When the Cheering Stopped: The Last Years of Woodrow Wilson

When the Cheering Stopped: The Last Years of Woodrow Wilson

by Gene Smith


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The poignant true story of an American president struck by tragedy at the height of his glory.

This New York Times bestseller vividly chronicles the stunning decline in Woodrow Wilson’s fortunes after World War I and draws back the curtain on one of the strangest episodes in the history of the American presidency.
Author Gene Smith brilliantly captures the drama and excitement of Wilson’s efforts at the Paris Peace Conference to forge a lasting concord between enemies, and his remarkable coast-to-coast tour to sway national opinion in favor of the League of Nations. During this grueling jaunt across 8,000 miles in less than a month, Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke that left him an invalid and a recluse, shrouding his final years in office in shadow and mystery.
In graceful and dramatic prose, Smith portrays a White House mired in secrets, with a commander in chief kept behind closed doors, unseen by anyone except his doctor and his devoted second wife, Edith Galt Wilson, a woman of strong will with less than an elementary school education who, for all intents and purposes, led the government of the most powerful nation in the world for two years.
When the Cheering Stopped is a gripping true story of duty, courage, and deceit, and an unforgettable portrait of a visionary leader whose valiant struggle and tragic fall changed the course of world history.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504049399
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 02/06/2018
Pages: 340
Sales rank: 483,611
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Gene Smith (1929–2012) was an acclaimed historian and biographer and the author of When the Cheering Stopped: The Last Years of Woodrow Wilson (1964), a poignant portrait of the president’s final months in the White House that spent fifteen weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Born in Manhattan and educated at the University of Wisconsin, Smith was drafted into the army and served in Germany in the early 1950s. He began his career at Newsweek and reported for the Newark Star-Ledger and the New York Post before leaving journalism to write full-time. His popular biographies include The Shattered Dream: Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression (1970), Lee and Grant: A Dual Biography (1984), and American Gothic: The Story of America’s Legendary Theatrical Family—Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth (1992). For many years, Smith and his wife and daughter lived in a house built by a Revolutionary War veteran in Pine Plains, New York, and raised thoroughbred horses.

Read an Excerpt

When the Cheering Stopped

The Last Years of Woodrow Wilson

By Gene Smith


Copyright © 1964 Gene Smith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-3974-1


She who in her youth had been Miss Elly Lou Axson of Rome, Georgia, but who more latterly was First Lady of America, lay dying. In March she had slipped and fallen heavily, and during the spring she ceased to come downstairs for meals. In late July her doctor took up residence in the room next to hers, and as August began it was obvious that she could not live very much longer. And in fact the case was hopeless from the start, for she was suffering from Bright's disease and complications, the complications being tuberculosis of both kidneys.

Her husband, the President, either did not understand or could not to himself admit that she must die. All through July and into the first days of August he wrote friends that there was no real cause for alarm. But when her meals were served to her in the sickroom, it frightened him that she would not eat, and he would take a plate of food and sink to his knees beside her bed. "You will soon get well, darling, if you'll try hard to eat something," he would say. "Now please take this bite, dear." Often he got up at three in the morning to be with her when she could not sleep, and that he was there seemed to give her a degree of peace, for she was restless in those brief intervals when he left her. "Is your father looking well? Is your father looking well?" she kept asking her daughters when her husband was out of the room.

To one of the daughters, Eleanor — Little Nell or Nellie to the family — her sickness seemed like the coming-true of a terrible premonition. The day before her father's 1913 inauguration Nellie helped her mother dress for a tea-time call on the outgoing President and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. William Howard Taft. Arranging her mother's hair and adjusting her prettiest hat, the girl, excited and young, chattered away. But her mother was utterly silent. At the end, Nellie kissed her and told her how lovely she looked. And the mother put both hands over her face and burst into tears. Nellie found spirits of ammonia for her and after a while her mother said she was all right. But Nellie had seen an awful, sudden despair in her mother's face, something she had never seen there before, and it terrified her. When her parents had gone off to the Tafts', she began to walk around the room, saying over and over, "It will kill them; it will kill them both." She was crying, and soon she was screaming, and after a time she was crawling under the bed and pounding the floor with her hands and crying over and over again, "It will kill them! It will kill them both!"

But when the next day the sun came out just as her father, taking his oath of office, lifted his wife's small Bible to his lips, Nellie forgot her fears and took the light as an omen that all would go well. During the inauguration speech, it touched the girl to see her mother leave her seat to stand just beneath her father, looking up at him like a small child, a look of rapture on her face.

There was no Inaugural Ball — the President and First Lady did not want one — but there was a party in the White House, with the many relatives of the family, nearly all from the South, roaming through the rooms and singing around a piano. Cousin Florence Hoyt, a cripple, arrived at the railroad station and, unable to find a cab, hailed an old Negro selling frankfurters from a wagon pulled by a skinny scarecrow of a horse. She asked him to take her to the White House, main entrance, please, and he doubtfully agreed, suggesting, however, that they go in the back way. Cousin Florence would have none of that, though; nestling among the hot dogs, she told the man to make for the front door. Liveried attendants there lifted her out and, relatives shouting with laughter at her carriage, she was taken in to offer her congratulations. In the kitchen even an old servant of the President's late father was celebrating with the Negroes of the White House staff; to him the President — Cousin Woodrow and Uncle Woodrow to the majority of the guests — was still the Mister Tommy of boyhood days.

