By Lorin Drinkard
In honor of Presidents’ Day, we caught up with Northern Virginia’s very own Martha Washington, portrayed by Mary Wiseman, a Mount Vernon character interpreter for 10 years. She dishes about tours at the estate, Mr. Washington and her love for our nation’s original first lady.
On old-fashioned preparation
“I spent 35 years in Williamsburg. I sat in the Bruton Church Parris choir, right next to Martha’s grandpa’s grave and the graves of her two children … I walked past them every day … I lived in the colonial time period in my mind for 30 years and studied Martha’s life for 20 years [before moving to Alexandria].
On keeping Martha’s memory alive
“In 1990 I formed a group of women, and we celebrated March as Women’s History Month [in Williamsburg]. ‘Beside the Great Man’ is a program I started. I was so intrigued [with Martha’s background] and exclaimed, ‘Why don’t we know more about her?’ Eventually, I ended up portraying Mrs. Washington. It just led from there.”
On casting frowns aside
“So many people are totally unaware of their private lives. The portraits of the Washingtons were mostly made in their old age. They weren’t supposed to smile. ‘He was great, and she was pretty uninteresting’ is what some people say. People adored her. I like to say that I get to put the smile on Mrs. Washington that the portrait doesn’t portray.”
On reactions from visitors
“When a visitor says, ‘I feel like I was really there with her,’ that’s a great compliment for me. I don’t see myself acting the role of Martha—I’m telling the story through a dramatic portrayal. My favorite compliment is when locals will bring visitors to come see me. I always say that, in their lives together, [Martha] revealed so much about [George]. It’s like a giant treasure chest. I just open up that trunk and pull out a memory.”
On historical accuracy
“In everything I do and say, it’s to her honor, and I hope she approves of what I’m doing. They had such grand lives, but aspects of their lives are relatable—and universal. ‘Honesty is the best policy’ is a phrase from the book I read to children on the tour that the Washingtons read to their children. On Martha’s epitaph it says, ‘The worthiest partner of the most worthy man.’ I would like to be considered worthy.”
Although their lives are almost 200 years apart, Mary Wiseburn and Lady Washington share an uncanny number of similarities. See for yourself:
Three score and seven years (age of Martha that Mary portrays)
Number of Children
Journey to Alexandria
April 2003 (Mary)
April 1759 (Martha)
(Both moved from Williamsburg to Mount Vernon.)
Raised children alone
Mary was divorced (She never found her Mr.
Martha was widowed