“I turned a corner and met my fate,” Edith Bolling Galt Wilson
“I need you, as a boy needs his sweetheart, and a strong man his helpmate and heart’s comrade,” Woodrow Wilson to Edith Bolling Galt during their courtship.
What did Mrs. Galt do when President Wilson proposed to her?
She fell out of bed. – Popular joke in 1915
This is the tale of one of the most romantic love stories in White House history. No, I’m not talking about Olivia Pope and Fitzgerald Grant from Scandal. I’m talking about the love story between Edith Bolling Galt and Woodrow Wilson. Their story is not only one of the most romantic in American history, but also one of the most scandalous and intriguing. It encompasses death, grief, forbidden romance, , passion, politics, war, and a cover-up perpetrated by the First Lady of the United States. At a time when women couldn’t vote on a national level, rarely held jobs other than domestic or schoolteacher, for a brief time a woman ran the White House and the Executive Branch.
Our story starts in the fall of 1914. Ellen Wilson, Woodrow’s first wife and the mother of his three daughters, dies suddenly of kidney disease. Wilson is devastated, and lost. Apparently underneath the president’s dour demeanor, beat the heart of a true and passionate romantic. Wilson preferred the company of women, particularly if they were charming and good conversationalists. His friends and family are worried about him now that he’s alone. They try to cheer him up by encouraging him to get out more, to play golf, anything to help him over his depression.
Flash forward to March of 1915. Wilson is out driving with his personal physician, Dr. Cary Grayson, when he spies a woman out walking. “Who is that beautiful woman?” he asked. The woman in question was Edith Bolling Galt, a wealthy forty-something childless widow, who hailed from his home state of Virginia. Lucky for Wilson, not only does Dr. Grayson know exactly who she was but so does Wilson’s cousin and sometime White House hostess Helen Bones. Helen and Edith have recently become friends thanks to Dr. Grayson who introduced him. Who needs Tinder or Match.com when you have friends to introduce you to eligible heads of state? One afternoon Helen invited Edith back to the White House after they’d taken a walk in Rock Creek Park. The doors to the White House elevator opened and there stood the President of the United States. As she later described in her memoirs, Edith was wearing a smart, black tailored suit that Worth had made for her in Paris, and a tricot hat. The President was instantly smitten with the charming vivacious woman. Before too long, the couple was dining regularly together at The White House or at Edith’s home. Wilson was so in love that he was observed singing ‘Oh you beautiful, you great big beautiful doll,” after leaving Edith’s house near Dupont Circle one night.
It was easy to see what Wilson saw in Edith. She was tall for a woman, five foot nine, buxom with dark hair and deep blue eyes. Combining the qualities of a traditional Southern belle with that of a sophisticated, well-traveled woman, Edith even drove her own little electric car around Washington. She was also impulsive, jealous, self-indulgent, seemingly fearless and enthusiastic. Wilson, on the other hand, was dour, austere, serious, and as thin as a rake. He was a scholar who loved books (he’d not only taught at several universities but had also been President of Princeton as well as Governor of New Jersey). Edith loved fashion and travel. Although she’d lived either in or near Washington most of her life, she thought politics was a ‘bore.’ What the two had in common was that they were both from Virginia, and had a romantic view of the antebellum South.
Wilson wooed Edith with her favorite flowers, orchids, and sent her passionate love letters almost daily. He even had a direct phone line installed between her house and his office so that they could circumvent the White House switchboard. They would go out driving together and there were rumors that they would park and make-out like teenagers (I bet the Secret Service loved having to watch that!). After only two months of knowing each other, Wilson proposed to his new love. Shocked, Edith wisely told Wilson that it is too soon for him to be making such declarations. His wife hadn’t been dead for even a year! Widowed for seven years, Edith also had to think about whether or not she was ready to give up her independence.
Undeterred by her refusal, Wilson began to lean on Edith for comfort and advice. He made Edith feel that she shared the burden of the office. He began confiding about his woes, telling her intimate details about his work, sending her envelopes of state documents for her to read and comment on. Soon Edith was just as enthralled by the political partnership they were forging as by the emotional one. He made Edith feel needed and cherished. Wilson began to feel like a new man, revitalized, able to take on new challenges. Before long, Edith succumbed to Wilson’s passionate courtship, and they became secretly engaged in Mid-August of 1915.