As Cousin Florence was being welcomed, someone came to say that Aunt Annie Howe, the President's sister, had fallen on a marble staircase and cut her forehead. A servant was sent for a doctor and returned with Lieutenant Cary Travers Grayson of the U. S. Navy, the White House physician under President Taft and Taft's predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt. Grayson at once sewed up the slight wound and quickly put Aunt Annie right, and the President said to him that it had all been so promptly and efficiently done that Lieutenant Grayson must have been prepared for Aunt Annie's fall even before it happened. The party went on: there was a stand-up buffet lunch, a parade, and in the evening wonderful fireworks.

In the days that followed, the Wilson daughters, Margaret, Jessica and Nellie, the first two blue-eyed blondes, the last a brunette with blue-gray eyes very like her father's — "a noticeable man, with large gray eyes," his wife called him, quoting Wordsworth — enjoyed themselves enormously. They were all single and in their twenties and Washington was marvelously stocked with young officers and aides to take them dancing and to the horse shows and parties. They frolicked around their new home, jumping out of dark corners to scare the servants, and they went on the White House tours incognito, loudly criticizing the President's daughters to the out-of-town tourists. Their father, looking better than he had ever looked before (or would ever look again), did not find his duties onerous. He spent no more than four or five hours a day on his work, and saying he still kept to a schoolboy schedule, he did not work on Saturdays or Sundays. Nights when the girls were home the family gathered by a piano, and the President and Margaret, an aspiring singer, performed duets together. Or the President did the imitations which had for years convulsed his daughters: The Drunken Man, during which performance he staggered about with a cow-like look in his eyes and an incoherent mumble coming from his slack lips; The Heavy Englishman, with an insufferably superior accent and an invisible monocle; The Villain, done with a scowl and a dragging foot; the Fourth of July Orator, gesturing not with his hands but with his feet, and Theodore Roosevelt, waving his fist and shouting, "We stand at Armageddon and battle for the Lord!" There were limerick recitations also, including the much-loved one with which, as head of Princeton University, he had surprised a dinner party:

"There was a young monk of Siberia,
Whose existence grew drearier and drearier,
Till he burst from his cell with a hell of a yell,
And eloped with the Mother Superior."

Sometimes in the Oval Room on the second floor, which the First Lady filled with their old furniture from Princeton, he romped with Nellie and Margaret around the table in so fast and furious a fashion that his wife cried out, "Woodrow, what is the matter with you?" Jessie would generally only watch, not participate, when the fun grew too boisterous, for she was, according to her father, classified along with her mother as one of the Proper Members of the family, as opposed to himself and Nellie, who were the Vulgar Members. Margaret, he said, was in between: she was Proper part of the time and Vulgar all the rest.

In the afternoons when the weather was good he and one or more of his womenfolk went riding in one of the White House Pierce-Arrows, big open cars with right-hand drive and the President's Seal on the door. He mapped out a series of routes, and the chauffeur was not allowed to deviate from them: The Number One Ride, The Southern Maryland Ride, The Potomac. Going on these rides, the First Lady saw things that shocked her. She was born in a small town and grew up there and after her marriage lived in a series of small college towns, and the crowded big-city back streets and alleys of Washington were a revelation to her. She walked through the slums and talked a great deal to the Negro servants about their homes, and it became her passion to do something for the people who lived in the houses that appalled her. She urged the President to get a bill passed that would clean up the slums, and he sent one on to Congress. That she was involved in such a project amused diplomatic and political Washington, and people smiled at the mention of her name. Her clothing also caused derisive comment, for she was far from fashionable. When she let it be known that she did not intend to spend more than one thousand dollars a year for clothes, she was marked down as an eccentric. Actually, for the former Miss Elly Lou Axson and former Mrs. Professor Wilson and former Mrs. President of Princeton, one thousand dollars for clothing was a fantastic sum. In the middle years of her marriage she was accustomed to spending less than fifty a year on her attire, and it was said in Princeton that every fall, year after year, Mrs. Wilson looked sweeter and sweeter in her brown fall dress. She had never in her life owned furs until after her husband was elected President of the United States; then she let him give her sables. She was tiny and gentle and had golden hair and spoke in the softest of Southern tones and painted landscapes in a studio she created in the White House attic. When, anonymously, several of her paintings were sold through a gallery, she donated the money to educational funds for Southern mountaineer people and for crippled children.

