President Woodrow Wilson's first wife, Ellen, passed away just before WWI broke out in 1914, leading to his eventual marriage to Edith Bolling Galt. As soon as the marriage was final, Edith Wilson set out to destroy her husband's relationships with his most trusted advisers. When Wilson suffered a devastating stroke in 1919, there were 18 months remaining in his term. Drawing on previously undisclosed documents -- including many medical reports and White House memos -- the author makes the case that Edith Wilson essentially ran the country during that time period.
Edith and Woodrowby Phyllis Lee Levin
Shortly after Ellen Wilson's death on the eve of
Constructing a thrilling, tightly contained narrative around a trove of previously undisclosed documents, medical diagnoses, White House memoranda, and internal documents, acclaimed journalist and historian Phyllis Lee Levin sheds new light on the central role of Edith Bolling Galt in Woodrow Wilson's administration.
Shortly after Ellen Wilson's death on the eve of World War I in 1914, President Wilson was swept off his feet by Edith Bolling Galt. They were married in December 1915, and, Levin shows, Edith Wilson set out immediately to consolidate her influence on him and tried to destroy his relationships with Colonel House, his closest friend and adviser, and with Joe Tumulty, his longtime secretary. Wilson resisted these efforts, but Edith was persistent and eventually succeeded.
With the quick ending of World War I following America's entry in 1918, Wilson left for the Paris Peace Conference, where he pushed for the establishment of the League of Nations. Congress, led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, resisted the idea of an international body that would require one country to go to the defense of another and blocked ratification. Defiant, Wilson set out on a cross-country tour to convince the American people to support him. It was during the middle of this tour, in the fall of 1919, that he suffered a devastating stroke and was rushed back to Washington. Although there has always been controversy regarding Edith Wilson's role in the eighteen months remaining of Wilson's second term, it is clear now from newly released medical records that the stroke had totally incapacitated him. Citing this information and numerous specific memoranda, journals, and diaries, Levin makes a powerfully persuasive case that Mrs. Wilson all but singlehandedly ran the country during this time. Ten years in the making, Edith and Woodrow is a magnificent, dramatic, and deeply rewarding work of history.
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The deathbed admonition of Woodrow Wilson's angelic, admiring first wife, Ellen, that her husband, a great man, should not become a lonely great man, paved the way to his remarriage. Enter Edith Bolling Galt and the rest is "history," idealized, sanitized, and indeed, invented in her autobiography: a story played out in Washington and Paris and around the world, against the guns of World War I and the partisan cross fire over the eventual refusal of the United States to join the League of Nations. The story of Wilson's second marriage, and of the large events on which its shadow was cast, is darker and more devious, and more astonishing, than previously recorded.
From the morning of October 2, 1919, when Woodrow Wilson suffered coronary thrombosis, and a paralyzing stroke, Edith insisted that her husband, the twenty-eighth president of the United States, was yet a dynamic leader, an indispensable visionary, physically enfeebled only temporarily. Though she acknowledged that she studied every paper sent to her by various cabinet secretaries and senators and had tried to digest and present in tabloid form matters that in her view needed imperatively to go to the president, "I, myself," she protested, "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." In fact, she could recall only one instance when she had acted as intermediary in an official matter, "except when so directed by a physician."
As the White House became hushed and secretive, Edith Wilson assumed what she defined as her stewardship. When access became tantamount to power, however, the handful of statesmen, historians, and politicians who experienced her new authority tended to describe her in more formidable terms, as female regent, secretary of state, supersecretary, and ultimately, the first woman president of the United States. She had become keeper of the key to the now impregnable White House and to the president himself (Edith's turbulent handwriting conveys her invalid husband's mumbled and cryptic answers, such as they were, on all presidential correspondence of that period), while official Washington pleaded for her intervention on crucial domestic and international issues. Edith herself categorically repudiated the allegations concerning her exercise of power. It was always "others" who meddled with the truth, whereas she would set and keep the record straight. In writing her autobiography, My Memoir a testament to the heroic presidency of her husband she presumed to take an "oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help me God."
