When Mary Philipse Was On Broadway

David C. Lucas, PMH Staff
Published on
February 15, 2024
February 15, 2024
Close-up of 1750s portrait of Mary Philipse Morris with the book "Valley Forge" open to the title page held up in the foreground.
Frontispiece of Valley Forge: A Play in Three Acts, with portrait of Mary Philipse Morris (1730-1825) by H.R. Butler, after an original by John Wollaston. Collection of Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site. Photo by David C. Lucas.

While researching the Philipse family in the Library of Congress collections, I ran into a curious watercolor sketch of Mary Philipse in a brown cloak over a pink dress and black slippers. It turns out that Mary Philipse Morris was a character in a 1930s Broadway production called Valley Forge: A Play in Three Acts. My interest was piqued, and I ordered a careworn copy of the script from a nearby library. It was written by Maxwell Anderson.

Black and white photo of a White man with dark hair and wire glasses in a dark suit and bowtie, photo taken from the chest up..
Photo portrait of Maxwell Anderson. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Anderson, a native Pennsylvanian who started his career as a journalist with the New York Globe and New York World, wrote several plays that were adapted into successful films.1 Among his hits were Anne of a Thousand Days (the story of Anne of Boleyn and Henry VIII), Knickerbocker Holiday (loosely based on Washington Irving’s New Amsterdam tales), and The Bad Seed (a very nice story about a very terrible child).

Valley Forge was not one of his hits. Written in 1934 after the success of his other historical plays, Valley Forge imagines a meeting between George Washington and British General William Howe in the winter of 1776-77. One of the main characters is Mary Philipse Morris, who acts as a go-between, relaying messages from Howe to Mary’s former love interest, Washington.

On Broadway, Mary was played by Margalo Gillmore, a British actor who was featured in the films High Society, (along with Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Grace Kelly), and The Trouble with Angels (starring Rosalind Russell and Hailey Mills). Washington was played by another English actor, Philip Merivale.2

Cover of the Valley Forge playbill from 1934 at the Guild Theatre.
Portion of original Broadway Playbill for "Valley Forge," on Broadway at the Guild Theatre from December 10, 1934 to January 26, 1935. Image courtesy Playbill.com. Click the image to view the rest of the playbill.

Valley Forge opened for tryouts in Pittsburgh in November 1934, moving on to Washington DC, and then to Baltimore, before opening on Broadway the following month, at the Guild Theater, (now the August Wilson, named after the famed Black playwright.)3 Critics appreciated its dramatization of important history but felt that it wasn’t Anderson’s best work. Vaunted New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson felt that scenes between Mary Philipse and George Washington ran "perilously close to theatrical solemnity," but were redeemed by the "craggy candor of Mr. Merivale's acting."4 The play closed late in January, not because it was a flop, but because the actors were wanted for a touring company of Anderson’s Mary of Scotland, which was thought to be a better show.5

The 1930s were a time of reignited interest in American history, especially the American Revolution. Valley Forge was picked up by several more theaters, including the Federal Theater in Boston, MA, which received Works Progress Administration (WPA) funds to support the arts. Abbreviated versions of the play also appeared as radio plays throughout the 1930s and ‘40s. Soon Valley Forge would be seen on the newest invention, television, in 1950, and was broadcast again as recently as 1975.

Valley Forge Summary

Spoiler alert: The synopsis below reveals major plot points of Valley Forge. In the event that it is ever mounted on stage again, we are giving away all the surprises.

20th century painting of George Washington and Lafayette on horseback, greeting poorly-clad soldiers on foot, some gathered around a fire, in the snow.
Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge, a lithograph of a painting by John Ward Dunsmore, 1907. Library of Congress

Act I of Valley Forge opens on a bunkhouse and a group of ill-fed, poorly dressed, and virtually shoeless soldiers talking about their woes. It’s January, and a frigid storm blows outside. A bedraggled General George Washington arrives, accompanied by a richly-attired young Marquis de Lafayette. Washington learns from an aide that a shipment of provisions that he’d hoped would feed the hungry soldiers is not, in fact, on the way. The soldiers, already demoralized, are indignant. Washington gives a rousing speech explaining why it is necessary to continue to fight against General William Howe and the British Army.

