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Étienne Lemaire

Étienne Lemaire (d. 1817) was Thomas Jefferson's second mâitre d'hôtel, or "steward," in the President's House. He was hired to replace Joseph Rapin late in the summer of 1801. Describing the ideal mâitre d'hôtel, Jefferson noted that "honesty & skill in making the dessert are indispen[sable] qualifications. that he should be good humored & of a discreet, steady disposition is also important."1 Lemaire was brought to Jefferson's attention by friends in Philadelphia, where Lemaire worked in the household of William Bingham. Transferring to Jefferson's employ, he would assume management of the domestic staff at the President's House, supervise the dinner service and dessert, handle household accounts, and conduct most of the marketing for groceries and other provisions.2

Close to forty letters between Lemaire and Jefferson have survived, affirming the warm attachment that Jefferson felt for his employee. Some of Lemaire's recipes have also been preserved, along with his memorandum on the proper wine to serve with certain main dishes. A Monticello cookbook compiled by Jefferson's granddaughter Virginia Jefferson Randolph Trist credits Lemaire with recipes for Beef à la Mode, Bouilli, Breast of Mutton, and Pancakes.3 Jefferson had sent Lemaire's "reciepts" to his family at Monticello in 1803, noting that "the orthography will be puzzling and amusing; but the reciepts are valuable."4

By all accounts, Lemaire was a valued and effective butler. The Monticello overseer Edmund Bacon described Lemaire as "a very smart man, was well educated, and as much of a gentleman in his appearance as any man."5 Jefferson's granddaughter recalled him as "a portly well-mannered frenchman ... of whose honesty his master had a higher opinion than the world at large, and who I fancy made a small fortune in his employ. But he was a civil and a useful man and merited reward."6

After he retired to Monticello in 1809, Jefferson wrote Lemaire a letter of appreciation, expressing "the sense of my attachment to you & satisfaction with your services. they were faithful, & skilful, and your whole conduct so marked with good humour, industry, sobriety & economy as never to have given me one moment’s dissatisfaction."7

In 1817, Jefferson heard from his former chef at the President's House that Lemaire, then living in Philadelphia, had lost $5,000 through the bankruptcy of a friend. Deranged by his reverses, he drowned himself in the Schuylkill River — still leaving a fortune of $10,000 to relatives near Paris. Jefferson responded to this news: "I sincerely lament the unfortunate fate of poor Le Maire."8

- Lucia Stanton, 3/16/90

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