Behind Every Great Man...
Some people never get the recognition they deserve. Where the heck is John Adams’s memorial on the Washington Mall? Why did Arrested Development get cancelled? Why does no one care about Henry Knox, the dude that dragged cannons from Albany to Boston to help out good old General Washington? Why don’t they sell Nardone’s Family Pizza, the best of all frozen pizzas, anywhere but Northeastern PA? Where’s the love for Pauline Cushman, an actress who turned Union Spy during the Civil War? Why has no one noticed that I got really nice pedicure last week? And above all, why does no one care that we’ve already had a secret lady president? You read that right.
Woodrow Wilson was a softie. When he was 28, he met Ellen Axson, a painter. Woodrow was the kind of dude to fall fast and hard, and he was immediately smitten. “I suppose there never was a man more dependent than I am upon love and sympathy, or a man more devoted to home and home life,” he told his new lady. After just five months of courtin’, they got engaged. After the wedding, Woodrow got jobs at Brywn Mawr, Wesleyan, Princeton, and eventually the White House. The happy couple had three daughters together, but Ellen fell ill with kidney disease just seventeen months into Wilson’s first term. She died in August 1914, at only 54 years old.
After Ellen’s death, Wilson was plunged into a deep depression. “There is nothing but the work for me now,” he wrote. His health took a downward turn, and he talked to aides about wanting to resign. Some accounts even say he expressed the hope that he’d be assassinated and put out of his grief.
Piling on to his personal tragedies, things were going equally catastrophically in the political sphere. Two months before Ellen’s death, a Serbian nationalist group called the Black Hand (remember them from 8th grade history class?) had assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferninand. As Europe rushed to take sides, WWI took shape. Disaster was looming abroad, plus the American South was nearly bankrupted as a result of the dying cotton trade. Woodrow had… seen better days.
Since the social aspects of the presidency was not on the top of his agenda (and these were the days when that was ladies’ work, anyway- this post gets more feminist, I promise), Woodrow’s cousin Helen helped the widowed president stay on top of the hostessing duties Ellen had once handled. Eight months after Ellen’s death, Helen invited her friend Edith Bolling Galt to tea after the two finished taking a muddy hike around the White House grounds. After being assured that no one would see her in her less than ladylike attire, Edith agreed to coming on in. To Edith’s surprise, the president joined them anyway. To her even greater surprise, she felt immediate sparks. “I turned a corner and met my fate,” she said.
Edith had lost her first husband, Norman Galt, when he died in 1903 of liver disease. He left her in charge of the jewelry and silver business his family operated in Washington. Edith became a successful independent businesswoman. She financially supported her mother, sister, and three brothers, took European vacations, and became the first woman in DC to kick around town in a car.
Edith was funny and bright, but completely uninterested in politics. She hadn’t even known Woodrow’s name until he took the presidency. The president was charmed. Two months after they met and ten months after Ellen’s death, they were engaged.
The couple was married in a low-key ceremony at Edith’s home. Invitations were issued to only about 40 guests, and the president was referred to merely as “Mr. Woodrow Wilson” on them. The New York Times described Edith as looking “handsome and stately,” words I pray no one will use to describe me on my wedding day. The president’s physician commented to the press on the new couple. “The President is a new man, and is as happy as a schoolboy. His marriage to Mrs. Galt will be the best thing that could happen to him.”
Journalists were less polite, particularly since Ellen’s headstone hadn’t even been constructed yet. “That the president has a perfect right to marry again no one will deny. But neither Mr. Wilson nor his fiancée is exactly in the first blush of youth. More than that, the conventional period of mourning for the first Mrs. Wilson has just ended, and the country was still looking upon the president as a suffering victim of his sad bereavement,” sniffed one journalist. “What did Mrs. Galt do when the President asked her to marry him?” a popular joke asked. “She fell out of bed.” Zing!
Others seem to have been more embarrassed for Woodrow than anything else. “Woodrow Wilson has been depicted as an exceedingly lonely man,” another paper explained. “He is said to have comparatively few intimates. Tempermentally, he is not what might be termed a ‘mixer.’” Ouch. Just for comparison, all my friends call me Ma’am Mixalot.