Comical color illustration of 18th century people going through the figures of a dance.
"A Long Minuet," after Henry William Bunbury, hand-colored etching from 1787. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The next scene takes place in the Philadelphia ballroom of General Howe. Major John Andre, (who will later be involved in Benedict Arnold’s failed plan to hand over West Point to the British), is in attendance. A small string orchestra is playing Mozart to a handful of couples in wigs and fancy dress.

Howe is dancing with a woman in a domino (mask). “Like pleated silk, this music. It interweaves,” he says.

“It is silken music,” she replies. “Silken sad music.”

Howe goes on to say, “These artists, they know so well how to interweave love and death.”

“In tapestries -- lutes, lovers, battles,” she adds.

Woman playing a lute on the ceiling of Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site's papier mâché ceiling. Photo by David C. Lucas.

Howe is flirtatious. “There’s nothing to break the heart like these same minuets we used to dance to. You should have loved a soldier, masked lady.”

“I married a soldier,” she demurs, but will not give her husband’s name. Howe, a known philanderer, proffers a kiss.

The woman protests and says “I smiled and led you on, and I'm not angry — but in truth I'm sad this evening for love of someone else.” She admits that she is there to pursue a man who “serves on the other side.”

“Insult on insult!” Howe mutters, but is still intrigued. “Sweet domino, you humble me my pride — but you shall have him, and my price is only that you doff this domino. [She removes her mask]6 And now I'm sorry I said I'd help you to him. The devil take him, some oaf of a musketeer! Would you be a rebel?”

“I've set my heart on it,” she says. “I loved and lost when I was a child. I let my love go then, when I might have had him — and now it may be too late.” Howe professes to be tearful. She appeals, “When I was a child a young man came wooing from Virginia way. And we fell in love, but my parents said, No, no —this is an Indian fighter; you are rich, and may turn out good-looking; let him go, and catch yourself a lord.”

Howe asks if Indian fighter’s name is “Washington?”

“I believe that was the name,” she answers.”

“What a strange mad thing is a woman's heart!” Howe exclaims. ”To remember all this while and brood on it, and remember. You'd go to him and give up all that's civilized to live on corn bread in log cabins?... But then I've heard— the man is married, is he not?”

Mary replies, “A widow. When I refused him he married a widow with land and a nest of children. Nasty ones, I hope, with wipey noses.”

Howe refuses her request for passage behind enemy lines, but she says she’ll go anyway. “There comes a time when a woman's desperate to have her youth. It's come to me, and I'll have it though all the generals in hell should stand eyes front and bar my passage. Oh, believe me, I can make my way.”

Howe concludes,” I shall find a way to prevent it. [The orchestra begins to play Yankee Doodle] Come; the masquerade is about to begin, and we're to be amused.”7

The masquerade, a play-within-a-play, involves a comical depiction of George Washington and an inept trio of Rebel soldiers. It is interrupted by Spad, one of the real soldiers from the first scene, who stumbles on the stage and punches the fake Washington in the jaw. Spad presents Howe with a letter from Washington, and returns Howe’s dog, which has followed him to Valley Forge and back. Despite his hunger, the soldier indignantly refuses an offer of a meal, and departs.

Mary’s husband, a British major, has been jailed, and she wants safe passage to go see her former love.8 Howe has intercepted information that their enemies — the French — are likely to join the war on the side of the Rebels. He would like Mary to carry a false message to Washington that the French have rejected the offer of an alliance, giving the British a tactical advantage.

“You say that he loved you once and you wish to see him,” Howe says, “well, that can be dished up into some raggle-taggle gypsy tale, all honey and moonlight…” Mary would be escorted through enemy lines to Valley Forge and, convince Washington that he should meet with Howe and end the war. Howe concludes, “Our compact’s drawn, and a kiss shall seal it. Shall we dance, my lady?”

