Beneath Washington's cold marble exterior beats a heart. If you think its pace quickens only to the calibration of the GNP or the Gallup Poll, read on. For since the city's very beginnings, passion has seethed along the Potomac and great loves have endured even in this land of laws.
Passionate Peggy: Did She, or Didn't She?
She was only a hotel-keeper's daughter, but her sexual deportment -- or lack of it -- became a national political issue. Nothing remains of the inn on the North Side of Thee 2000 Block of I Street where Peggy O'Neale Timberlake Eaton Buchignani was born about 1805. Now a bastion of doctor's offices and apartments, this block facing Pennsylvania Avenue across a small triangular park was the site of an early 19th- century tavern called O'Neale House. Later, O'Neale expanded the tavern into a hotel, changed its name to Franklin House and became innkeeper to the city's transient elite, few of whom failed to notice his pretty young daughter. At 15, Peggy attempted to elope with a military officer-guest and was packed off to finishing school. Duly finished, she returned to the hotel and soon married a ship's purser named John Timberlake. Timberlake was at sea a lot, so Peggy stayed at Franklin House. Among the guests she made friends with were soon-to-be- president Andrew Jackson and his political ally, Senator John H. Eaton of Tennessee, who became Peggy's constant companion. Married women, even those whose husbands were often out of town, weren't supposed to consort with other men in those days, and society was scandalized. Mrs. Monroe informed Mrs. Timberlake by letter that she was no longer welcome at the White House. Even after the purser very conveniently died, and Peggy and Eaton were married, thecandal continued. The question debated at tea parties and Jackson's Cabinet meetings alike was just how intimate the Eatons had been when she was still Mrs. Timberlake. When the pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church criticized Peggy, Jackson quit the congregation. Mrs. Calhoun, wife of the vice president, refused to receive Peggy and Emily Donelson, Jackson's niece and official hostess, also snubbed her. The rift was healed only by Eaton's resignation from the Cabinet and the couple's departure for Spain, to which Eaton was named minister.
Years later, Peggy was back in Washington and a widow again. She shocked the town once more. On her frequent visits to her second husband's grave at OAK HILL CEMETERY IN GEORGETOWN, she was often accompanied by Antonio Buchignani, a poor but aristocratic young Italian who gave dancing lessons to her children. Captivated by her lingering beauty, Antonio proposed to Peggy right in the cemetery and, at the age of 54, she accepted. Peggy got Antonio a job as librarian of the House of Representatives. Later Antonio stole the silver and took off with Peggy's granddaughter, Emily, to his family castle in Italy. On the couple's return to American soil, Peggy had him arrested and ordered to pay her $10 a week alimony. Eventually, however, she relented and divorced her husband so he could make an honest woman of her pregnant granddaughter.
The Count & The Schoolgirl
Though she was the daughter of a Georgetown hatter and not at all well-to-do, pert and pretty Harriet Williams was popular among her more aristocratic classmates at Miss Lydia English's Female Seminary, which still stands at 3017 N STREET NW but is now a private home. One day, just as school was letting out, the Russian minister, the elegant Count Alexander de Bodisco, came riding by in a coach drawn by four white horses and attendedby two coachmen and two drivers in elaborate livery.
"Girls, shall I stop the Russians?" the fun-loving Harriet queried her classmates. She promptly steppedinto the coach's path and bent down to tie her shoe, bringing the open barouche to an abrupt halt. The minister was captivated by Harriet's mischievous smile, and a few months later the two were married in a ceremony attended by thecity's elite and the diplomatic corps. Russia turned out to be less accepting. When the couple traveled to Bodisco's homeland, Harriet was not received at court.
