scene in "Sally Hemings" between Hemings and the census taker, who is smitten by the aging beauty and repeatedly visits her small cabin decorated with artifacts from her short time in France.
Chase-Riboud writes: "I didn it for you and your sons . . . "
"Don't be a fool, Nathan . . . You did it for him. To make him not guilty. To shield him . . . I'm tired, Nathan. I'm tired of white men playing God with my flesh and my spirit and my children and my life, which is running out . . . You've left me nothing of my own. Not even my color! I've been asked to give, and give, and give, and now I can't give any more." CAPTION: Picture 1, Barbara Chase-Riboud, author of the historical novel "Sally Hemings"; by Ellsworth Davis - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Barbara Chase-Riboud; by Ellsworth Davis - The Washington Post