Back at Washington’s headquarters, Washington and his aides discuss whether to continue fighting. There are only a few days of rations left. Lafayette who, though only twenty, can see things from a global perspective, and proffers advice. If the French are to help the American cause, it would be to Washington personally. When alone, Washington and Lafayette reminisce about the women in their lives. Washington muses, “There was a girl one time – when I was twenty-three – I might have loved so, and might have loved me so. It’s long ago. It came out otherwise. A man begins to lose his teeth and fear his eyes go bad at forty-five – and wishes -- well, it’s trash.”

Photograph of a stoic-looking Philip Merrivale as George Washington and a worried looking Margalo Gillmore as Mary Philipse in disguise as a soldier.
Photograph of Philip Merivale as George Washington and Margalo Gillmore in her officer's disguise. Frontispiece from The best plays of 1934-35 : and the yearbook of the drama in America by Burns Mantle (1935).

Suddenly, an aide enters, muttering “Damn these females!” In an exchange of prisoners, a woman disguised as a British major has arrived with a message from Howe. She “looks the lady. There’s been money spent on her breeding.”

Mary, in a scarlet uniform, addresses Washington, offering Howe’s thanks for the return of his dog. “You see before you, sir, one you’ve long forgotten, but who’s not forgotten you.”

“Yes, I remember,” Washington tells Mary. “They say if one waits long enough all things come round circle.”

As for the costume, Mary calls it “A women’s stratagem. Is a woman never to follow her heart, and run after him she loves though she runback twenty years? You read no novels… I can see it. This is love’s disguise. It passes me handily in the exchange of prisoners.” She adds that “a little pocket money” allowed her captors to have a bit of astigmatism that prevented them from noticing a woman in a man’s uniform.

Washington confides, “…you meant more than a heartbreak to me in my twenties, still what treasure may lie there lies too deep for dredging, nor have I the heart nor hours nor patience for nice romancing.”

Mary has expected the rebuff, but brought her overnight bags anyway. There are no rooms at the local inns so Washington gives her Alexander Hamilton’s room. Before she retires for the night, she tells him of Howe’s wish to propose general amnesty, with no surrender on either part – “the Congress to receive all it’s petitioned for, nothing reserved, save the king’s sovereignty.”

Washington replies that they intend to fight until complete independence is achieved.

Mary says the French are not coming to his aid, then steers the conversation back to romance: “When we’re older the body fires less easily. It waits permission of the mind and memory, and these come seldom. Young love we’ve never had burns underneath and gnaws the upper ground ready to flame at a breath. For you and me we must love one another now, or grow old coldly and make an end to love.”

Washington replies, “It may be so.”

Act Two begins at the bunkhouse, where the bedraggled soldiers have slept huddled together for warmth. Two have bet a “Geordie”9 on whether Mary slept alone for the night. One comments, “If anybody slept alone last night he froze to death.” The conversation turns to food, and suddenly, Spad returns from his visit to Howe, with stolen corn. He has killed a British guard and tied up two, to access  maize stored as horse-feed. Learning from a Lieutenant that there is no breakfast for them, but that they are expected to gear up for battle, the soldiers mutiny, tying him up. One of them produces Mary’s crimson trousers, dons them, and steals the Lieutenant’s boots.

Back at Washington’s headquarters, a pair of senators have arrived from Philadelphia to assess the situation. The General brings up the lack of food, which the senators don’t seem to understand until they are brought the camp’s bean stew for lunch, roiling with weevils. They’ve come to propose a capitulation to the British, to restore trade. Government support has been held back, anticipating an American surrender. Washington refuses their admonitions to cease battle and throws the senators out the door, then instructs his aide to prepare whatever troops are ready for battle.