No one would prove more adept than she at publicizing this image of Woodrow Wilson and his Edith struggling valiantly and succeeding in the White House. In addition to writing her Memoir, which reflects her recasting of facts and prejudices, she subsidized the author whom she appointed to compile the eight-volume biography Woodrow Wilson, Life and Letters, and exercised her authority over every word uttered in the film Wilson: The Rise and Fall of an American President, produced in Hollywood in 1944. That film, a benevolent tour of the twenty-eighth president's life, depicts the melancholy scene, immediately following Wilson's severe stroke, in which his physician assures Edith there is no need for her husband to consider resignation in favor of the vice president. To the contrary, with certain precautions and support, administered by Edith, he is declared to be entirely capable of conducting the government of the United States. In conforming with this heartening prognosis, Wilson does, in the film, reappear on the White House veranda as an able, cheerful invalid. Though one might assume that the dialogue revolving around the momentous decision that Wilson remain in office should be attributed to the scriptwriter Lamar Trotti, its source is Edith Wilson's own Memoir. Her name fails to appear among the screen credits, but a deputy of Mrs. Wilson's was on the scene to affirm her story line. Ray Stannard Baker, her husband's anointed and openly partisan biographer, whose "absurd scenario picture" of the president "as a stainless Sir Galahad" was denounced by Winston Churchill, is listed as one of the two technical advisers.
Baker did not disappoint Edith Wilson's confidence. The film was the fulfillment of her life's work to exalt her husband. Wilson without blemishes was to be compared to Washington and Lincoln, the rectitude of his position regarding the League unquestionable, his opponents in that pursuit indefensible, his physical disabilities negligible, and his intensely affectionate correspondence with a third woman, outside his two marriages, excluded.
Eluding the eyes of occasional skeptics of "the White House of Mysteries," Edith Wilson retained a host of acolytes, including several senior historians, who accepted her interpretation. Perhaps they knew her as a youthful widow and were of a generation too old (and too gentlemanly) to believe that the Southerner with the soft, musical voice might have deceived them, or that any such woman might arrogantly preempt power and deliberately distort her country's history. One of her prominent champions, for example, acknowledges that "Mrs. Wilson's memory is often faulty, colored by her preconceptions," while simultaneously insisting that her Memoir is an "essential document." With such support, Edith Wilson has had her way with history and might have continued to do so but for recently disclosed medical reports dating back to 1919, which refute the romantic story she assiduously devised. All turned to ashes on the Memorial Day weekend in Upperville, Virginia, in 1990, when the sons of Wilson's physician and confidant Cary Grayson James Gordon Grayson and Cary T. Grayson Jr. released the original diagnoses made by their father and his colleague Dr. Francis X. Dercum on the occasion of Wilson's stroke. These papers make it clear for the first time that on October 2, 1919, Wilson suffered a devastating trauma, so extensive that it precluded anything "more than a minimal state of recovery." Given Wilson's beclouded presidency, the late Arthur S. Link, dedicated editor of sixty-nine volumes of The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, who regarded the task as a "divine call," and who had originally dismissed the idea that Edith Wilson ran the government after her husband's illness as "pure nonsense...more into the realm of legend than scholarship," would concede, on further thought and almost wistfully, that "Edith emerges as the master of the cover-up (such as it was), doesn't she?"
Though Wilson, due no doubt to his frail health, never managed to write the history of his presidency, a multitude of surrogates and one has the impression that everyone attending the Paris Peace Conference kept a diary abundantly filled the void. Yet Wilson, who appeared to the world as a dogmatic idealist, more preacher than diplomat, did leave behind a confessional autobiography in his correspondence with three women. Those letters reveal throughout the seasons of his life the rise and fall of a narcissistic, ambitious, sensual, dependent, emotionally vulnerable, and physically impaired man, who led the United States during World War I. The intimate letters to Wilson's treasured first wife, Ellen, and subsequently to his epistolary beloved, Mary Allen Hulbert Peck, with whom he maintained an extensive correspondence until his remarriage help to prepare us for the whirlwind courtship and capitulation of the widower of eight months to the reverential Edith Bolling Galt. Flattering and possessive and physically attractive, she was soon his lover and trusted political adviser. Wilson met Edith Bolling Galt in March 1915; he proposed marriage in May. In June she acknowledged her joy in being taken into a "partnership as it were." By August, Wilson gave affirmation of their shared lives and work. By December, they were man and wife. There would be much to learn about his new partner, his "strange, lovely Sweetheart," and there is no doubt that Edith revealed her "secret depths" with style and imagination and, according to her whim, with more than a tinge of fantasy. By the time her formidable talent for fiction was disclosed, the damage was done. Her victims included her husband's closest and trusted adviser, Colonel Edward Mandell House, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Secretary of State Robert Lansing, and a renowned British ambassador; and of course, the president himself.
