WWJD? Leslie Greene Bowman's 21st-century Monticello


Leslie Greene Bowman

In Charlottesville, a popular variation of WWJD is "what would Jefferson do?" For Leslie Greene Bowman, a variation weighs as she goes about her new job: What would Jordan do?

That would be Dan Jordan, for 25 years the head of Monticello, whom Bowman succeeded a little over a year ago as president and chief executive of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Even while getting recruited for arguably the best job to which an American historian could aspire, she admits, "My first reaction was, no one can follow Dan Jordan."

Bowman lists some of Jordan accomplishments: archeology, library, acquisition of Montalto (Brown's Mountain), and the new Visitor Center, the latter of which opened just eight days after Jordan retired.

"What a magnanimous man," she says. "I stand on Dan's shoulders."

Bowman was director of another historic home, the Dupont estate called Winterthur. There, too, was a historic home, gardens, and a nifty catalog. But the differences are major.

Monticello's staff is not as large, but is more productive, says Bowman. Winterthur gets about 150,000 visitors a year; Monticello has around 450,000.

"Monticello is smaller, but much more prominent on the world stage," says Bowman. "It's in a class by itself."

As a history major at Miami University in her home state of Ohio, Bowman also loved art history, so she got degrees in both. Her master's degree in early American culture came from her first stint at Winterthur in its museum program. In between returning as its director, Bowman worked at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and served as curator of the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

She'd already met Jordan while serving on the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and she's been associated with another important house: the Committee for the Preservation of the White House. 

If Jordan left the infrastructure for a successful 21st-century historic landmark, it's up to Bowman to take it to the next level– at a time when Monticello, like everything else, feels the pinch of lower revenue and the tanking of economic markets which chopped the foundation's endowment 15 percent in 2008.

While her board supported the new hire even as revenues dropped, Bowman created a bit of a controversy beyond freezing positions and firing three staffers.

Last October, she okayed random drug testing of Monticello employees, a move widely seen as tone deaf to the whole spirit and community of the birthplace of independence.

"I thought the staff understood the whys and reasons for that," says Bowman. "Obviously, we didn't do that well, and sometimes you get a black eye."

Despite the misstep, which she says was to ensure safety, Bowman bubbles with ideas to keep the national landmark viable. She talks up "friend-raising" as well fundraising, and plans on more community involvement, such as the Montalto 5K race, renting out rooms in the Visitor Center to local groups like garden clubs, and augmenting the hired help.

"We've opened the doors to volunteers," says Bowman, who counts 60 so far. "It's a great way to build rapport with the community."

This year, UVA graduates can celebrate with dinner on "the other Lawn." She envisions partnering with the Smithsonian for an exhibit, and hopes to see the NBC's Today Show broadcasting from Monticello on the Fourth of July.

By June, an upstairs/downstairs tour– official name "Behind the Scenes"– begins.

"The crossroads were under the house, where everyone would have intersected," explains Bowman. "You start in the cellar and go up" to the now-closed second and third floors. 

Bowman has no trouble predicting how Monticello will be different in 20 years: Mulberry Row will be back.

"Today you see this iconic, beautiful house that's so peaceful," she says. "That's not what it was. It was bustling in the cabins, workshops, a nailery... There was a lot going on." 

Bowman's honeymoon at Monticello may be over, but the awe at living on Jefferson's mountaintop has not diminished. 

"I think the breadth of his genius is always a surprise," she says, adding violinist and art collector to the more familiar monikers, such as architect, author of the Declaration of Independence, and founder of the University of Virginia. "He was sort of an American Leonardo," says Bowman, who reveals one little-known aspect of Jeffersonian genius: cat doors five to six inches in diameter cut into the attic so the felines could get to the mice.

Coming soon to the tour of Monticello? 

Age: 53

Why here? Thomas Jefferson

What's worst about living here? The New York Times will not deliver to the mountain (where we live). 

Favorite hangout? With my horses.

Most overrated virtue? Virtues cannot be overrated.

People would be surprised to know: I make a great apple pie.

What would you change about yourself? Grow six inches taller so I can be seen behind the podium without a riser!

Proudest accomplishment? Becoming a steward of Monticello.

People find most annoying about you: One of my staff members calls me an "idea factory."

Whom do you admire? Thomas Jefferson

Favorite book? The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Subject that causes you to rant? The loss of farmland and open space.

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Moving to Monticello and living on the mountain.

Biggest 21st-century creep out? Global warming

What do you drive? I walk to work, but off the mountain, a Jaguar, a Jeep, or a 3-ton horse van with a 5-speed split shift. 

In your car CD player right now: Russell Watson

Next journey? Historic St. Mary's City, Maryland's 17th-century capital– a wonderful historic site on the Chesapeake Bay.

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Scheduling a Board of Trustees dinner on Valentines Day!

Regret: Not living abroad.

Favorite comfort food: Chocolate

Always in your refrigerator: Real cream for my tea, and a good Virginia chardonnay

Must-see TV: I hardly ever watch television.

Describe a perfect day. At daybreak on Jefferson's trails with my daughter and our horses; then to the office for a brainstorming session with great, creative minds; followed by leading a tour to share Jefferson's genius with a friend, old or new; and concluding with a stroll through Monticello's garden at dusk with my husband. I have many perfect days. 

Walter Mitty fantasy: To meet Thomas Jefferson.

Who'd play you in the movie? Jody Foster

Most embarrassing moment? Fnding myself the only woman in a mosque in Turkey during a prayer service; the very sight of me required that they all go outside and re-cleanse themselves.

Best advice you ever got? From the Greeks: Gnothi seauton– know thyself.

Favorite bumper sticker? Well-behaved women rarely make history.



"Biggest 21st-century creep out? Global warming

What do you drive? I walk to work, but off the mountain, a Jaguar, a Jeep, or a 3-ton horse van with a 5-speed split shift."

Ha! What a juxtaposition!

What would Jefferson do? He would own slaves, have them build Monticello brick by brick, garden the fields, clean his chamber pot, and write a little ditty about human equality, and then upon his death, he would leave the farm so in debt his daughter had to sell the farm and the slaves, all except those he freed, those he was related to. Thats what Jefferson would do

All human beings are flawed. Some manage to do great things anyway. Could you, Joe Cecil, do in your entire lifetime what Jefferson did in one year??? One week??? Writing and signing that "little ditty about human equality" meant certain death if the colonials had lost the war - which at the time seemed much more likely than that they would manage to defeat the most powerful empire on earth at the time. Would you have had the cojones to sign, much less write, the thing? It's pretty easy to sit here surrounded by our 21st century comforts and criticize an 18th century man who was born & raised in a time when owning slaves, evil as we now know it to be, was a common and accepted practice.

So Thomas Jefferson utilized the current system...

We all know cars pollute... very few of us are willing to give them up and live in poverty when when that is the choice.....

The guy was extraordinary by all accounts and there is no simon legree accusations in his past...

The relationship with sally was by most accounts mutual (although I know some woman want to argue it could not have been) and if the guy fell in love withg a black woman than that only proves further that he was ahead of his time...

its amazing to me how easy it is to justify slavery, especially in Charlottesville Virginia, my family were slaves, your family must have owned them

Joe, I don't think you understand what the word "justify" means.

," my family were slaves, your family must have owned them"

and my family was robbed by a black guy so it must have been one of your relatives....

Blacks are as cupable as whites in the slave trade... the BLACKS that sold them KNEW what they were doing. Blacks owned slaves too.

Get over it... there is ablack president, a black on the supreme court, a zillion blacks on the basketball courts and quite a few driving around in BMWs....

so all in all you are still better off than ducking bullets in the congo...