Color costume sketch of Mary Philipse's costume - a pink dress and black buckle shoes covered by a brown hooded cloak
Costume design for Mary Philipse and the image that inspired this whole article. This costume sketch depicts Mary in a brown cloak, with her pink dress and silver-buckled pumps peeking out. On the back, the artwork is stamped with the name “Federal Theater Project / 711 Boylston Street, Boston.” Below is another stamp from the Library of Congress, noting that the Federal Theatre Project files had been maintained at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. The Theater Project was one of Franklin Roosevelt’s massive Works Progress Administration initiatives to lift the United States out of the Great Depression. Costume designed by Josephine Fischer. From the Library of Congress. A whole series of costumes designed for "Valley Forge" are in the Library of Congress. See the collection here.

Mary arrives, cloaked and bonneted, and ready for her return trip. She was a fool to come, she says.

“I’m out of place here with my thwarted love and beribboned misery where death walks sentry on your night, too near and real for cavalier fancies. I honor you and the men you lead, let me say this in saying farewell, more than I'd thought possible."

Washington is ready to sign a truce and gives Mary a letter inviting Howe to a meeting in neutral territory. She says, “Even now you’ve a king in yourself, unbeaten, one who has witnessed what men will follow or a woman serve.”

He writes her a passport and sends her away, admittedly “Brokenhearted.” “This nation’s spending its last hearts blood for a package of liberty.” Washington says. “We opened the package today and it was empty.” Mary departs.

In Act 3, the deserters, now wounded, are holed up in a dilapidated hay barn. Battle rages loudly in the distance. Major Andre discovers them, and they send him off at the prongs of a pitchfork. Washington and the other soldiers discover the deserters. Coincidentally, the General has set up negotiations with Howe in this very barn. He recognizes the deserters from Valley Forge but declines to discipline them.

He tells them to hide, but Neil, a soldier too wounded to move, is left where he lies. In come Howe, the British officers, and Mary, wearing an officer’s cloak. She is acting as “interlocutor” and introduces Washington “the tall one who looks sad,” to General Howe. “May I thank a lady,” Washington says, “for bringing us together.” Both generals profess a friendship.

When Howe says the English are prepared to make a truce, Washington replies, “I have come to you directly as a soldier to warn you that there will be no peace, and no peace can be made without me.” Neil rouses long enough to gasp, “If I die you will share my legacy, and all men will live free in a free land, all men and there will be no more kings.” Mary goes to comfort him, and he expires, holding her hand.

Howe departs, moved. Mary confesses to Washington, Lafayette and the others that the alliance with the French has indeed been made: “Signed, sealed and made fast by Franklin.” Washington gathers the men from outside and expresses his aim to surrender anyway, but they vow to join him in battle.

Howe is brought back in. Washington and his “hunters and backwoodsmen” will fight to defy the King of England’s army. “If we could hold on till spring eve now the French would be on our side and we’d beat you,” he tells Howe.

Betrayed by Mary, Howe sniffs, “…trust a woman and tell the world,” He departs.

Washington thanks Mary. “I know my own destiny,” she says, “little though I may like it, and it’s not as high as yours. There are some men who lift the age they inhabit – till all men walk on higher ground in that lifetime. God keep you all and bring victory.” She exits. The cache of corn found by the deserters will sustain the army for three days, just enough to get them over the hump. The soldiers salute their lost comrades, and the curtain descends.

Photograph of page 167 of "Valley Forge," featuring sheet music for the song "For My First Love."
One of the soldiers signs a song that comments on the relationship between Mary and George. Photo by David C. Lucas

Valley Forge in Context

Valley Forge is typical of the 1930s in that it takes many liberties with American history. Valley Forge has long loomed large in the American imagination as a turning point in the American Revolution. The basics depicted in the play are true – Washington and the Continental Army were encamped for the winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and they did endure extreme privations. And Howe was in Philadelphia, encamped quite comfortably with the occupying British Army.