She loved flowers and plants and remodeled the gardens on the south lawn of the White House. She planted boxwood, rosebushes and rose trees, tall cypresses and clipped hedges, and placed among them a statue of a small Pan, which the servants said must be symbolic of the boy she had wanted to continue her husband's name. For that husband she had the very greatest of solicitude and worried constantly over his health, which had never been strong. A doctor once told her that as long as a man's neck was full and firm there was little need to worry about him, and often the First Lady massaged that of the President, calling to her daughters to come and see that there were no hollows there. Thinking of her husband's health, she sent for Lieutenant Grayson, who had patched up Aunt Annie with such efficiency, and asked him if he would not look after the President. Grayson took on the job. He found that the President had suffered for years from neuritis and respiratory troubles and that a retinal hemorrhage in his left eye had damaged his sight badly. Grayson's patient had been operated on for phlebitis — "I was flea-bitten," he explained — and was also subject to headaches, but his greatest trouble came from digestive upsets that caused nausea, heartburn and gastritis, all of which he treated himself with his own stomach pump and a series of powders. It was a matter of "turmoil in Central America," he said, of "disturbances in the equatorial regions." Grayson took away the pump and the powders and put the President on a rigid diet based on raw eggs and orange juice. The President did not mind the juice, but he balked at the raw eggs. "I feel as if I were swallowing a newborn baby," he groaned. Grayson forced him to stick to it, however, and also instituted regular golf sessions in Virginia and Maryland, getting up himself in the very early morning hours to make sure the President played the entire course. Himself a very mediocre golfer, Grayson was a fit partner for a player who, hampered by his poor sight, rarely broke 100, although his approach and putting shots were not bad. And the outings led to a new Presidential imitation: Grayson Approaching a Golf Ball. Soon the digestive problems were all but completely cleared up and Grayson, working with the President's valet, arranged for the President to be regularly served only well-chosen foods that would also appeal to him: oatmeal, chicken, steak, Virginia country ham, a bit of port after dinner.

But as the President's health improved, that of the First Lady declined. Jessica and Nellie had both gotten married, but as the family's second summer in the White House began, both came back to be with their mother. Then came August, the August of 1914, and she was dying. Holding her hand, the President worked by her bedside, and his secretary, Joseph Patrick Tumulty of Jersey City, New Jersey, gave it out that there by her bed he wrote his note offering to mediate the disputes of the Europeans falling into the disaster called the Great War. By his instructions the First Lady was not told of the war — "Don't say anything to your mother about it" — but when she asked about her bill to help the slum dwellers they were able to tell her it had passed Congress and would soon be implemented.

In the end the President knew that she was dying, for she told him so herself, saying also that it was her wish that he marry again. On the morning of August 6, even with the impact of her words upon him, he was able to write a friend that he was hoping still. But in the late morning or early afternoon of that day a Princeton classmate of his 1879 class, now a Philadelphia doctor, plainly said to him that she could not live more than a few hours. All through that hot afternoon not forty-eight hours after the first German troops crossed the frontier and met Belgian defenders, the President and the girls sat with Ellen in her room filled with flowered chintz and gay cushions and light-colored lampshades. Two nurses and Grayson were there also. In another room the husbands of the two married girls waited with Joe Tumulty, who, not very much older than the daughters, had loved Ellen Wilson like a mother ever since the days in the New Jersey Governor's mansion. They were all together in the other room and Grayson was alone for a few moments with her when she roused herself from a semi-stupor and took the doctor's hand to draw him to her. "Please take good care of Woodrow, Doctor," she whispered, uttering the last words of her life. A few minutes later Grayson told the family it would be well if they came back into her room. Twilight outside was about to begin; the day was still very warm. They walked to her bed and the girls knelt beside it. The President took her hand and was still holding it when, a little later, just before evening, she died. He was very controlled and looked over the bed at Grayson and said, "Is it all over?" Grayson nodded and the President quickly straightened up to fold her hands over her breast. She was fifty years old and they had been married twenty-nine years. He used to say, recalling the time they first met, when he was a little boy and she a baby, that he had loved her since she was in her cradle.

He walked to the window and looked south over the gardens she had planted and toward the Washington Monument and the Potomac and Virginia. Grayson was busying himself with the dead woman when he first heard the sobs. "Oh my God, what am I going to do? What am I going to do?" the President said over and over.

Outside, on the bell knob beside the main doorway, a heavy band of black crape soon appeared.

He did not want her to lie in a casket, so they placed her on a sofa in her room and he bent over to put a white silk shawl around her shoulders. For the rest of her time in the White House she was there, never alone at night, the President and one or more of the girls always sitting by her, talking quietly or reading or simply sitting still.

"God has stricken me almost beyond what I can bear," he wrote a friend, and the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, said to the Secretary that he feared the President was about to have a breakdown. But in fact he did not again completely give vent to his feelings after his first sobs had stopped. At times it seemed as if he were about to, but he would pull himself together, saying, "I must not give way."

Monday the tenth, in the morning, was the time for her funeral service, she at last in a casket resting on the shining floor of the East Room with its marble fireplaces and concert piano in gold leaf. Afterward the President and the girls withdrew to a room nearby and sat alone looking out toward the south. At two in the afternoon the funeral train left Washington for Georgia and the hillside cemetery in Rome where lay her mother and father, who in life had been, like the President's father, a Presbyterian minister.


Excerpted from When the Cheering Stopped by Gene Smith. Copyright © 1964 Gene Smith. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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When the Cheering Stopped: The Last Years of Woodrow Wilson 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
David Pierce 8 months ago
I now feel like I know President Woodrow Wilson.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago