Dolley Payne Madison: A Belle of a Washington Hostess

By Patricia B. Mitchell

Books from the Mitchells Cooking in the Young Republic That Palace in Washington
Dolley Payne Madison

Bright rouge, dazzling French fashions, and jolly parties were beauty marks in Dolley Payne Madison's capital lifestyle after marrying James Madison.

Dolley was born in Greensboro (at that time the Quaker community of New Garden), North Carolina. Widowed early, she eventually found herself living in Philadelphia with her young son. It was there that wealthy Virginia planter and statesman James Madison sought her out, and after four months, wed her. Dolley then shed her drab clothes, her naturally merry personality bubbling to the surface.

Serving as Washington, D. C., hostess for President Thomas Jefferson at the turn of the 19th century, and then as mistress of the White House when James Madison was president, Dolley added fun and sparkle to the social scene in the young republic. She had been cautioned by her husband to monitor her consumption of champagne because, “If you drink much of it, it will make you hop like the cork.”

She did limit herself to two glasses at a time, but the soirèes which she hostessed were always flowing with fine vintages and enhanced by praiseworthy food. Dolley herself was a conversation piece with her decolletage gowns; satin turbans decorated with bird of paradise feathers; and oft-used, carved mother-of-pearl snuffbox. A regal five feet six inches tall, the buxom lady towered over her diminutive 100-pound, five-foot-four-inch husband.

Together, though, the couple made a superb team, Dolley's effervescent charm and vitality balancing “Jemmy's” quiet wisdom.

Referring to Dolley's entertainments, Washington Irving reported a room “crowded with interesting men and fine women.” Henry Clay exclaimed in Dolley's presence, “Everybody loves Mrs. Madison!” Dolley responded, “That's because Mrs. Madison loves everybody!”

Dinner guests at the Madison's enjoyed a repast skillfully prepared by French chef Pierre Roux and his staff. Individual diners were attended by a domestic who stood behind each chair, ready to serve. Dolley had an insatiable sweet tooth and her dessert courses reflected this. She adored a cake enlivened with caraway seeds and brandy.

Other favorite treats included ice cream, macaroons, preserves, raisins, apples, pears, almonds, and pecans. Dolley wrote out little poems or sayings on slips of paper which were tucked in among the nuts.

One of the Madison's levees, in August of 1814, did not go quite as expected. Dolley was awaiting forty dinner guests. A “cut-glass decanter of wine,” “spits of meat,” and “brimming saucepans” sat at the ready when Dolley and retinue had to suddenly flee.

British Admiral Cockburn and his men burst in with destruction as their objective. First, however, they ate the irresistible food, and then, according to an English officer, “finished by setting fire to the house which had so liberally entertained them.”