Edith and Woodrow

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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 ...

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Overview

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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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Phyllis Lee Levin presents an eye-opening portrait of a first lady who may have had immense influence on her husband's administration.

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.

Publishers Weekly
Former New York Times reporter Levin (Abigail Adams) delivers a beautifully written and impeccably researched account of Edith Bolling Galt Wilson and her key role after President Woodrow Wilson's stroke on October 2, 1919. The second Mrs. Wilson who had married the president one year after the untimely death of First Lady Ellen Wilson acted very much like a regent, restricting access to her sickly husband and issuing executive orders and directives that she presented at the time (and later, in her memoirs) as Wilson's own instructions. As Levin demonstrates, however, "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." Drawing on a wealth of formerly unavailable medical reports, White House memoranda and internal executive-branch communiqu s, Levin shows that the second Mrs. Wilson did indeed run the executive branch, if not the government as a whole, during Wilson's last year and a half in office. These issues have been discussed in more than one previous history, but no other writer has gone as deeply into the archives to marshal the strong proof that Levin presents. Most important are the original notes from Wilson's physician Cary Grayson released only recently by Grayson's sons which make clear that in his stroke Wilson suffered a devastating trauma so profound that it precluded, in Grayson's words, anything "more than a minimal state of recovery." The man described in the newly available medical documents was, by definition, unfit and unable to hold office. And the unelected Mrs. Wilson, it appears, violated both the public trust and the Constitution when she,posing as her husband's spokesperson, made executive branch policy. Photos not seen by PW. Agent, Sterling Lord. (Oct. 11). Forecast: The September publication of Kati Marton's Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our Recent History, with a chapter on the Wilsons, will help focus media attention on the role of presidential wives; this excellent account should ride the ensuing wave to healthy sales. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Journalist and historian Levin (Abigail Adams) focuses on the central role played byWoodrow Wilson's second wife, Edith Bolling Galt, in his second administration, especially during his final 18 months in power after his debilitating stroke. The author makes a convincing case that Wilson complicated his political problems by selecting a spouse whose personality flaws compounded his own: the inflexible Wilson found it difficult to work with political or professional equals, a weakness reinforced by his wife's role as Machiavellian worshipper. According to the author, the greatest damage Mrs. Wilson inflicted was in undermining the relationship between the president and his most trusted adviser, Colonel House, especially as the fate of Wilson's League of Nations was uncertain. Edith may have had good intentions, but the author sees her as a political handicap long before Wilson's fateful stroke made her the president or at least the power behind an incapacitated chief executive cut off from Colonel House's realistic input. Based on ten years of research, this detailed, highly readable marital case study is recommended for public and academic libraries. William D. Pederson, Louisiana State Univ., Shreveport Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A carefully researched study of a curious, well-hidden episode in American presidential history. Shortly after the death of his wife Ellen in 1914, newly elected president Woodrow Wilson met and quickly fell in love with society matron Edith Bolling Galt, described by former New York Times reporter and historian Levin as a woman of "opulent figure and commanding air." Edith, who soon married Wilson, made for an unusually diligent First Lady, studying world events and Wilson's own voluminous writing, and familiarizing herself with the intricacies of party politics. Their pillow talk evidently touched on matters of state as much as anything more personal, as when Wilson "discussed with Edith his apprehensions about the serious effects of [Secretary of State William Jennings] Bryan's resignation on the country and on his administration" and the wording of his official remarks on the U-boat sinking of the Lusitania. (The two also shared a vigorous loathing for the prospect of women gaining the vote. "Nothing in the course of those tragic years of war," writes Levin, "seemed personally to repel Edith or Wilson so much as the women activists who picketed for suffrage.") When, midway through his second term, Wilson suffered a massive stroke, Edith was well up to the task of serving as his proxy-a role that the White House steadfastly denied, insisting that the president was merely unwell, and remained fully in control. Edith kept up her side of the ruse, but, imperious and fiercely loyal, she also managed to alienate politicians already opposed to Wilson's programs, chief among them Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Had Wilson ceded control to the vice president instead of retaining it through hiswife, Levin suggests, then he might have been successful in gaining support for the League of Nations instead of enduring a disastrous political defeat. Of much interest to students of political history, and sure to excite discussion in academic circles.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743211581
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 9/25/2001
  • Pages: 608
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.69 (d)

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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Preface

