Freedom Writer

Eliza Hamilton, wife of the famed Founding Father, gets her due in historian Tilar Mazzeo’s new biography.

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By Kat Richter
Portrait courtesy of Simon & Schuster

In 2016, the Broadway musical “Hamilton” racked up a record-breaking 16 Tony Award nominations and skyrocketed its controversial namesake, Alexander Hamilton, to posthumous superstardom. Now, a new biography by cultural historian Tilar Mazzeo tells the story of his other half in Eliza Hamilton: The Extraordinary Life and Times of the Wife of Alexander Hamilton. Mazzeo, who was born in Port Charlotte, Florida, returns to the Sunshine State on November 16 to speak at the Eliza Hamilton Luncheon, a Broward Public Library Foundation fundraising event held at the Mary N. Porter Riverview Ballroom in anticipation of the musical’s December-January run at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.

“Women don’t get credit for helping to make the American democracy possible,” the 47-year-old Mazzeo says. “They didn’t fight—that wasn’t the role given to them—but as wives and mothers, women like Eliza Hamilton and Dolley Madison made the political conditions we all benefit from possible.”

Among her numerous accomplishments, Eliza helped establish an orphanage in New York City; today, the institution still provides services to at-risk youth and their families. It was this fact that piqued Mazzeo’s curiosity. “I had just finished writing Irena’s Children, the true story of a Polish social worker who saved 2,500 children from the Warsaw ghetto during World War II,” Mazzeo says. “I was interested in the history of social work and our responsibility to the children of others.”

Embodying this responsibility, Eliza raised several children in addition to her own. But just who was the wife of the notorious statesman: the beneficiary of her family’s slaveholding fortune or a revolutionary-minded founding mother in her own right? Was she a victim to her husband’s ambition or a knowing accomplice in an alleged extramarital affair that scandalized America in the 18th century?

According to Mazzeo, Eliza was quite possibly all of the above and more. As a child, she attended meetings of the Iroquois Confederacy with her father. During the Revolutionary War, she assisted him in his work as a spy while her mother rode 30 miles into battle to burn the family’s wheat fields in an attempt to starve the British.

“Eliza wasn’t a patsy,” Mazzeo says. Eliza burned the letters she wrote to her husband, perhaps in reaction to news of his affair with Maria Reynolds going public. However, Mazzeo offers evidence to suggest that the entire ordeal might have been a cover-up for poor financial dealings on the part of Eliza’s relatives. “Reynolds was represented as a streetwalker but she was, in fact, Eliza’s third cousin. It’s possible Eliza was taking one for the team,” says Mazzeo, drawing upon the work of the late historian Julian Boyd.

Ron Chernow’s authoritative Hamilton biography enjoyed a huge bump in sales thanks to the musical, and Mazzeo knows she’s also lucky—or “stupidly lucky,” she says—to be publishing a new book about one of the most captivating figures depicted on Broadway. During the research process, the author, who now lives in Canada and recently opened a winery with her husband, managed to gain access to a private collection of family papers just before they were auctioned off at Sotheby’s.

So how does the real-life “best of wives and best of women” (Alexander’s words) stack up against the Broadway version? “You don’t go to an anachronistic hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton expecting historical accuracy,” Mazzeo says, but she still dubs the show, written by Puerto Rican wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda, “tons of fun.” She especially loves the characterization of Eliza’s sisters: the formidable and proto-feminist Angelica and the almost-forgotten, parenthetical Peggy, whose introduction to the audience in Act I reads as a humorous afterthought.

“Poor Peggy,” Mazzeo says of the latter sister, whose efforts to bag a husband were thwarted by her rather unfortunate reputation of being a flirt. “She was looking down the barrel of being an old maid when one of the richest guys in American history developed a crush on her.” There was only one problem: She was in her mid-20s and he was 19. “It caused a huge scandal, and they had to elope,” Mazzeo says, “but, in proper ‘Hamilton’ parlance, she was ‘not throwing away her shot!’”

“Hamilton” will run from December 18 through January 20 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. The role of Eliza, originated by Juilliard graduate Phillipa Soo, will be played by Shoba Narayan. Trained in Bharatanatyam, a classical Indian dance form, Narayan reflects the diversity of casting in “Hamilton” that has become one of the show’s most notable trademarks.

As for tickets to the musical? In the words of Aaron Burr’s Act I showstopper, fans will have to “Wait For It.”

This article was originally published in the Fall 2018 Issue.

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