Honeymoon House & a City First
She was the granddaughter of Martha Washington and he was a wealthy Englishman -- and therefore slightly suspect back in 1795. To compensate, Elizabeth Parke Custis' step-grandfather, the financially shrewd George Washington, made sure Thomas Law made a pre-marital settlement on his bride before their marriage. Thomas and Eliza settled down in a newly built home which is still standing at SIXTH AND N STREETS SW and is now part of the Tiber Island housing complex. Called Honeymoon House, the home became a center for Washington social life, and the Laws were considered the ideal couple. In 1797, their houseguest, the Duke de la Rochefoucault- Liancourt, wrote that Eliza Law was "an amiable woman, who united accomplishments, sweetness of manner and a charming figure to a sound understanding, and all the qualities that contribute to make the married life happy."
A few years later, when Law, a real estate speculator, was on a visit to England, Eliza ran off with a dashing young Army officer. Thanks to her step-grandfather's foresight, after the subsequent separation from Law she was able to collect the $15,000 a year agreed upon in the pre-marital settlement. Eliza obtained Washington's first divorce, assumed her maiden name and continued to be a popular hostess. Ex-husband Law, ever gallant, wrote later that he "always paid tribute correctly due to Mrs. Law's purity of conduct, which I never did impeach."
'Til Death Do Us Part
One of the earliest of the city's belles was Marcia Burns, daughter of farmer and large landowner Davy Burns. The Burnses lived in a house near where the WASHINGTON MONUMENT is now. Many young members of Congress, attracted by the charms of Marcia, gathered at the Burns' in the evening and one of them, a handsome New York congressman named John Van Ness, finally won her -- and much of her father's property. The young couple built a home nearby, on the present site of the PAN AMERICAN UNION: The turreted coach house still stands on the Pan American Union grounds at 18TH AND C NW. Houseguest Washington Irving described Mrs. Van Ness in 1811 as "a pretty and pleasant little woman and quite gay." In 1832, however, cholera struck the capital, claiming Marcia Burns Van Ness. She was buried in a mausoleum in a small burial ground on H Street NW between Ninth and 10th Streets, but the memorial, by George Hadfield, was later moved to OAK HILL CEMETERY at 30th and R Streets NW.
From Belle to Egg Lady
She was the toast of the town and Mrs. Lincoln was jealous of her. Kate Chase was the dark-haired daughter of Salmon P. Chase, the former Ohio senator and governor who was Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury. She was ranking Cabinet hostess and belle of the troops flocking to the capital in the heady days at the beginning of the Civil War. Among the most swashbuckling of the soldiers was Captain William Sprague, former "boy governor" of Rhode Island, leading the Rhode Island First Regiment. When they married in 1863 in her father's three-story brick manse at 601 E STREET NW, the opulence of the occasion, at which the Marine Band played, raised eyebrows because the war news was grim. Kate was used to raising eyebrows and continued to do so until her death. Sprague became a senator, and Kate turned the E Street house into a political salon. Salmon Chase built a country place, called EDGEWOOD, on a hill overlooking the city near Glenwood Cemetary. One of Kate's most ardent admirers was Roscoe Conkling, a leonine, titian-hairedsenator from New York, who introduced legislation that exempted Edgewood -- which Kate inherited from her father -- from taxes. The Spragues summered at Canchet, a villa they built near Narragansett Pier in his native Rhode Island, while Conkling vacationed conveniently nearby at Newport. Conkling was visiting at Canonchet one summer when Sprague was supposed to be somewhere else, and when the wronged husband arrived unexpectedly all hell broke loose. When Sprague confronted Conkling on the piazza and threatened to blow his brains out, the New Yorker left without his luggage. Kate was a virtual prisoner at Canonchet for a while, then escaped and slipped back to Washington. Conkling returned her letters, and Washington failed to rally 'round her. Toward the end of her life, with Edgewood in ruins and her money running out, she took up chicken farming and could sometimes be seen, shabbily dressed and driving her own carriage, going into Washington to sell eggs. When she died at age 58, her body rested temporarily at Glenwood Cemetery -- where William Sprague had camped with the Rhode Island First Regiment -- until President McKinley provided a train to take Kate Chase Sprague back to Ohio. She had sold off most of Edgewood's 50 acres before her death, and the house had vanished without a trace, except for the name of the northeast neighborhood and the Edgewood Terrace apartment complex which occupies the hill where the mansion once stood.