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

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Table of Contents

Preface 11
Part I A First Marriage, a Widower, a Romance 15
1. "A great capacity for loving the gentle sex" 17
2. "Among the foremost thinkers of his age" 26
3. "Turn a corner and meet your fate" 40
4. "Anyone can do anything they try to" 54
5. "A new world" for Edith Galt 66
6. "There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight" 74
7. The president's most trusted adviser, Colonel House 88
8. "Fit for counsel as any man" 98
9. "The awful earthquake" 111
10. Mary Peck, the dear friend he found in Bermuda 122
11. A wedding on December 18, 1915 139
Part II President and Mrs. Edith Bolling Wilson, Wartime 151
12. "The world is on fire" 153
13. "A peace without victory" 166
14. "Nothing less than war" 176
15. Fourteen Points 187
16. "She knows what her husband knows" 205
Part III Paris and Round-Trips on the SS Washington 225
17. "Such a Cinderella role" 227
18. "Is it a League of Nations or a League of notions?" 242
19. Paris to Washington, and back ... 253
20. The preacher and the Brahmin 268
21. A different president ... a different Paris 280
22. Wilson suffers a "flareback" 290
23. A Congress "frothing at the mouth" 305
24. Wilson's greatest publicity campaign 319
Part IV Illness 335
25. "The beginning of the deception of the American people" 337
26. "The President says" 350
27. Lodge's olive branch 366
28. The "Smelling Committee" pays a visit 384
29. The White House snubs the British ambassador 399
30. "Wilson's last mad act" 415
31. Edith Wilson as "foremost statesman" 428
32. Wilson for a third term 440
33. "Pecuniary anxieties" 455
Part V Retirement 467
34. Wilson & Colby 469
35. Wilson & Colby folds 475
36. "To my incomparable wife" 484
37. Edith Wilson on her own, 1924-61 496
Epilogue 514
Notes 519
Bibliography 571
Acknowledgments 585
Index 587
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First Chapter

Chapter Four

"Anyone can do anything they try to"

What better time than spring," the White House usher, Ike Hoover, wrote, "for love to break forth from the shackles of gloom and lonesomeness that had reigned within the breast of the President in the previous nine or ten months." What better time indeed. Intimate friends of Woodrow Wilson's, seeing him desolate, had often spoken of their wish that the president might remarry. Yet others, though recognizing his plight, felt that this was not the time for romance. As Wilson's lightning infatuation with Edith Bolling Galt intensified, there was anxiety that the recently widowed president, faced with a campaign for reelection, but more significantly with a grim decision on the degree of the country's involvement in a foreign war, should not continually be distracted by a love affair that threatened his concentration on the nation's affairs.

Following the "chance" tea party, Wilson suggested that Helen invite Mrs. Galt, not for lunch, which he always had to leave early, but for dinner, when the entire evening would be at his disposal. The night of March 23, the White House Pierce-Arrow called first for Mrs. Galt, then for Dr. Grayson. The principal guest did not disappoint. She was young and handsome and dressed "to fit the fashion of her form," as Ike Hoover records. A single purple orchid was pinned on her left shoulder. After Dr. Grayson and Ellen's cousin Colonel Edward T. Brown had tactfully excused themselves, Wilson took coffee with Edith Galt and Helen Bones by the fireside in the Oval Room.

Edith found Wilson full of interesting stories and information, and unequaled in his reading of three English poems. Before she went to bed that night she wrote to her sister-in-law Anne Stuart Bolling, her brother Rolfe's wife, that the president was "perfectly charming and one of the easiest and most delightful hosts I have ever known." Then, without warning, the letter's girlish tone was subdued into that of the somber pragmatist. Much as she wished she could visit, business conditions were so uncertain "that I don't feel I should use a cent that I can do without."

A little over a month after that first dinner at the White House and following several more encounters, Edith spoke of her relations with the president as a ripening companionship. On April 28 she received her first note from Wilson with a copy of a book by a favorite British author, Philip Gilbert Hamerton. The point of Round My House: Notes of Rural Life in France in Peace and War was to be one of the president's honored themes: that nations should come to understand each other. Hamerton was the author he had read in the year he graduated from Princeton, in 1879. He had given another Hamerton work, The Graphic Arts, to his wife, Ellen, at the time of their engagement.

