I was very much looking forward to the American Experience on Dolley Madison – I had missed it when it first aired so was happy to see it airing again on PBS. I usually love the American Experiences documentaries, so was assuming this would also be good. I have to admit, I am very disappointed. This documentary uses her letters heavily, which I applaud, but they have actors playing her, James and others and being them as they read the portions. The way the actress playing Dolley reads for her…seriously weird! I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t work – it makes it more like a Lifetime movie than a documentary! It is like she has the "vapors!" I was not impressed. The content was fine, the presentation was not! I’m sorry to say, this is not PBS’ best effort.
So if you can ignore this, you will probably enjoy this. The material really was not bad and they do a good job of showing Dolley’s importance. The documentary itself was just badly presented, in my opinion.
My favorite new factoid was that Dolley had women send her recipes to use in the White House, as a way to make allies. This section from the transcript was neat:
Narrator: Soon Americans were calling the Executive Mansion by a new name — the White House. Dolley Madison had made it a national home. In the succeeding years, Dolley would become the public face of her husband’s administration. Her doings were reported in newspapers across the growing country. Women copied her wardrobe. Her feathered turbans were the talk of the town. And when she served ice cream at her squeezes, it became a national sensation. Dolley wrote to influential women all over the country asking for recipes to use at White House dinners. This seemingly innocuous act had a political purpose, creating allies for her husband’s administration.
Carl Anthony, Writer: Dolley Madison saw her position as the President’s wife as a full time job. She was, in fact, a public entity.
Richard Norton Smith, Writer: Dolley Madison, I think, has a larger claim than anyone else to having invented this unsalaried and ill-defined position that we all now take for granted, that of the first lady. Certainly nobody knew what a first lady was. The term didn’t come into use really until Dolley Madison’s time.
Holly Shulman, Historian: Martha Washington was always George Washington’s helper, but she didn’t really like being out in the limelight. Abigail Adams didn’t see the importance of it and she didn’t want to do it. So her letters may be far more interesting than Dolley’s in terms of politics and public policy and political philosophy, but in fact it was Dolley who had an impact in that sense, not Abigail.
Holly Shulman, Historian: She had very much a sense of what a public face for a woman should be. She could come to the fore, she could come to the front, she could be public, she could be out there, because she was still graceful and feminine.