Future Presidents Need Love, Too
Even presidents and potential presidents fell under the spell of romance, beginning at the beginning with the now almost- canonized George Washington. While still a young surveyor he fell in love with Sally Cary Fairfax, the wife of his friend and neighbor George William Fairfax. Washington was not one to say "all for love and the world well lost," however, and in a letter to Sally in which he professed himself "a votary of love," he told her of his plans to marry Virginia's wealthiest widow. The Fairfaxes moved to England in 1773 -- for political rather than domestic reasons -- and at the auction Washington bought many of the furnishings from their home, BELVOIR, which stood on the site of the army post of the same name. The house burned to the ground in 1779. Years later, at the age of 63, Washington wrote to Sally again. None of his accomplishments, fame and glory, he told her, "have been able to eradicate from my mind the recollection of those happy moments, the happiest of my life, which I have enjoyed in your company." When Sally died in Bath, England, in 1811, the letter and Washington's earlier letters were found among her effects.
After the Ball, or The Unwritten Law
The country was seething with the sectional differences soon to erupt into the Civil War, but in Washington it was social life as usual. Senator and Mrs. William Gwin of California gave a masquerade ball in their I STREET home -- subsequently the site of Doctors Hospital and now the site of a newly built office building. Among the guests were Congressman and Mrs. Daniel Sickles and the dashing and rich Philip Barton Key, son of the Star Spangled Banner creator whose own home, called Woodley, still stands at 3000 CATHEDRAL AVENUE NW as part of the Maret School. Flinging caution to the winds with their masks, Key and Mrs. Sickles fell in love. It took the congressman a few months to unmask the true nature of his wife's relationship with Key, but when he did he acted decisively. One Sunday afternoon in 1859, he shot and killed her lover, right on LAFAYETTE SQUARE, "under the beautiful trees" as one contemporary account describes the incident. In the trial that followed, Sickles was acquitted on the grounds of "temporary aberration of mind." The audience that packed the court room cheered the verdict.
Happily Ever After
When Charles Nourse -- whose family owned much of what is now Cleveland Park including the Cathedral grounds in the early 19th century -- married Rebecca Wister Morris ofPhiladelphia, he didn't want her to get homesick. So he built his bride a Pennsylavania-style stone house and named it THE HIGHLANDS, after her childhood home. He had to keep adding to the house to accomodate the couple's 11 children, and no reports of homesickness were ever made. The Highlands now serves as the administration building of SIDWELL FRIENDS SCHOOL on Wisconsin Avenue.
Wedding Presents & Foreign Intrigue
Alexander Graham Bell received the house at 1500 RHODE ISLAND AVENUE as a wedding gift from his father-in-law when he married his wealthy deaf student Mabel Hubbard. After a fire in 1888, the couple, founders of the National Geographic Society dynasty, moved to Georgetown, to a home near Bell's laboratory. The house was later leased to Count Arturo Cassini, the Russian Czar's ambassador to the United States. Cassini had already been married three times, but no wives were in residence in Washington. Instead, the ambassador was accompanied by Madame Stephanie Scheele, a former vaudeville performer who acted as his housekeeper but was really his mistress and the mother of his flamboyant daughter Marguerite, who acted as official Embassy hostess. Since his third marriage had been in defiance of the emperor, Cassini was forced to send large sums of money to the wife in question as blackmail payments. There was still enough left over for opulent parties and expensive clothes and 20 Russian wolfhounds for Marguerite. Marguerite ran with Washington's young elite and reportedly taught Alice Roosevelt to smoke, but their friendship cooled when the young Russian told her American friend that Congressman Nicholas Longworth had proposed to her -- first. Marguerite was in love with Del Hay, son of the Secretary of State, who died in an accident at Yale. Instead, she married someone friends described as "hopelessly Russian," and, in the lean years after the Russian Revolution, she wandered around Europe with her two sons trying to make ends meet. She came back to Washington during the World War II, rented a cottage in Georgetown and set up a dressmaking atelier. Her sons, Oleg and Igor Cassini, worked with her and later made it big in the fashion field. Marguerite's parents finally married, after the Count, old and almost blind, resigned from the diplomatic service. The third wife was finally divorced after detectives learned that she had been bigamously married to a German doctor for 15 years. Count and Countess Cassini lived peacefully outside Paris until his death, in his 80s. Their Rhode Island Avenue home is still there, serving as headquarters of the National Paint and Coatings Association.