Wilson, in the spring of 1915, presented the Hamerton volume to Edith on a note of urgency, as a suitor might lavish a precious jewel. The volume, after all, had not been easy to come by: he had emphasized to Hoover that it was to be obtained under any circumstances. "I want this book," he insisted. "Please buy it for me at Brentano's or anywhere else it can be had, and, if it cannot be had immediately, please get it for me from the Congressional Library until it can be ordered." The note accompanying the Hamerton volume, from "your sincere and grateful friend," eloquently conveys his sentiments, making numerous references to Edith's sorrowful mood and the solace exchanged in their mutual state of bereavement. "It puts me in spirits again," he wrote, "and makes me feel as if my private life had been recreated. But, better than that, it makes me hope that I may be of some use to you, to lighten the days with whole-hearted sympathy and complete understanding. That will be happiness indeed."

In Edith Galt, Woodrow Wilson had indeed found "a heaven — haven — sanctuary." He sensed that he could count on Edith, as he had on Ellen, for utter loyalty and worshipful adulation, for a passionate physical communion. In that spring of 1915, the fifty-eight-year-old widower pursued Edith with the ardor of a young man in love. He told Edith Galt, sixteen years his junior, that if he might have her by his side and pour out his thoughts to her, he could face the terrible days ahead. Crucial problems in Haiti and Mexico had to be resolved; the imperial government of Japan had to be reminded that the United States had large commercial and religious interests in China, which it would never abandon; America's precarious neutrality toward Europe had to be evaluated. "I need you," Wilson told Edith. "I need you as a boy needs his sweetheart and a strong man his helpmate and heart's comrade." Wilson's dependence on love and sympathy almost overwhelmed his great responsibilities: his consuming desire was to take his love in his arms and smother her with kisses. Central to this love story, which led to his swift remarriage following the death of his beloved Ellen, is Wilson's recognition of his innermost yearning for carnal love as much as for companionship, protection, and emotional support. "I suppose there never was a man more dependent than I am upon love and sympathy," he had early confessed to Ellen; or a man "more devoted to home and home life."

Edith Galt's response to Wilson was as flattering as it was reassuring. She could think of nothing more restful than to have him read to her. Past unhappiness was dispelled by another "life giving" automobile ride. His taking time to send her a personal note was "only generous good measure with which you fill my goblet of happiness." His "pledge of friendship blots out the shadows that have chased me today, and makes April twenty-eighth a red letter day on my calendar." Mrs. Galt was henceforth a constant luncheon and dinner guest of the president and Miss Bones or Margaret Wilson and motoring companion to the two women. In that spring and summer the president's attention to her was publicly noted. Hoover, who had, with Helen Bones's assistance, become the discreet go-between in routing the lovers' letters, observed the soaring progress of the affair and would later boast that, from their first drive, he could tell which way the wind was blowing.

The evening of Tuesday, May 4, 1915, turned warm. As dinner guests dispersed, Woodrow Wilson gently guided smiling Edith Bolling Galt onto the south portico of the White House. There, in moonlight, he proposed marriage — which gave her "almost a shock." If it had to be yes or no at once, Edith said, it must be no. After midnight, the prospective fiancée sat by her own large, square window, staring into the night. Flattered, awed, thrilled, she was able at last, as she wrote to him, to pledge all that was best in her "to share these terrible days of responsibility...to help, to sustain, to comfort" him.11 Five days later, still hesitating over a formal acceptance of his proposal, Edith told Wilson, whom she had known less than two months, that "if you, with your wonderful love, can quicken that which has lain dead so long within me, I promise not to shut it out of my heart but to bid it welcome — and come to you with the joy of it in my eyes."

At midnight on May 11, Edith reported to Wilson on her noon interview with her friend and lawyer, Nathaniel Wilson (unrelated to the president), whose opinion she valued and who had long exhorted her to remarry. The lawyer had taken her hand in his, called her "Child," told her that without knowing why, he felt that she was destined to hold in her woman's hand a great power — "perhaps the weal or woe of a country." He had said she could be an inspiration and a force if only she did not willfully close her eyes to opportunity. "In order to fit yourself for this thing that I feel will come to you," he had advised, "you must work, read, study, think!"