But Mary Philipse’s story is a different matter. It is highly unlikely that she was in Philadelphia in the winter of 1776-77, given that she had been driven from her home at Mount Morris that fall and was taking refuge with her sister-in-law Elizabeth Williams Philipse at Philipse Manor Hall.10 Indeed, General George Washington occupied Mount Morris for a short time in the fall of 1776, as he and the Continental forces retreated from New York City.

Though the play mentions that her husband was “in jail,” in fact her husband Roger Morris had left New York for England in 1775, where he remained until 1777, when the Philipse family fled to British-occupied New York City. Her older brother Frederick Philipse III, however, was imprisoned for his Loyalist tendencies in the fall of 1776, and was not released until December of 1776.

And although much has been made in the 19th and 20th centuries of Mary Philipse and George Washington’s romance, it must be said that while there is evidence of Washington’s interest in Mary (mainly, the Joseph Chew letters11),there is no documentary evidence of Mary’s interest in Washington.

Mary Philipse was married to Colonel Roger Morris, a British Army officer who retired from service in the 1760s, and she and her siblings Frederick III and Susannah Philipse Robinson (who married Virginia militiaman Beverly Robinson) were all staunch Loyalists from the outset of the hostilities. It is unlikely that she would have risked her life to try to visit an enemy general. The American Revolution did include many polite and cordial encounters between enemies, but it also included just as many meetings that ended in violence – and not just on the battlefield.

In all, the critical reception of “Valley Forge” largely holds true today – the play is an interesting take on a turning point in the American Revolution, but it gets bogged down by length and slow pacing.

Cover of the playbill for the Federal Theatre of Massachusetts' version of "Valley Forge"
The bare-bones playbill for the Federal Theatre of Massachusetts' version of "Valley Forge." Library of Congress. Click the image t see the whole playbill, including cast list.

Because of this, Mary Philipse Morris was often cut out of subsequent versions of the play. She is missing entirely from some of the radio plays and the 1975 teleplay version, and others abbreviated her role.

However, her poignant last lines lived on, often without attribution. For a July 3, 1944, celebration of the 168thAnniversary of the Declaration of Independence, New Hampshire Senator Charles Tobey quoted this line in his speech, “There are some men who lift the age they inhabit – till all men walk on higher ground in that lifetime.” He attributed the line to Maxwell Anderson, but with no mention of Mary Philipse.12 That same line also appeared in a 1952 speech for UNESCO,13 in a 1952 speech by Alabama Senator Lister Hill on the power of electric company lobbyists,14 and in a 1964 speech to the AFL-CIO by Florida Representative Claude Pepper.15 The play saw a revival during the Bicentennial era, notably with the 1975 teleplay version, but fell into obscurity again in the 1980s.

The rumored relationship between George Washington and Mary Philipse has remained a point of considerable interest, at least in New York. In 2019, Yonkers First Lady and author Mary Calvi speculated on their relationship in her novel, Dear George, Dear Mary: A Novel of George Washington’s First Love.

And despite its relative obscurity, Valley Forge has continued to find its way to audiences. In 2022, The First Flight Theater Company mounted a production at The Hermitage, a historic site in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey. The company is dedicated to presenting the plays of Maxwell Anderson “as well as other playwrights who instill poetry in their writing.”

We spoke recently to First Flight’s Artistic Director, Frank Farrell, who described mounting the play for a 21st Century audience. The actors were assembled with both color- and gender-blind-casting, which made the Valley Forge story accessible to a wider audience.

Actors performing "Valley Forge" outdoors at the Hermitage - a blonde woman and a dark-haired woman portray soldiers, a Black man and a White woman portray officers
2022 First Flight Theater Company production of "Valley Forge" at The Hermitage, Julie Korogodon. Used with permission.
Actors outdoors at the Hermitage perform "Valley Forge" - in this scene Howe and Washington meet.
2022 First Flight Theater Company production of "Valley Forge" at The Hermitage, Julie Korogodon. Used with permission.
Actors performing "Valley Forge" outdoors at the Hermitage - a White man portrays Washington and a bearded man portrays Howe - in the background, a White woman portrays another officer.
2022 First Flight Theater Company production of "Valley Forge" at The Hermitage, Julie Korogodon. Used with permission.
The diverse cast of the First Flight company's performance of "Valley Forge" lines up to receive applause outdoors at the Hermitage.
2022 First Flight Theater Company production of "Valley Forge" at The Hermitage, Julie Korogodon. Used with permission.

