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Dolley Madison Legacy Luncheon History

The Dolley Madison Legacy Luncheon: The Inaugural Event

In Fall 2005, restoration of James Madison’s Montpelier was going well. While the mansion’s exterior was transforming into its 19th-century Madison retirement era aspect, Carolyn Quinn set her sights on how to transform the interior to allow visitors to see a vibrant Madison house and to get a sense of Dolley Payne Madison’s home.

While James was the intellect of the family, Dolley was its heart. During the Madisons’ time in Washington and as America’s first “First Lady,” Dolley had become a symbol of gracious hospitality. She had worked with the famous Benjamin Latrobe to create a glamorous presidential home for entertaining. Her famous “Wednesday Nights,” when she invited politicians from both sides to mingle, became so popular they earned the title of “Squeezes.” Even before her time in Washington, she had filled Montpelier with art, wallpaper, French furniture, and dramatic mirrors, much of which she ordered from Europe.

Carolyn assembled a group of volunteers to discuss a suitable way to honor Dolley Madison and raise money for special acquisitions for the mansion’s interior. With Dolley’s hospitality in mind, they decided to have a party in May (Dolley’s birthday month) when the Montpelier gardens would be in full bloom. Montpelier would ask a prominent speaker to address Dolley’s influential role as a pre-eminent hostess in Washington and to explore the role of women in the history of our emerging nation. Carolyn invited Cokie Roberts, who had demonstrated her interest in the Colonial period by writing a New York Times bestseller, Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation.

An Honorary Committee was created. Carolyn contacted the Virginia Historical Society for use of its striking Dolley Madison silhouette on all promotional material. Carolyn came up with the perfect favor for guests to take home as a memory of the inaugural luncheon, a bookmark featuring an illustration of Dolley Madison on a 15-cent stamp including her quote: “There is one secret, and that is the power we all have in forming our own destinies.”

May 17, 2006, was a beautiful day. Michael Quinn, President of The Montpelier Foundation, gave Cokie a tour of the mansion exterior; although the scaffolding obscured some of the architectural details, guests enjoyed seeing the restoration’s progress. Cokie’s speech highlighted Dolley as one of the important “Founding Mothers.” Next to the podium was a sketch of how the Montpelier drawing room might look like when finished, featuring Dolley’s favorite color, scarlet red. The afternoon concluded inside the mansion, as Cokie signed copies of her book Founding Mothers for guests.

Highlights of the William duPont Gallery and Gardens

The second Dolley Madison Legacy Luncheon featured the newly-completed William duPont Gallery, a gracious indoor space with the capacity for speakers to enhance their presentations with slides. Moderated by Susan Borchardt, a research expert, the program focused on Forensic Decorating and featured Betty Monkman (Former Curator of the White House), Gail Serfaty (Director of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms at the Department of State,) and Lynne Hastings (Curator of Historic Interiors of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation). Following the presentation, guests adjourned to two tents in the gardens for lunch. Afterward, guests were offered a tour of the mansion’s drawing room where Montpelier experts, including John Jeanes, the Director of Restoration, were stationed to explain what had been accomplished and what was still to come. The tour was an opportunity to see this magnificent work as it progressed and to stimulate anticipation of the finished project . . . to see the drawing room as it was when Dolley entertained her many guests.

The Luncheon was underwritten by Virginia National Bank, and the Committee is deeply grateful for its continued support through 2018.

Focus on the First Lady Expands

For the next three years, the Luncheon became an event that added extensive knowledge about the founding period. In 2008, Montpelier’s five-year restoration was completed, and the speaker was noted historian Edith Mayo, who directed the popular Smithsonian exhibits on First Ladies and wrote The Smithsonian Book of the First Ladies: Their Lives, Times and Issues. In 2009, guests learned more about the ongoing research to restore Montpelier, hearing from speakers Chris Ohrstrom of Adelphi Paper Hanging and Natalie Larson, a world-renowned household textile consultant and principal of Historic Textile Reproductions. In 2010, the accomplished historic landscape architect, Paul “Chip” Faulkner Callaway, spoke on “Recreating Gardens and Grounds for Historic Houses.” Chip and his staff had designed nearly 1,000 gardens, ranging from large estates to small patios. 

Fashion Show

In 2011, the Luncheon had a real change of pace for its guests – a fashion show of costumes created for the PBS documentary “Dolley Madison: America’s First Lady.” Designer Candice Donnell assembled a wardrobe of meticulously researched costumes reflecting the broad scope of Dolley’s life. Dr. Catherine Allgor, author of A Perfect Union, Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation, spoke on “Love, Loss, and What Dolley Wore” and put the costumes into proper context. Dr. Allgor introduced models who wore dresses similar to those that Dolley might have worn.

As a child, Dolley Payne Todd was raised as a Quaker; as such, her clothes would have been confined to simple, muted colors. When Dolley became First Lady, however, she was focused on the importance of her appearance to represent the new nation. It was imperative that she wear elegant clothes made of fine fabrics, but she had to avoid anything that hinted at royalty. Turbans were fine, but crowns were considered out of bounds. In the early 1800s, fashionable dresses were copied from ancient Greek styles with high Empire waists and low necklines. Dolley embraced that style and often added feathers and plumes to turbans. Although Dolley loved her finery, after her husband’s death she was satisfied to wear a widow’s garb – dark gowns and a paisley shawl – but with her signature turban.

(Special thanks to models Elizabeth Perdue, Bridget Bryant, Cynthia Whitman, Suzanne Allard, Anna May, Marge Grills, and Karla Baer)

Continuing Efforts

Fortunately for Montpelier, the Dolley Madison Legacy Luncheon has continued to be a success.  Thanks to the support of its yearly guests and loyal volunteers, as of 2020 the Luncheon has raised over $900,000.  Attendance at  the Luncheon has grown, and renowned speakers continue to enlighten guests on many levels. 

2021 Dolley Madison Legacy Virtual Presentation

Keynote Speaker Madeleine Albright in conversation with David Rubenstein.

Madeleine Albright, who served as the first female Secretary of State and currently serves as Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, was this year’s keynote speaker. Dr. Albright was joined in conversation by David Rubenstein, one of the most patriotic philanthropists in America, having made transformative gifts for the restoration and preservation of historical sites, including James Madison’s Montpelier.