I’ve always been tempted to write one of those quizzes that you always see on Facebook, “Which American first lady should you be?” That’s a question that I’ve often asked myself. I know that I would not want to be any of our most recent first ladies. (Sorry, Michelle. Sorry, Laura. Sorry, Hillary.) Occasionally, I think that I would have liked to have been Jacqueline Kennedy, if not for what happened in Dallas. Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice, is definitely a historical role model for me but it’s debatable whether she could truly be considered a first lady. And, of course, there’s always Grover Cleveland’s wife Julia but ultimately, for me, there’s really only one choice.
If I could be any American first lady, I would be Dolley Madison.
Dolley, of course, was the wife of James Madison, who was not only our fourth President but also one of the smartest. Madison was a skilled writer and scholar but he had absolutely no social skills. Dolley, on the other hand, was vivacious and was, by the standards of the dentistry-free days of the 19th Century, one of the most beautiful women in America. Whereas James was uncomfortable meeting with people and struggled to express himself, Dolley was the world’s greatest hostess, bringing opposing forces together through the sheer force of her own charm and ability to throw a great party. When the British invaded Washington D.C. during the War of 1812, Dolley was the one who saved the famous portrait of George Washington from being burned with the rest of the White House.
So, yes, I would definitely be Dolley Madison.
(Yes, I know that there’s some debate over whether her name should be spelled Dolly, Dolley, or Dollie. I spell it Dolley and since I would have been her, I think my opinion counts for something.)
It’s a shame that there haven’t been many movies made about Dolley Madison. Perhaps the best known is 1946’s Magnificent Doll, which is not a very good movie but which is amusing if you know something about history.
Magnificent Doll opens with young Dolley Payne (Ginger Rogers) being forced to marry John Todd (Horace McNally), a much older lawyer. (John saved the life of Dolley’s father and, in gratitude, Dolley’s father gave him his daughter.) Though John falls in love with her, Dolley refuses to show him any sign of affection and good for her! (Seriously, arranged marriages suck.) But then John dies of yellow fever and Dolley declares that she did love him all along.
But life goes on!
Soon, Dolley and her mother are running a boarding house in Philadelphia. Fortunately, they happen to be running it at the same time that the Continental Congress is attempting to write the Constitution. Several of the delegates are staying at the boarding house and two of them take a romantic interest in Dolley.
First there’s Aaron Burr (David Niven), a charming scoundrel who appeals to Dolley’s wild side. Aaron does things like take her to a bar and kiss her underneath a staircase. Aaron is vain. Aaron is self-absorbed. Aaron is an ambitious and charismatic brooder whose moods can be unpredictable. Aaron is exiting! Aaron is dangerous! Aaron is a rebel!
And then you’ve got Aaron’s friend, James Madison (Burgess Meredith). James is shy and gentle. He’d rather read a book than go out. He’s the type of smart kid who all the other kids make fun of but he’s also a good, decent man who has a great future ahead of him. He just needs someone to bring him out of his shell.
In short, Aaron is the type of boy that you hope invites you to prom. James is the type of boy that you marry.
And, when Dolley does marry James, it sends Aaron Burr into such a tail spin that he nearly prevents Thomas Jefferson from becoming President in 1800…
And, needless to say, this film is in no way historically accurate. It is true that Aaron Burr was nearly elected President in 1800 and, had he been, Thomas Jefferson would never have been President. However, most historians seem to agree that has more to do with Aaron Burr being ambitious and nothing to do with Dolley Madison. In the end, Magnificent Doll may be amusing in its inaccuracies but bad history is still bad history.
That said, there’s still a part of me that enjoyed Magnificent Doll, despite the fact that it moves way too slowly and none of the actors (with the exception of David Niven) appear to be all that invested in their roles. I think, ultimately, the reason I enjoyed Magnificent Doll was because it really is basically just a YA version of American history and, as a result, it does have some curiosity value. One gets the feeling that if Magnificent Doll were released today, it would be split into two different films and that it would be promoted on social media with hashtags reading #TeamAaron and #TeamJames.
That said, if there’s any first lady who deserves a biopic (one that’s good as opposed to so-bad-its-interesting) it’s Dolley Madison. (Personally, I would cast Amy Adams in the role.) #TeamDolley all the way!