By David Bruce Smith
The Grateful American™ Foundation
When the sun would set along the Potomac River, Martha and George Washington could invariably be found sipping cocktails on the veranda of their Virginia home. As they enjoyed a cool gin and tonic, they’d talk about the day’s events and watch the children who lived with them play on the grass.
So it was an honor for me and my co-host, Hope Katz Gibbs, to sit recently on that very porch with Curt Viebranz, president and CEO of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and learn more about the Washingtons.
Viebranz was appointed to his post at Mount Vernon by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in September 2012. An experienced media executive and entrepreneur with a passion for American history and a longstanding commitment to community service, Viebranz has more than 20 years of experience at major multinational Internet and cable enterprises. Prior to his appointment at Mount Vernon, he was a co-founder and chairman of Korrelate, Inc., which provides insights and analytics on web advertising.
His earlier experience includes serving as president of HBO International, the global arm of Time Warner’s Home Box Office unit, and he was the first president of Time Inc. Multimedia. He was also president of Time Inc. Europe and HBO Video. Following his career at Time Warner, Viebranz helped launch and grow several media-related start-ups, and after he joined AOL in 2007 he oversaw advertising sales and strategy for all of AOL’s owned and operated sites.
Scroll down for our Q&A with Viebranz, who shared a lot of interesting facts about our nation’s first presidential couple. Here’s to restoring enthusiasm in American history for kids, and their parents, too.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Curt, it’s a pleasure to be sitting here on this back porch, just as the sun is setting. You can almost imagine that George and Martha Washington are here as well. Tell us about the magnificent plantation that Mount Vernon is — and how a handful of women actually ensured that millions of visitors annually would be able to visit and enjoy the estate.
Curt Viebranz: When the home was built originally in the early 1730s, it was called Little Huntington Creek. Washington’s half brother, Lawrence, renamed the estate Mount Vernon, in recognition of the incredible view here by the promontory, and also in tribute to Admiral Vernon, whom he served under in the US Navy.
Lawrence died in his early 30s of tuberculosis, and because none of his and his wife’s four children survived childhood, when his widow died, George Washington ultimately inherited the house from her. It was Washington who built the home we see here now.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Was Washington’s remodeling style similar to what Jefferson did at Monticello — continually taking things down and building them back up?
Curt Viebranz: No, not as much as Jefferson did. At Mount Vernon, Washington focused more on building additions to what had been a very modest home.
Hope Katz Gibbs: What would it have been like out here in the evening?
Curt Viebranz: In truth, he was away from the estate for 16 years as the head of the US Army and then as the country’s first president. And when he was here, he was a very active plantation owner, so he was outside here working all the time.
David Bruce Smith: Knowing what you know about George Washington, is he knowable?
Curt Viebranz: Joe Ellis, author of “His Excellency: George Washington,” the 2005 best-selling biography of Washington, would say that he is like a man on the moon — much beloved, but not well understood. But I think that if you really start to dig deep enough, you can begin to understand him more as a human being, and you will become even more impressed by the decisions he made, especially his willingness to give up power for the good of others and the national good.
David Bruce Smith: Okay, I want to take a little poetic license here. If George Washington was either your brother or your best friend, how would you describe him?
Curt Viebranz: I would say dashing — nearly 6’ 3”, and probably a head taller than most people of his time. He was also a great dancer; there is a side to him that enjoyed a good time.
David Bruce Smith: Let’s not leave Martha out. Can you rate her tenure as first lady?
Curt Viebranz: By the time you reach 1789, when George Washington began his first term as the country’s first president, Martha Washington clearly is interested in returning to Mount Vernon. I think she is weary of the public life, and sees perhaps that it has taken a toll on Washington, so she goes to Philadelphia reluctantly but realizing she needs to do that for the good of the country.
David Bruce Smith: Do we know much about Martha and George as a couple?
Curt Viebranz: That’s a great question. They spent long periods of time away from each other, and unfortunately, as you know, Martha chose to burn most of their letters. We do have a letter from George Washington to Martha during the Revolutionary Way that says, “I retain an unalterable affection for you that no time can diminish.” So it is clear that they love each other a great deal.
I think she was his anchor. She understood that many times there were sacrifices that had to be made for the greater good even though she probably did not want Washington to take over as the president of the United States and pick up and go to Philadelphia. There were lots of protocols and conventions that had come down from Europe that she had to accept, for example, not being able to dine in private homes with friends.
She accepted these restrictions for him. She was incredibly devoted, including following him to many of the camps he was stationed at during the Revolutionary War. She was much beloved for her efforts to help out the colonist-soldiers, who considered her a woman of the people.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Thank you so much for being with us. Click here to learn more about George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
About the Grateful American™ Series
The Grateful American™ Series is an interactive, multimedia educational project created by the Grateful American™ Foundation. The brainchild of DC-based author and publisher David Bruce Smith, it is designed to restore enthusiasm in American history for kids and adults.
Its website, which launched on July 4, 2014, is updated each month with articles, radio podcasts, and TV episodes featuring interviews with the directors of popular presidential and historic homes, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon, James Madison’s Montpelier, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
Learn more about the Grateful American™ Foundation at www.gratefulamericanfoundation.com.
Disclaimer: The photos of the historic figures pictured in the videos have been provided courtesy of the presidential and historic homes and museums depicted, as well from the authors and historians, and / or are under Creative Commons usage. The Grateful American™ Series understands that these images are in the public domain and have no known copyright restrictions.