Edith Galt had already read, studied, and thought about the subject of Woodrow Wilson, far more than her lawyer knew or than she may have realized. She had read Wilson's volume of speeches, The New Freedom, pressed on her by her sister-in-law Anne Bolling, who had ardently campaigned for the former governor of New Jersey. She had not only caught a passing glimpse of him, in the company of Altrude Gordon, at the White House and at the theater, she had also gone to hear him address Congress. Most recently and by a curious coincidence, Nathaniel Wilson, a Republican, had developed a strong intellectual interest in the president. He read everything Wilson had written, forwarding the books to Edith not only so that she might be in touch with national affairs, but because of their literary merit. At the same time, Edith could divine something of Wilson's emotional state through her friendship with Dr. Grayson and with her walking companion, Helen Bones.

It was not surprising that the couple formed an immediate bond. Both, as they discovered, had revered their fathers; both, as Southerners, Edith said, could speak about the poverty of their own people after the Civil War and of the fidelity of the old Negroes to their masters and mistresses. "He could rely on my prudence," she later testified, "and what he said went no further." As president, in pursuit of a second wife, he was almost as anxious a lover as the impoverished, questing young lawyer who had courted Ellen Axson, the shy art student from Rome, Georgia. Burdened by affairs of state, he was nonetheless most intensely preoccupied with his new love. Her tantalizing ambivalence to his proposal of marriage was almost as provocative as the suffering personality she projected during this period of their courtship.

In her letters to the president, Edith repeatedly refers to the melancholy aspect of her life, to "dark shadows," and to her "valley of darkness." A widow in her early forties, she emphasizes her youth and inexperience, appears retiring, almost reclusive. Incongruously, given her considerable height and Junoesque figure, she refers to conversations in which both her lawyer and Wilson address her as "little girl." Choosing to emphasize her sorrowful past, she recounts, in a letter to Wilson of May 11, her lawyer's advice: "Don't shut yourself up in this house alone because you are afraid to go into the larger life."

Her persistent depiction of this bleak self-portrait is at odds with her professions of a happy childhood, her dispassionate account of her first marriage, and her active widowhood with its references to her extensive travels and Parisian wardrobe, and even to the numerous telephone calls she received from admirers. Her ebullient mention of the president in letters to her family belies her moody responses to her suitor, suggesting that her sense of propriety or etiquette imposed equivocation rather than immediate acceptance of the president's marriage proposal. Too prompt acquiescence, she may have feared, would give an impression of unseemly eagerness. It is also possible that she suffered at times from depression, which may have combined with her policy of shy decorum. Her own account of her birth hints at a precedent for this strained behavior.


Edith was born at 9 A.M. on Tuesday, October 15, 1872, the seventh of the eleven children of Judge William Holcome Bolling. That autumn morning, the judge was late for work — but did not have far to go. He and his family lived on tree-lined, cobbled Main Street in Wytheville, Virginia, diagonally opposite the three-story brick courthouse. Their home was a maze of rooms above three street-level shops in the homely redbrick building next to the Farmer's Bank and across from the Wytheville Hotel. Edith recalled her revered father laughing as he related how her birth had delayed the opening of the court; and how he had concluded that she there and then began her career by "keeping gentlemen waiting."

She repeated many other family stories with gusto — with much or little verisimilitude. A Southerner by birth, tradition, loyalty, and ancestry, she would remain supremely Virginian, perfectly willing, as President Woodrow Wilson's wife, to observe the Memorial Day tradition of laying wreaths on the graves of Union generals in the Civil War, as long as the Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson were remembered as well.18 Virginia had seceded from the nation in May 1861 and was readmitted in January 1870, less than three years before Edith's birth. Her family had nurtured her allegiance with tales of antebellum glory and of devastation during the Civil War.

As for many Southerners, history, for Edith, seemed to stop in 1865, "then started again as memory." Edith liked to speak of more spacious times before the family, "with everything swept away," had had to leave, and later sell, their plantation. The ancestral place that Edith does conjure up with nostalgia, and that had been her grandparents' home, was nine miles from Lynchburg, cradled in a gently sloping valley, and crowned at the far end with the ravishing horizon of the Blue Ridge Mountains. However, unlike the soaring, columned grandeur of the James River plantations, the Bollings' 250-acre property was furnished with a humble white wooden house, together with a smokehouse and several log cabins. Though his grandparents had been the recipients of a 20,000-acre land grant, Archibald Bolling, Edith's grandfather, had built his modest clapboard Rose Cottage on a tract of land presented to his wife, Ann, along with numerous slaves, at their marriage, on May 15, 1825, by her parents, Benjamin and Harriet Scott Wigginton, who were also owners of vast properties.