Not everyone was thrilled by the President’s new relationship. Scandalized White House staffers referred sarcastically to the relationship as ‘The President and Pocahontas’ (Edith was a direct descendant of Pocahontas and John Rolfe). Rumors flew in Washington that Wilson had cheated on his first wife, and that Edith and Wilson had conspired to murder Ellen. His political cronies were appalled that Wilson had gotten engaged to another woman when his wife had been dead for less than a year. A hasty remarriage might damage his chances at winning a second term. His son-in-law, William Gibbs McAdoo, Colonel House and the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels were drafted to warn Wilson against an early remarriage.
McAdoo flat out lied to him and told him that the Republicans were threatening to go public with the letters that he had sent Mary Hulbert Peck, a married woman who Wilson had met during his yearly trips to Bermuda. Smitten, Wilson had sent several indiscreet letters to Mary over the years and had recently loaned her son $7,500 to pay off some debts. Distressed, Wilson told Edith the truth about his relationship with Peck, telling her that he would understand if she changed her mind about marrying him. Edith told him that she would stand by him, but they postponed their wedding until December of 1915. From that point on Colonel House, Daniels and McAdoo were on Edith’s hit list. She would slowly freeze them out as Wilson’s advisors. The happy couple was married on December 18, 1915 at her house in Washington, DC. The wedding was attended by 40 guests. Though there were still public murmurs of disapproval, Wilson's three daughters welcomed Edith into the family, firm in their belief that their mother Ellen would have approved. They knew how lonely and depressed their father had been, how much he relied and needed female companionship.
Although she was now the First Lady, Edith preferred not to be called by that title. Mrs. Woodrow Wilson was good enough for her. In her mind, she served her husband, not the country. Once they were in the White House, Wilson turned more and more to his most trusted advisor, his wife. Not only did Edith code and encode cables for Wilson, but she was also soon sitting in on his meetings. The Ambassador to Germany remembers Edith as asking pertinent questions about foreign policy. 1916 was Wilson’s most productive year as President, workmen’s compensation; child labor laws and the eight-hour day were part of his daring leadership. With the slogan ‘He kept us out of the war,’ he narrowly won re-election in November of 1916. Edith became was the first First Lady not only ride in the presidential motorcade, but also the first to stand beside her husband as he took the oath of office.
Although she loved the ceremonial aspect of being First Lady, she disliked the day to day aspect, particularly if it kept her away from Wilson. As First Lady during the austerity of World War I, Edith could get away with dispensing some of the more onerous duties. She observed gasless Sundays, meatless Mondays, and wheat less Wednesdays to set an example to the nation. She also set sheep to graze on the White House lawn rather than waste manpower to cut the lawn, auctioning off the wool for the benefit of the Red Cross. She also passed out cigarettes and chewing gum to thousands of soldiers at Washington's Union Station. Edith managed to get rid of any of her husband’s associates that she felt didn’t have his best interests at heart. She submerged her own life into her husband’s, to try and keep him fit under the tremendous strain that he was under as a war time President.
In September of 1919, the President set out on a 10,000-mile tour of the United States. He was determined to create a nationwide outpouring of support for the League of Nations. Both Edith and Dr. Grayson begged him not to go. The trip was the worst thing that he could have done. After 5,000 miles of travel and speeches in 16 cities, Wilson once again began to suffer severe headaches. He had suffered from ill-health all his life. While President of Princeton, he was also diagnosed with high blood pressure and urged to retire. He’d refused. During the peace talks in Paris in early 1919, Wilson came down with influenza. In hindsight the warning signs had been there all along. Both the First Lady and Dr. Grayson had urged him to relax and to exercise more. In October of 1914, he suffered a stroke so severe that it left him paralyzed on his left side.
After his stroke, the second left him permanently paralyzed on his left side, Edith became like a mother lion protecting her cub. The press was told that the President was suffering from nervous exhaustion. Only Edith and his doctors really knew how ill he was. If you watch Scandal, you might remember the episode where Mellie forged the President’s signature to make it seem like he was recovering, when he really wasn’t? All to keep the Vice-President from seizing office? Well something similar happened when Wilson had his stroke. "I studied every paper sent from the different Secretaries or Senators," she wrote later of her role, "and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President. 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." Edith later stated in her memoirs that she considered what she was doing was a ‘stewardship of office.’ She also declared that a prominent physician told her that if Wilson had been forced to resign it would have impeded his recovery. Because Wilson made statesmanship seems so easy, and because he had involved her so intimately in the administration, Edith thought that she could handle things. However, she had neither the education nor the experience for the role.
