Sally Hemings in Paris

In this excerpt of "The Hemingses of Monticello," author Annette Gordon-Reed examines how Sally Hemings and her brother, the chef James Hemings, enjoyed the cosmopolitan lifestyle of Paris in the 1770s while living with Thomas Jefferson during his stint as Ambassador to France. Teenaged Sally gets her own wages and a taste of freedom that eluded her back home in Virginia.

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Adapted from THE HEMINGSES OF MONTICELLO by Annette Gordon-Reed. Copyright © 2008 by Annette Gordon-Reed. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

The home that Sally Hemings moved to was just inside the city limits of Paris. The Hôtel de Langeac was right next to the Grille de Chaillot, one of the many gated entry points into what was still at the time a walled city. The house, abutting the Champs-Elysées and along the rue Neuve de Berri, was more expensive than Jefferson could afford. He thought, however, that his position demanded a suitable residence for all the entertaining that he expected to do.

This residence was truly worthy of a French aristocrat. The expansive grounds entered by a way of an impressive courtyard, contained "green houses," an extensive kitchen garden, and another "graceful" one that Jefferson pronounced "clever."  Just off the entryway into the courtyard were the porter's lodge and servants' quarters.

Living at such a place gave both Sally and her brother James Hemingses ample opportunity to compare their surroundings in Paris with those they had seen in Virginia, and they could only have found Virginian residences wanting. The amenity of having indoor bathrooms was remarkable for both them and the Jeffersons.. The very complexity of the house, with its multiple stairways (one large formal one and two smaller private ones) and its numerous passageways leading into different areas of the mansion, no doubt piqued their interest as well.

It is not known whether James and Sally Hemings lived in the adjacent servants' quarters or whether the mezzanine floor, the entresol in architectural terms, contained rooms for servants as well. Those half-story sections within great houses, with their lower ceilings, were often designated for the use of servants or as bedrooms for people other than the master or mistress of the house. Sally Hemings's closeness to Patsy and Polly Jefferson may not have made much of a difference for most of the time they were in Paris. Until their father took them out of school, they came home only on the weekend.

By the time Sally Hemings arrived, her brother was well used to the splendors of the Hôtel de Langeac. What was new about his time there was his elevation at the end of 1787 to chef de cuisine, which drastically changed the level of his responsibilities and probably of his stress. No longer an apprentice, he was in charge of the kitchen and his assistants. His position made him responsible for every success and failure regarding a critical component in that diplomatic household. Jefferson entertained on a large scale, as he did throughout his life. Hemings's talents were on constant display at meals that could be for a few people or for up to thirty, as at one dinner celebrating the Fourth of July. The hectic pace and pressure for perfection drove many chefs to drink, and as the years went by, Hemings himself would fall prey to that professional hazard. He had to please not only Jefferson's exacting palate but that of the people whom Jefferson wanted to impress.

While James Hemings was busy plying his trade, his younger sister had little to do but absorb the routine of the household. This meant getting used to the other servants, who spoke another language and had their own cultural manners. Having no apparent role in the operations of the residence for long stretches of time, she was essentially cast as an observer, watching what other people did to make things run smoothly at the place. From her perspective that may not have been at all a bad thing, rather a source of immense joy as her nonessential status left her free to experience her new surroundings in more of her own way.

While the Hôtel de Langeac was certainly the center of James and Sally Hemings's universes in Paris, neither sibling's life was bound solely by the interior of the place. They were not galley slaves chained to a bench within the hold of a ship. Nor will it do to think of them as being in the same circumstances as slaves, in the field or house, embedded in the isolated and deeply rural environment of their home at Monticello. Indeed, during their time in Paris, they were able to move through an expansive world as if they were free persons of color. Brother and sister were now city dwellers, in the largest city in Europe, home to over 700,000 people.Though they did not live in the heart of the city, they were part of it and were touched by attributes of the metropolis that radiated out from its center. A much reproduced engraving depicting the Hôtel de Langeac, and the scene just outside of it, a mere eight years before the Hemingses lived there, tells part of the story of what their new status as urbanites meant.