No one would describe Alexis Coe’s unconventional biography of conventional biographical subject George Washington as boring. Starting with its cover illustration, a playful Washington grinning at the reader, You Never Forget Your First is a wink of sorts, at Washington biography and at the ways that Americans have very consistently misremembered the first president. Coe sets herself apart from the historians she refers to as the “Thigh Men” of history: biographers like Joseph Ellis, Harlow Giles Unger, and Ron Chernow, esteemed writers in their own rights but ones who seemingly focus on Washington as a marble Adonis (with impressive thighs—we’ll get to that), rather than as a flawed, but still impressive, human being.
Coe mixes up genre and presentation, beginning with a preface composed of listicles, with the first a set of basic things to know about Washington (“jobs held”). And the book is compact. While “weighty tome” is the typical format for founder’s biographies, this one comes in at just 304 lively pages. (Chernow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Washington was an astounding 904 pages.) But Coe’s offering is still a full biography, covering birth to death and the highlights of his life and career between. And, because it’s a biography, George Washington remains at the center. For Smithsonian magazine, I sat down to talk at length about Washington, Washington biographies, and where You Never Forget Your First resides in the founder’s canon. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You describe that when you told people you were writing a biography of George Washington, they would assume you’re writing about his social life and you would respond, “No, it’s a biography, like a man would write.” And I’ve seen elsewhere you’ve referred to this as a feminist biography. Is it? Or is this what it looks like when a feminist writes biography?
That happened all the time; in the doctor’s office, at Mount Vernon when I went to research. And I actually borrowed that phrase, I realized later, from my first book [about a murder case involving young, female lovers]. When newspapers would try to describe same-sex love and they were at a loss for a word to identify it because lesbian was still 40 years into the future, they would simply say, “You know, like a man would do.”