Click to enlarge
On February 21, 1793, just one day before his own birthday, President George Washington sent a birthday greeting to his dear friend, Mrs. Elizabeth Willing Powel. Enclosed in the envelope was a poem he'd commissioned from local Philadelphia poet, and mutual friend, the extraordinary Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson.
In Philadelphia, 222 years later, one can visit the Powel House, and standing in the second floor ballroom it is easy to forget the passage of centuries and imagine Eliza Powel, in the midst of arranging the details for the birthday ball later that evening, reading the contents of this letter, a tribute from two old friends.
She must have smiled at Washington's personal introduction to the poem, as I do today, appreciating his humor and intellect:
"The enclosed thoughts are well conceived. The sentiments are just; and altho’ the envy expressed in some of them is to be regretted, yet it is hoped that Mira, at the age of four score, will stand as much in the way of Cloe as she does at present; and will appear the Same in the eyes of all who may then see her, as she did on her anniversary of fifty."
The poem and note from Washington are only two of the many clues we have about the Washington/Powel friendship, and I'm thrilled to be starting a journey with American Historical Theatre that I hope to continue for a long time to come, of interpreting the complex and enigmatic Elizabeth Powel.
Lines, by a Friend, addressed to Mrs Elizabeth Powel on her Birth Day of Fifty Years February 21. 179<3>
Since Fifty Suns have annual run
From Mira’s Date on Earth
And half a Century is spun
Since Fate proclaimed her Birth
A joyous Evening shall be spent
And old & young agree
To mark the Hour which Time has lent
To hail the Jubilee.
The old are pleased, because her Days
Approach near to their own
Tho’ yet no Traces of Decays
On Mira’s Face are shown
The Young rejoice because they hope
Like her to please & shine
When they have ranged thro’ Pleasure’s Scope
And verge on Life’s Decline
Ungenerous, some derive a Joy
To think that Winter soon
Will all her vernal Charms destroy
And turn to Eve her Noon.
The chattering Flirts from fifteen Years
To Twenty Five collect
And, tho’ they whisper, yet one hears
What they, in vain, expect
Miss Chloe begs with selfish Sneer
‘Since Mira owns her Age
That She’ll less frequently appear
Midst Youth upon the Stage
‘Indeed I think she should retire
Contented with the past
Fifty should other Thoughts inspire
Would She, forever last
‘For We may frizz and powder too
And Garlands gay arrange
For Praise & Conquest vainly sue
Our Shapes like Proteus change
‘But Mira comes & we’re forsook
And left to mope alone
No more can We such Usage brook
Unnoticed where she’s known
‘Her facinating Tongue does more
Than Youth & vernal Bloom
I fear She’ll charm at dread Fourscore
Descending to the Tomb
‘The famous Ninon, we are told
At Ninety boasted Powers
And none, who heard her, thought her old
Tho’ Time all Things devours.’
Miranda sagely thus replied
To Chloe’s selfish Thought
‘My Dear it cannot be denied
That Miracles are wrought.
‘By Eloquence and Wit combined
Yet both of these will fade
The Laurel’s droop with which they’re twined
And blast in Deaths cold Shade
‘If Virtue and an Heart sincere
Should not with these conspire
They but provoke a biting Sneer
Not true Esteem inspire
‘These Ninon wanted; Mira, here,
Transcends her far above
’Gainst her e’en Slander ne’er could dare
Her venom’d Tongue to move
‘Then ye who hope in Autumn’s Eve
Like Mira long to reign
Like Ninon aim not to deceive
Or Virtue’s Garb obtain.
‘Like Mira, Virtue’s Self possess.
‘Let her adorn your Mind
For Virtue in a pleasing Dress
Has Charms for all Mankind.’
Her spotless Mantle shall be shown
When its blest Owner flies
The flaming Chariot make it known
When soaring to the Skies.
The Powel House is located at 244 South 3rd Street and is open to the public.