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Dolley to have her day
PBS' Dolley Madison film, shot partly at Orange's Montpelier, sheds light on pivotal figure

 Many of the scenes for PBS' 'Dolley Madison, America's First Lady' were shot at the Madisons' home, Montpelier, in Orange County.
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Date published: 2/28/2010

By Rob Hedelt

THE director-producer of "Dolley Madison, America's First Lady," premiering tomorrow night at 9 on PBS, is thrilled that the portrait sheds light on one of the most underappreciated women in our country's history.

Muffie Meyer helped craft the mix of historians' commentary and acted segments for the "American Experience" entry, much of it filmed at James and Dolley Madison's home of Montpelier in Orange County.

"She's a person all Americans have heard of," Meyer said of Dolley, portrayed by Tony Award nominee Eve Best. "But ask even the most well-educated about her and many won't get past saying, incorrectly, that she invented ice cream."

The Chicago-born Meyer, whose career-launching classes at NYU's film school were intended to be just a break from graduate studies in history, knew little about Dolley before the film.

"She was the first to establish the idea of the president's wife as a public position"--a role one of the film's historians says straddled the line between queen and commoner--"and the first to establish a charitable cause," said Meyer.

The film also focuses on Dolley's opening of the White House to the people of Washington, holding weekly parties so tightly packed they were called "squeezes."

"It was a delicate thing, this question of how the leader of this new republic would display power and legitimacy without the jewels and royalist trappings of the kingdoms and empires in the rest of the world," said Meyer. "And Dolley was a key in figuring all that out."

Meyer said the team creating the film, led by executive producer Catherine Allan, began by reading up on Dolley and identifying the top historians knowledgeable about her and the period, including Cokie Roberts, Catherine Allgor and Richard Norton Smith.

Of critical importance to the team was using letters or other historical sources for all the words spoken by actors who play Dolley and James Madison, slave Paul Jennings and others.

Meyer said the film emphasizes how Dolley used parties, her own charm and social connections to advance her husband's agenda.

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