A New Black Novelist Explores Thomas Jefferson's Love Affair with a Beautiful Slave

updated 10/08/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/08/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The rumor about Thomas Jefferson has survived for 177 years: He loved a beautiful mulatto slave named Sally Hemings and fathered seven children by her. Yet most biographers of the third President have handled the story gingerly (or not at all). In 1802 James Callender, a muckraking journalist who bore a grudge against Jefferson, printed details of the liaison while Jefferson was President. Although it was politically embarrassing, he never denied the story.

Now Barbara Chase-Riboud, an accomplished sculptor and poet, has rekindled the controversy with the publication of her first novel, Sally Hemings (Viking, $10.95). Some Jefferson scholars are upset. When Dr. Dumas Malone, who won a Pulitzer prize in 1975 for his life of Jefferson, learned that the novel had been optioned by CBS-TV, he angrily demanded that the network cancel the project. In his biography Malone insists that such a romance would have been out of character for a man of Jefferson's moral standards.

"I knew there would be either an uproar or stony silence," says Chase-Riboud, 44, "but it's a very complicated story that can't be pooh-poohed away." Sally and Jefferson's dead wife were half sisters; his father-in-law sired both. In 1787, two years after Jefferson became Minister to France, Sally accompanied his daughter Polly to Paris. According to Chase-Riboud, they became lovers there, when Jefferson was 44 and Sally was 15. Though she could have chosen freedom in France, she became pregnant and returned to Monticello with Jefferson. She stayed there until his death in 1826. Jefferson had been a widower for 43 years.

Weaving imagination and fact (such as detailed plantation records that show Jefferson and Hemings were both at Monticello nine months before each child was born), Chase-Riboud creates an absorbing story that is tasteful rather than exploitative. "What I really wanted," the author explains, "is for people to know who Sally Hemings was and insert her in the panoply of founding fathers and mothers."

The project took three years. Chase-Riboud based her story on Fawn Brodie's painstakingly researched biography Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. For further inspiration she wandered the streets of Paris and traveled twice to Monticello. Posing as a French journalist, she arranged a private tour of Jefferson's bedroom. Convinced that a stairway near his bed would lead to Hemings' boudoir, she returned to take a group tour. "While others were oohing and aahing at the silverware," Barbara says, "I ran upstairs, very nervous. I felt like a burglar. When I opened the door, I ran smack into a brick wall—a sealed passageway."

The characterization of Hemings was even more of a challenge: "I had trouble putting myself in the place of an 18th-century woman slave who had a chance at freedom, but who gave it up for love. It was just beyond her horizon to consider life without Jefferson. That happens to a lot of women. He did not free her because men don't free what they love."

Chase-Riboud describes herself as "the antithesis of Hemings"—a totally liberated woman. The only child of a building contractor and a pathologist's assistant, she grew up in Philadelphia with vast cultural advantages provided by her parents. Before she entered high school, Barbara had learned to draw, write poetry, sculpt, dance and play classical piano. After graduating from Temple University and living in Rome on a Whitney Fellowship, she earned an M.F.A. from Yale. Next, she moved to London to "marry someone" but was quickly disenchanted by the weather and her fiancé.

Like Hemings she went to Paris and fell in love. Since 1961 she has been married to photojournalist Marc Riboud. They own a light-filled flat overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens and a farmhouse in the Loire valley, where she can work in peace. She will have a one-woman show in New York in 1980, her second collection of poetry is also due next year, and she is already 100 pages into her second novel—a love story set in the revolutionary 1960s.

"Sculpting is very healthy," she observes. "You end up with something you have total control over. But writing is dangerous—you're much more exposed."

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