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History's Headlines: Dinner with Thomas Jefferson

Perhaps the White House never glowed more splendidly then on the evening of April 29, 1962. President John F. Kennedy had gathered Nobel Prize winners of the day for a dinner and reception. On addressing them he noted the significance of that moment in the executive mansion’s history.

“I think,” he said, “this is the most extraordinary collection, of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception, of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Kennedy’s words paid eloquent tribute to the genius of his great predecessor. But there actually were quite a few nights in Jefferson’s two terms in the White House when he did not dine alone.

“I dined a large company once or twice a week,” noted the frugal New Englander John Adams who had proceeded him. “I held levees (receptions in honor of a prominent guest) once a week. Jefferson’s whole eight years was a levee.”

In truth Jefferson did love to entertain. He grew up on his father’s plantation and was surrounded by planters to whom lavish hospitality was the norm. And as minister to France, he came to appreciate French cuisine, French wine and the understated elegance of French dining of that era just before the French Revolution. “Jefferson,” writes one historian, “seemed during his entire life to breathe in perfect satisfaction nowhere except in the…air of Paris in 1789."

But in a strange twist of fate, it was Mary Master Allen Livingston, daughter of James Allen - who was opposed to independence - who was to sit down and break bread across from the table with the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence. And at the White House, no less.

Allen was born in 1777. She had no personal memory of her father who died at age 37 in 1778 of tuberculosis. She was a small child when the battle of Yorktown ended the war in 1781. Her mother was only 27 when her husband died. Although she spent her summers in Allentown at Trout Hall, Mary Allen’s winters were passed in Philadelphia, which was then the capital of the United States.

Along with her sisters, Ann and Elizabeth, she was part of what Abagail Adams called the “constellation of beauty” that graced the city during the administrations of Washington and Adams. Unfortunately, no known portrait of Mary Masters Allen Livingston exists. It is known that, like her older sisters, she had auburn hair and a light peaches-and-cream complexation.

Mary Allen was overwhelmed by the whirl of social life that passed through the city in those years.

“Crowds of foreigners of the highest rank poured into Philadelphia, and Ministers with their suites from all parts of the world came to bow to Washington and the Republic,” she wrote in her journal. “At this time I was not grown up, but my mother and her two elder daughters were equally Belles; at length my mother married a Senator in Congress from New York, Mr. Lawrence. She removed there with him, but returned to pass her winters in Philadelphia during the Session of Congress…In the Spring we went to Fairy Hill, a beautiful spot on the Schuylkill, which belonged to us, and afterwards to Allentown, where we remained till Autumn.”

It was while staying in Philadelphia that Mary Allen had her first contact with the Jefferson family. In 1791-92, while Jefferson was George Washington’s Secretary of State, she attended a girl’s school, called Mrs. Pines - conducted by the widow of British portrait painter Robert Page Pine - with Jefferson’s daughter Mary.

“Mrs. Livingston, formerly, the younger Miss Allen, made kind enquires after you, she said she was at school with you at Mrs. Pines,” Jefferson wrote his daughter on December 26, 1803 while awaiting the birth of her third child. Mary died in April of 1804 from complications following that child’s birth.

In 1795, Mary Allen was urged by her mother to spend some time with her and her sister, Ann Penn Allen, in New York. It was here she met Henry Walter Livingston (1768-1810).  An attorney and a scion of the leading family in the state, he would marry her the following year.

“Behold us in New York, at 37 Broadway, living in splendor and my young heart intoxicated with pleasure. My beautiful sister (afterwards Mrs. Greenleaf) was a brilliant luminary which seemed to animate everything within its influence, and I was the modest satellite shining with a reflected lustre.”

In 1803, Livingston was elected to the House of Representative as a Federalist to the 8th and 9th Congress. That year, members of the Livingston family had helped Jefferson negotiate the Louisiana Purchase with France. Sometime that fall, the Livingstons received the invitation to dinner at the White House.

”Thomas Jefferson presents his compliments,” the oval shaped document stated, “and requests the favor of his company to dinner on December 23, 1803 next at half after three o’clock.”

Before moving to the White House, Jefferson knew the type of person he wanted to run it.

“You know the importance of a good maître d ’hotel in a large house and the impossibility of finding one among the natives of our country,” he wrote a French friend in the Quaker City. ”I have imagined that such a person might be found, perhaps, among the French of Philadelphia.”

After several tries, Jefferson found the person in Etienne Lemaire. He was paid top wages at $30 a month. Although Jefferson did bring a few enslaved people from Monticello to the White House, most of the staff were hired from Philadelphia. Among them was his French chef Honore Julien and a kitchen staff of nine others. Julien was paid $28 a month; the going wage for a French chef, Jefferson noted, was $20 a month. He taught the two female slaves Edy and Fanny Bowles French cuisine, which they later cooked for Jefferson at Monticello.

Jefferson’s dinners were held in two dining rooms, one of which occupied the space known as the Green Room. Almost all of them were all-male affairs. When women were present, Dolley Madison, the wife of Jefferson’s Secretary of State James Madison, was there, so it is likely she was there when Mary Masters Allen Livingston was having dinner.

Unfortunately, no menu has survived from the December 23, 1803 dinner. It is known that Jefferson liked game birds and had a large number served at his White House dinners. Domestic and wild turkey was plentiful. Jefferson always included a large portion of vegetables at his dinners. Venison was already an expensive dish and considered a delicacy, but Lemaire would buy it at the Georgetown market.

Fish of all types was available and oysters were a popular treat at the president’s table. Among items that Jefferson introduced to Americans at his dinners were macaroni, vermicelli, anchovies, olive oil, vanilla, citron and parmesan cheese.

Jefferson had a system of dumbwaiters installed that enabled the company to help themselves without tripping over armies of servants. He thought talk of politics at dinner vulgar and had contempt for “ill-tempered and rude man in society who have taken up a passion for politics.” But at the same time he was not above listening in on conversations to discover friends and enemies.

Jefferson’s dinners also featured cases of wine brought from France. Although most wine at the time was shipped by the barrel, Jefferson, fearing leaking and potential “nips” by a ship’s crew, had it sent over in bottles. Sources differ as to which wine, white or red, Jefferson preferred. Whatever they were, they were French and expensive. Isaac, a long-time Monticello slave, noted Jefferson’s use of wine was temperate. He commented that he never saw his master, “disguised in drink.”

It is not known if the Livingstons were invited back to the White House. In 1807, Henry Walter Livingston left Congress and died at the age of 42 in 1810. Mary Masters Allen Livingston lived on until 1855, becoming one of the most acclaimed hostesses in America at her New York estate, The Hill, entertaining even European royalty. And perhaps she learned a few tips at Jefferson’s White House table.

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