One of the stories of the Civil War Edith remembered most keenly was her father's account of the family's loss of every valuable possession to the Northern troops except for the family silver, and of how, unable to afford the older Negroes who had stayed on after the emancipation, he had told them, "You are now free; you don't belong to us anymore, and you will have to work to provide for yourselves." Particularly wrenching, Edith wrote, was the plight of old Henry, the guardian of the silver, whose plea to go along with the family to Wytheville had been difficult to refuse. Despite Henry's role in preserving the silver, it had apparently vanished, or its amount may have been exaggerated, since the only silver specified on the "Appraiser's List of the Personal Estate of Dr. A. Bolling" (Edith's grandfather) is a lone ladle and a watch, estimated at $21 and $40 apiece. The six thousand pounds of oats and one hundred bushels of corn amount to less than $900, not half the worth of a twenty-two-year-old man named Daniel. Appraised at $1,800, Daniel was one of nine on the "List of Negroes belonging to the estate of Dr. A. Bolling." Seemingly oblivious to the causes or consequences of the Civil War, Edith's stories would revolve around an "old darky driver," or women smiling "as only darkies can smile, revealing the generous white teeth and something of the happy-go-lucky nature of the negro of the South."

Edith's father, William Bolling, had settled in Wytheville in 1857, age twenty-one, to practice law. Two years later, he was able to advertise his partnership with William Terry in the Wytheville Times. In February 1860, the year his father died, he and his mother, Ann, had bought at public auction the three-story building "with all the necessary outhouses" that was to be Edith's birthplace. For this they paid $6,810 in expectation of an income of $1,100 to $1,200 yearly from the rent of three shops on the first floor and the prospect of a flourishing vegetable garden in the picket-fenced backyard. Acquisition of the family home in Wytheville had, in Edith's Memoir about her birthplace, a more genteel patina, conjuring up a charming dwelling and an easing of the financial burden. The "one light in the dark world" of the Bolling family's impoverished post-Civil War existence was its assurance of a roof over its head in Wytheville due to the old house on Main Street, which Edith, in disregard or ignorance of the facts, stated that her grandfather had taken in payment for a debt.


Though Reconstruction took its toll, farming brought a degree of prosperity, and in Edith's youth, Wytheville, wreathed by the Allegheny Mountains, prided itself as a "healthy, intelligent and enterprising town" embracing about two thousand people, four hotels, seven churches, and three weekly newspapers. In summer, passenger trains arrived daily with visitors headed for the town's native mineral waters. Even before it took its place on the railroad in 1856, a decent road from Pennsylvania to Kentucky had saved Wytheville from the isolation suffered by neighboring towns.

Despite the inadequacies of the shabby Bolling household, Edith said that "understanding, sympathy and love made up for material deficiencies." Her world, bound by her own four walls and the picket fence that framed the back garden, provided space enough, she claimed, for what she regarded as her own "healthy development of body and mind." The Bolling family expanded to include, at one period, both maternal and paternal grandmothers, two paternal aunts, a cousin, and seven more children: fifteen or twenty to feed at each meal.

Despite Edith's attempt to gloss over her family's impoverished state, a neighbor was left with the lasting impression of her "sad and poor early life," although another friend spoke of her happy, joyful home. There may have been truth in both those accounts. The Bollings resorted to boarders to supplement their slender means. Dr. Benjamin James Perry, who came from Montgomery County, Maryland, in 1870, to practice medicine in Wytheville, not only paid them a monthly rent of $20, but seems also to have served the family in his professional capacity on October 30, 1872, prescribing medicine for a baby who may well have been the two-week-old Edith.

Edith speaks of her father as being older (he was born on May 20, 1837; her mother, January 5, 1843), as though to explain by a difference of six years, why her timorous mother should have deferred to her husband in everything. In portraits, William Bolling's dark, arched eyebrows, blunt mustache threaded with gray, and his dark beard heighten his stern demeanor. He would serve as a lawyer for the Norfolk & Western Railroad and was appointed to the prestigious Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia in 1888, although he had not graduated from the law school. His acceptance of this honor with its implicit financial obligations — it entailed donations to the university — puzzled those who wondered, seeing the Bollings' apparent impoverishment, whether Judge Bolling might have built a facade of prominence at great cost to his family.