The Hermitage was a judicious selection. Built in the mid-1700s, it was purchased by British military officer Marcus Prevost, after the French and Indian War. During the American Revolution, his wife Theodosia Bartow Prevost, a Patriot, lent the house to George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, The Marquis de Lafayette, and Aaron Burr. She began a secret relationship with Burr, marrying him after the death of her husband.16

I’m hoping to see one of First Flight’s productions someday. They mount plays in the New York, New Jersey, and Chicago regions.

Even though it is unlikely the real Mary Philipse ever made her way to Valley Forge, Maxwell Anderson’s play brings a turning point of the American Revolution to life in a way that is still interesting audiences today.

If you’d like to read Valley Forge, it is available in the Westchester Library System. You can also listen to radioplay versions (May 7, 1938 version here; October 9, 1940 version here), and watch the 1975 teleplay here.

Author Bio

David C. Lucas is an interpreter at Philipse Manor Hall, giving public tours, working the front desk, and contributing to the website and social media. In his previous career, he spent years at Macy’s in Manhattan as a Graphic Designer and Art Director. Subsequently, he taught Design for several semesters at New York City University of Technology and worked at Rye Playland. He occasionally serves as a docent at the Hudson River Museum, and is the Trail Maintainer for the German Hollow Trail of the Catskill Forest.

With editorial assistance from Sarah Wassberg Johnson, education & programs manager at Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site.


[1] https://www.maxwellandersonfoundation.org/bio

[2] https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/valley-forge-9051

[3] Mantle, Burns (December 11, 1934). "'Valley Forge' at the Guild." Daily News. New York, New York. p. 683 – via Newspapers.com.

[4] Atkinson, Brooks (December 11, 1934). "The Play". New York Times. New York, New York. p. 38 – via NYTimes.com.

[5] Mantle, Burns (January26, 1935). "Three Additional Plays Join the Short Run Group". Daily News. New York, New York. p. 30 – via Newspapers.com.

[6] We’ve changed her name to “Lady” thus far, so not to have revealed her identity. In the script, she is identified as “Mary.”

[7] Anderson, Maxwell, Valley Forge: A Play in Three Acts, 1934, p. 31-36.

[8] This is not historically accurate – Mary’s husband Colonel Roger Morris fled to England in 1775. By 1776, it is her older brother, Frederick Philipse III, who is imprisoned for Loyalism.

[9] A King George guinea coin. On the next page, they say the bet is a shilling.

[10] Journals of Lieut. Col. Stephen Kemble, 1773-1789; and British Army orders: Gen. Sir William Howe, 1775-1778; Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, 1778; and Gen. Daniel Jones, 1778, p. 98.

[11] Letter To George Washington from Joseph Chew, 13 July 1757.

[12] Proceedings and Documents of the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, July 1-22, 1944. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office (1948), p. 111.

[13] Sargeant, Howland H. “Education for Living in a World Community.” Department of State Bulletin, December 1, 1952, p. 854.

[14] Hill, Lister. “The Power Lobby of 1952,” remarks to the May 26, 1952 electric consumers conference, entered into the Congressional Record, June 17, 1952.

[15] Pepper, Claude. “Extension of Remarks by Hon. Claude Pepper” entered into the Congressional Record, June 22, 1964.

[16] https://thehermitage.org/about; Aaron Burr would live in Mary Philipse Morris’s former home in upper Manhattan, when he married its subsequent owner, the widowed Eliza Jumel!