In the first 30 days after Wilson’s stroke, Congress passed 28 bills that became law by default because the President failed to respond. While Wilson has been credited with vetoing the Volstead Act (Prohibition), in reality a presidential aid wrote the veto message with Edith’s approval. It’s possible that Wilson never saw the bill. Rumors were rife in Washington that the President’s signature had been forged on bills. Edith served as the only conduit to the president. White House usher Ike Hoover recalled, "If there were some papers requiring his attention, they would be read to him -- but only those that Mrs. Wilson thought should be read to him. Likewise, word of any decision the president had made would be passed back through the same channels."
Edith Wilson, in her zeal to be a good wife, shielded the President’s true condition not only from the nation but also from Congress and basically ran the country. No First Lady has ever yielded such power during a presidency. But her actions had consequences that she could not have foreseen at the time. Edith was most definitely not a feminist, she didn’t believe that women needed the vote; she was decidedly old-fashioned when it came to the roles of men and women. She had no desire for power; she only wanted to protect her husband and to protect his presidency. What’s amazing is that Edith was able to get away with it. It wasn’t until the final months of his presidency in 1920 that the press began to report on the extent of her power. No one, including his wife, his physician or personal assistant was willing to take upon themselves responsibility for the certification, required by the Constitution, of his "inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office."
Six weeks after the stroke, Wilson's ability to speak returned. But he was still unable to write or walk. As the White House cover-up continued, Republicans became suspicious that the President was not fit for office. They designated two Senators, a Republican and a Democrat, to go see the President. Edith and Dr. Grayson carefully prepared for the visit. They concealed his paralyzed left arm under a blanket, and lit the room so that the President was in a deep shadow. "We're praying for you, Mr. Wilson," Republican Senator Albert Fall declared. "Which way, Senator?" Wilson grimly retorted, "Which way?" The President passed the test. The New York Times reported that the meeting "silenced for good the many wild and often unfriendly rumors of Presidential disability." The public would never know the full extent of Wilson's illness. But his political health could not be stage managed so easily. After a few months, Wilson was finally able to make it to cabinet meetings but only for a brief stretch of time. He tired easily, had a hard time with his attention span.
Wilson’s illness exacerbated his more negative qualities of stubbornness and his need to be right. He absolutely refused to compromise on the Versailles treaty to get it through Congress. Wilson was so far out of the loop due to his illness that he didn’t comprehend the extent of the opposition in the Senate and that the only way to get the treaty passed was with Henry Cabot Lodge’s reservations. Edith tried to convince him to change his mind. Because of his unwillingness, the Democrats didn’t have enough votes to ratify the treaty, and the United States ended up not joining the League of Nations. Had Wilson resigned at the outset of his illness when he had suggested it, and Vice President Marshall succeeded as President, or at least assumed the role until Wilson was better, a compromise would have been reached with Lodge and the treaty would have passed. The United States would have joined the League of Nations and played an active role in the international peace organization in the years leading up to World War II. If Edith had put the nation’s needs ahead of her husband, Wilson’s dream of America playing a significant role on the international stage would have come to fruition. As it was, his successor Warren Harding took America back to its isolationist stance.
Edith and her Woodrow only had a few more years together before he passed away in 1924. She devoted the rest of her life to managing Wilson’s legacy. She held the literary rights to all of her husband's papers in a time before presidential papers were seen as public documents, and she denied access to anyone whose motives she did not trust and granted access to those who proved their loyalty to her. Edith outlived Wilson by almost 40 years, living long enough to attend the inauguration of JFK who was born during the years that she was First Lady of the United States. She died at the age of 89 on December 28, 1961 on what would have been her husband’s 105th birthday.
Larry Flynt and David Eisenbach, PhD. One Nation Under Sex: How the Private Lives of Presidents, First Ladies and Their Lovers Changed the Course of American History, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011
Kati Marton. Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our Recent History, Pantheon Books, 2001
Kristie Miller. Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson's First Ladies, University Press of Kansas, 2010
Cormac O’Brien. Secret Lives of the First Ladies: What Your Teachers Never Told You About the Women of the White House, Quirk Books, 2009