Edith would speak of her grandmother Bolling as an unusually capable and dominant person to whom an obstacle was merely something to be overcome; she scorned the word can't and held, instead, that "anyone can do anything they try to." Though Edith in her youth physically resembled her tall, gravely pretty mother, in all other aspects the influence of her grandmother, Ann Bolling, was greater. In portraying this tiny, stooped, lame woman enthroned on a rocking chair that was lined with dog skin, Edith worried that she may have given her "too much canvas." In repaying a loving debt of gratitude to this distinct personality, Edith inadvertently painted a double portrait: she and her grandmother shared a startling likeness of personality. She augments the comment of her grandfather — who, writing on December 7, 1841, feared that Ann was too industrious for her own good: he had often thought "it would improve us both if our habits could be by some means neutralized; giving me more energy, and crippling your over industry with a little of my super abundant Laziness."

Edith Bolling, instinctively, from the most tender age, was evidently her grandmother's rapt convert. Ann Bolling also was "as strong in her likes and dislikes as she was in every relation to life. She simply did, or did not like you — and that was the end of it, and no compromise." Edith herself revealed an iron will in a bizarre anecdote about an occasion of her young Wytheville days when she and her sister were entertaining two brothers on the second-floor rear balcony of their house. These two "very boring young sons of the Episcopal minister," had overstayed their welcome, so Edith said to them: "'I bet you can't jump off that balcony to the ground.' "'Of course we can.' "'I dare you.' "'They went out on the balcony and getting over the rail they hung by their hands from the floor. At that point I trod on their fingers. They left!"


Ann Bolling would have nothing to do with Edith's older sister Bertha, but being the favorite was "not all a bed of roses." Edith was responsible for stoking the fire, around the clock, of her grandmother's large room — which was densely furnished with a couch, a lamp on the candlestand, some chairs, a huge four-poster bed, and a trundle bed in which slept a number of the children and several pet dogs. Edith's duties also included washing her grandmother's elaborate lace caps in a special tub and ironing them.

Fortunately, the girl found generous compensations in discharging her duties. Grandmother Bolling's pleasure — no inconsiderable asset when compared with her displeasure — provided the key to all advantages: physical, material, and spiritual. Edith gave Ann Bolling credit for teaching her nearly everything she knew. Her grandmother's steel knitting needles clicked relentlessly as Edith read long Bible passages, the catechism, Children of the Abbey, Lorna Doone, and Tristram Shandy, and attempted French. Edith also learned to sew, embroider, hemstitch, and crochet, and to cut and fit dresses (instruction that at least prepared her for assembling a wardrobe at the Paris salon of Frederick Worth, if not to cope with graver challenges).

Edith's father also contributed to her education. With Edith at his side, seated in Grandmother Bolling's room, reading by the lamplight of his student days, William Bolling unfolded Shakespeare's world, where Hamlet pondered existence, and Shylock demanded his pound of flesh. In general, Edith's concept of Jewish people apparently owed much to her early encounter with Shylock; yet she would always be effusive in her praise and trust of Wilson's friend, Bernard Baruch, the chairman of the War Shipping Board, seeking the financier's advice, enjoying his bouquets and hospitality, which included the gift of a voyage to Japan. However, writing home during a stay in France with her friend Altrude Gordon, Edith praised their French companion and guide for her thoughtfulness — and for being a "perfect Jew about getting everything as cheap as possible." In latter years, in the company of Wilson cabinet members, including Josephus Daniels and Robert Lansing, the story was told of a woman who had two stars for her nephews killed in war. Edith responded with the tale of "a jew merchant who had 75 stars...not for his family in war but [for] the 75 customers he had lost because of the war." Edith admired her mother's beautiful, round script, each character formed "as though for an engraving," and regretted her own wayward handwriting, unruly and juvenile, an oddly untidy aspect of her otherwise fastidious person. During Wilson's courtship, she was shamed by her "drably written sheets where even his clear, legible writing bespeaks perfection." His letters and hers, she concluded, were characteristic of their personalities, and it was useless for her to attempt to impress him. Resigned to her blots and faults, she concluded, "I am what I am," consoling herself that her strengths lay elsewhere.


