05/15/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT
IT STARTED IN PARIS IN 1787. HE was America's minister to France, principal author of the Declaration of Independence and a future President of the United States. She was a slave entrusted with the care of his young daughters. She was, in the words of a fellow slave, "very handsome with long straight hair." Despite the chasm dividing them, Thomas Jefferson, the widowed 44-year-old Renaissance man, and Sally Hemings, the spirited 14-year-old maid, fell deeply in love.
At least such is the premise of Jefferson in Paris, the new Ismail Merchant-James Ivory movie. But is this tale of true love true? Did Jefferson—the Father of Liberty but an avowed foe of miscegenation—have, as the movie also asserts, a long relationship with Hemings that produced several children? Most historians say there was no liaison. Others, including 1,400 people claiming to be direct descendants of the relationship, say there was. The truth will probably never be known. "I believe it is possible," says director Ivory. "But who can be sure?"
Robert Cooley III is among the believers. The Midlothian, Va., lawyer traces his ancestry to Thomas Woodson, a freed slave born around 1800 who was purportedly the lovers' oldest surviving son. (After Jefferson died in 1826, Hemings moved into Charlottesville, Va., where she died nine years later.) Cooley, 55, says the knowledge traditionally has been passed down orally in several branches of his family from generation to generation. "There's a consistent history among people who did not know one another," he says. "That establishes credibility."
Historians are more skeptical about the romance, which was first reported in 1802 in a newspaper article written by James Callender, a disgruntled former writer for Jefferson. Though denied by Jefferson, the story persisted through the decades and was given fresh currency in the 1974 psychohistory Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, by Fawn Brodie. "Nobody in the historical community accepts it," says Willard Sterne Randall, author of the 1993 biography Thomas Jefferson: A Life. He believes that Hemings's lover was really Peter Carr, Jefferson's nephew—and notes that in more than 2,000 letters to his close friend and neighbor James Madison, Jefferson never alluded to Hemings. "He was a real Type A," says Randall. "If something was bothering him, he would spill his guts."