Regardless of how the lamestream media depicted the couple, they were really into each other. “You are as trustworthy and capable and fit for counsel as any man,” Woodrow told his wife. When the US entered the war, Edith devoted herself to setting a good example for Americans, even buying sheep to graze on the White House lawn so she could sell their wool and donate the proceeds to the Red Cross. Throughout the conflict, she provided her husband with advice and support. She sat in on meetings with officials and had access to her husband's private papers.
When the war ended in 1918, the couple traveled to Paris so that Woodrow could negotiate a peace treaty. His dream was to see a League of Nations (sort of a pre-UN) established. But while some foreign nations were on board, Woodrow had a harder time convincing his own nation that this was a good idea. He embarked upon a cross-country train trip to campaign for his League. It didn’t work. Despite the fact that the League had been Wilson’s baby, the United States refused to join.
Crushed by the disappointment and exhausted by over-exertion, Woodrow started to fall apart. He became so sick during a visit to Colorado that he was forced to return immediately to the White House. Once back in DC, Wilson suffered a major stroke, paralyzing his left side and leaving his thoughts muddled. He became secretive, suspicious, and oftentimes confused. Doctors and nurses swarmed the White House, but public information was kept to a minimum. For weeks on end, the president was confined to bed.
His personality change was noticeable to all around him. Suddenly, he suspected French servants of acting as spies and felt the need to bury papers that he normally just kept in his desk. He once asked his doctor to help him rearrange the furniture in the Oval Office, demanding that the “American” red pieces go in one corner, the “British” greens in another, and the rest of the “French” odds and ends in the center. Once one chair that looked to him “like a Purple cow strayed off to itself” had been moved, the process was complete. His doctor noticed that Woodrow was noticeably relaxed by the redecoration.
As the president worsened, Edith increasingly limited access to him. She wanted him to rest, and she likely didn’t want people to see the extent of her husband’s condition. She spread information to the Senate and public that the president was merely suffering from temporary exhaustion. Wilson’s personal secretary found himself with nothing to do for months, noting that “Mrs. Wilson apparently ran the whole show during that period.” There was no precedent or Constitutional allowance for how to deal with an incapacitated president. Edith declined to let the vice president take over, insisting that her husband was still capable of holding office.When the Secretary of State decided to hold Cabinet meetings without the President, Edith considered this disloyal. Within a year, her ill husband had asked for his resignation.
Saying that the president would dictate to her, Edith would go behind closed doors with her husband and emerge with notes in her hand, prefaced by the words “the President says.” She carefully screened every document sent to her husband, and decided which he should sign. “I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband,” she later wrote. However, others got the impression that she was, in fact, acting in her husband’s stead. She kept the president under such close wraps that some government officials wondered if he was dead and this was some sort of Weekend at Woodrow's situation.While it is debatable whether Edith should have seized control, it does appear that she did.
When the Wilsons left the White House in 1921, Edith had been acting as the secret president (or something close to it) for over 2 years. The couple moved to a home in DC where Edith continued to act as his nurse for the next three years. When he died, her name was the last word he spoke.
Edith Wilson lived for 37 more years, dying on Woodrow’s 105th birthday. She has been largely forgotten, despite the fact that she basically ran the country in the aftermath of world war. Somebody get her a monument (and maybe throw one up for John Adams, while you’re at it).
“About 40 Guests Present: Couple Married Under Floral Canopy, Episcopal Service being Used.” New York Times. 19 Dec. 1915.
Ashby, Ruth. Woodrow and Edith Wilson. Milwaukee: World Almanac Library, 2005.
Bergen, Anthony. “Woodrow Wilson’s Wives and the Freudian Typo.” Dead Presidents. http://deadpresidents.tumblr.com/post/3105362724/woodrow-wilsons-wives-and-the-freudian-typo
"Edith Wilson Biography." The National First Ladies' Library. http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=29
Levin, Phyllis Lee. Edith and Woodrow: The Wilson White House. New York: Scribner, 2001.
“Mrs. Galt Opposes Votes for Women.” New York Times. 20 October 1915.
“Mrs. Galt was Southern Belle.” Newburgh Daily News. 18 October, 1915.
“President Returns with Future Bride.” New York Times. 10 October 1915.