Though her three older sisters attended school in Wytheville, Edith preferred her grandmother's tutelage and was excused, on grounds of shyness, from studying even with the itinerant governess she mentions as having somehow met up with the Bolling household. Edith's decision to forgo early formal instruction outside her home — and her family's endorsement of her choice — doubtless contributed to the results of her first exposure to systematic schooling. On her fifteenth birthday, she was sent to study music at the Methodist-affiliated Martha Washington College in Abingdon, Virginia. The four-year college and associated Conservatory of Music offered three years of preparatory studies; its curriculum was rigorous and extensive, its purpose and philosophy in regard to women positively visionary. Four years of history were required; stress was laid on the study of mathematics. Physics and chemistry, Latin, French, and German were taught. The one-year commercial course incorporated studies in civil government and political geography with grammar, spelling, bookkeeping, and typewriting. Health, at Martha Washington College, was the "essential condition of perfect mental and physical development." During cold weather, Edith and her classmates were expected to exercise indoors, to march and to run, work out with dumbbells, clubs, and chest weights. In spring, opportunities included tennis and basketball, and walking the eight-acre campus of lawns and groves.

Despite claims that the food was wholesome, the hall and buildings heated by steam, the dormitories furnished with Brussels carpeting, Edith complained of hunger and cold among other deprivations. Alien as she was to the rigors of scheduled classes, mandatory dress, prescribed social hours, and the obligations of community living, her unhappiness was foreordained. She abandoned school after the first year. She spoke of the cruelty of the school director, the epitome of everything narrow, mean, and bigoted, "a man," she remembered, "whom Dickens could have chosen to head Dotheboy's Hall."


Edith was not yet sixteen when, on the first June night of her return from Martha Washington College, she fell in love with a thirty-eight-year-old man who had come to call on one of her sisters. A wealthy New Yorker representing Northern capitalists, he kept fine horses and entertained in a more elaborate style than was customary for Wytheville's townspeople. He transferred his attention to Edith almost immediately, claiming to have fallen in love with her at first sight. Edith saw or heard from her suitor every day, initially assuming that his gifts of candy and flowers and his moonlight picnics on top of the mountain "represented merely acts of kindness of an older man to a child." Although in retrospect she referred to this as an imitation love affair, she must have been more than superficially involved. She declared herself entirely recovered from her "fascination" during her second attempt at school during the following winter in Richmond, Virginia.

The Richmond Female Seminary, established by John Henry Powell and more widely known as Powell's School, at 3 East Grace Street, was an ample brick structure embellished with iron filigree porch pillars and balustrade. Instead of the black that had given Martha Washington College an air of perpetual mourning, Powell's students wore their prim versions of fashionable dress in a variety of colors. In their long, willowy-waisted, bustle-backed gowns, some with lacy jabots or ties at the neck, some covered with aprons, they looked far more domestic than bluestocking. Edith expressed great enjoyment of Powell's. When she left in May, however, at the end of her first year, her school days were over. By the following winter, her family, with her three brothers to educate, could not afford her continuance at the Richmond school.

Her fragmentary education was to be a regret in later years. When President Wilson was beset by crises in Europe, Haiti, Panama, Mexico, or in his own cabinet, she mourned her impoverishment. The weight of the president's burden saddened her. "Never before did I long for the wisdom of a well-informed mind half so much," she told Wilson, "for then I could be a staff for you to lean on." Wilson, in reply, gallantly assured her that he loved her because she satisfied "everything that is in me," and that he "could not love or admire a blue-stocking or endure a woman politician."

At seventeen, Edith accepted the invitation to visit her older sister Gertrude Bolling, who had married Alexander Hunter Galt of Washington, D.C. Galt was a member of a prosperous family-owned silver and jewelry business that took pride in having sold a silver tea service to President Thomas Jefferson in 1802. Edith left Wytheville in 1889, presumably to follow in her sister's footsteps: to find an eligible partner during the coming months when a new world was opened to her in Washington.45 Differing a shade from Henry Adams's claim of having gravitated to the capital "by a primary law of nature," Edith's move, like that of small-town girls everywhere, was at this stage motivated merely by a primary law of opportunity.

Copyright © 2001 by Phyllis Lee Levin

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  • Posted December 28, 2011

    First Woman President

    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.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 25, 2002

    A TRIUMPH -- ENGROSSING ACCOUNT OF THE SECOND MRS. WILSON

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2001

    An Outstanding Accomplishment

    '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.

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