The revelation of the physical and mental condition of the invalid Woodrow Wilson alters history's pious perception of him as a star-crossed victim of other people's frailties, rather than as a deeply flawed man. Princeton's Arthur Link and his staff have accordingly cautioned biographers and historians who write of Wilson as, in those last years, a reasonably healthy and responsible person to reconsider his impulsive, irrational behavior "with some understanding of its causes." The truth of his incapacity naturally poses grave questions of its consequences for world affairs. Link seems to imply that a healthier Wilson would have been a more conciliatory diplomat. Entry into the League of Nations could have transformed the record: "In a world with the United States playing a responsible, active role, the possibilities of preventing the rise of Hitler were limitless."
We must therefore consider whether events leading to the Second World War might have been recast had Edith Wilson permitted the vice president, Thomas R. Marshall, to supplant her incapacitated husband in the White House in 1919. Given Marshall's reasonable temperament, is it not possible that he might have reached a compromise with Henry Cabot Lodge over the degree to which Americans ought to involve themselves in foreign wars, and have thus led the United States to membership in the League of Nations? Such great questions are central to my reconsideration, in the present book, of the role and influence of Wilson's wife during "one of the most extraordinary periods in the whole history of the Presidency." Edith Wilson was by no means the benign figure of her pretensions; the president far less than the hero of his aspirations. On closer examination, their lives are a sinister embodiment of Mark Twain's tongue-in-cheek observation that he "never could tell a lie that anyone would doubt, nor a truth that anybody would believe."
Copyright © 2001 by Phyllis Lee Levin
Meet the Author
Phyllis Lee Levin is a former reporter and columnist for The New York Times and a former editor and feature writer at Mademoiselle, Harper's Bazaar, and Vogue. She is the author of three previous books, including Abigail Adams. She lives in New York City.
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This book masterfully presents a historic account of the mysterious second Mrs. Wilson and the secrets of her dominance and control over a weakened and ill president. The reader is engrossed in this rich and melodramatic story. Edith Wilson is given her due -- but sympathy abounds as she is clearly over her head in trying to run state matters. It is Wilson's eldest daughter, Margaret, a suffragist, activist, and wildly popular concert singer who entertained U.S. and Allied soldies in training camps and at the front lines in WWI, who steps in and tries to make amends between her father and Colonel House to save the League of Nations to no avail. The reader cannot help but wonder the what ifs...if the first Mrs. Wilson had not died so early into the administration...if the President remained healthy...if the Vice President had stepped into leadership...if the League would have been supported by the Henry Cabot Lodge...and if the American people had kept their commitment to the League and voted a Democratic House and Senate in 1916, or in the 1920 Presidential election, then could the tragic losses of WWII been averted? The Wilson Family is arguably the most interesting of all presidential families and their story is fresh and lively today. This is a highly commendable book and thus highly recommended.
'Edith and Woodrow: The Wilson White House' is a stunning achievement. In the tradition of Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough, Ms. Levin breathes life into the leaders of this era, effortlessly transporting the reader back to the early 1900s. Flawlessly researched and brilliantly executed, this enthralling book is a 'must read' for American history buffs.
Atlanta, Georgia- When you think of Woodrow Wilson, the first political scientist President, you think of a President who was engaged in the issues of his day. From reforming government in leading the progressive movement, enabling the suffrage movement, and pushing for the League of Nations, a prelude to the United Nations are all attributed to his leadership. However, you rarely recognize that his health provided the window for the first female President. Phyllis Lee Levin has captured the seldom shared tale of this first couple in her book Edith and Woodrow: The Wilson White House. Noted as the first documented account of the woman who was President, Levin researched historic documents and transcripts to share the informal influence Edith had on the Presidency after Wilson suffered a stroke. As the sole gatekeeper to the handicapped Wilson, some speculate that she alone made decisions on his behalf to maintain his legacy during the last two years of the Wilson Presidency. This book reviews Wilson¿s life and touches on his rise in academia, politics, and his first love and wife Ellen. After becoming a widowed President, he did marry Edith. The story ends past the end of the Wilson Presidency and how Edith worked to maintain his legacy. Edith did remarry and lived to see the inauguration of President John Kennedy. Edith and Wilson is a fine example of a political power couple who were truly equal partners.