The Widow & The Widower
"Who is that beautiful woman?" Woodrow Wilson asked a companion driving with him on Connecticut Avenue near Dupont Circle. The woman, described by a Secret Service agent as "a fine figure of a woman," somewhat plump by modern American standards, was 42-year-old Edith Bolling Galt, widow of a member of the family that founded Galt and Brothers, Jewelers, now at 607 13TH STREET NW. Before long, Edith, a Virginian and direct descendant of Pocahontas, was going for drives in the president's Pierce-Arrow and, a few weeks after they met, Wilson proposed on the south portico of the White House. Edith demurred, and a long courtship, much of it documented in letters, ensued. "I venture to say, my lady, my queen, that never in your life have you looked so wonderfully beautiful as I have seen you look when the love tide was running in your heart without check . . ." wrote the passionate president. On December 18, 1915, the two were married in a row house at 1308 20TH STREET NW, where Edith had lived with her first husband. The bay window, which served as the altar, was decorated with heather. The rector of St. Margaret's Episcopal Church, still at Connecticut Avenue and Bancroft Place NW, performed the ceremony, along with a minister of Wilson's Presbyterian denomination. The house was torn down in 1960 to make way for anapartment building. Mrs. Wilson had sold it years before, and when the Wilson's left the White House they retired to more stately residence at 2340 S STREET NW, which has been preserved and is open for tours.
Everbody knows about the congressman and his girlfriend (now his ex-wife) who made love on the very steps of the Capitol and about the romance between the powerful congressional committee chairman and the exotic dancer that began at the Silver Slipper and ended in the Tidal Basin. But the bawdy reason for the building of the OLD POST OFFICE -- now being rehabilitated -- on Pennsylvania Avenue has been obscured by time. The Post Office was erected in the 1890s, capping the campaign to clean up what was a red-light district known as "Hooker's Division." which sprawled along the avenue between 10th and 15th Streets. It was so called because General Joseph Hooker, in charge of troops in the city during the Civil War, sought to control prostitution by concentrating its practitioners in this area. The general thus gained a kind of immortality, though today his namesakes peddle their wares a few blocks away.
PROBING THE PASSIONATE PAST
If you want to penetrate deeper into Washington's passionate past, here are some sources: So Fell the Angels, by Thomas and Marva Belden, details the saga of Kate Chase Sprague; Peggy Eaton's story is told in the 1932 Autobiography of Peggy Eaton. Countess Marguerite Cassini also wrote an autobiography, Never a Dull Moment. President Wilson's literary courtship of Edith Galt was bared to the world last year in A President in Love, edited by Edwin Tribble, and in 1909 Sarah E. Vedder wrote of the Philip Barton Key affair and the Harriet Williams romance in Reminiscences of the District of Columbia. Christian Hines tells the story of Marcia Burns and John Van Ness in Early Recollections of Washington City, written in 1866 and recently reprinted by the Junior League of Washington. For a perspective on how all these characters fit into the history of the nation's capital, read Constance McLaughlin Green's Washington, a History of the Capital 1800- 1850 and the Junior League's The City of Washington, an Illustrated History.