Edith Wilson, The Merry Widow Galt

Young Edith

When Edith Bolling Galt met President Woodrow Wilson, she was a forty-two year old widow. He was fifty-seven and had been widowed for about eight months.

At forty-two years old, Edith Bolling Galt embarked on a surprising role on the national scene. 

Miss Bolling

The Bollings are an old old Virginia family, dating back to Pocahontas.  Edith, the seventh of nine children, was born in 1872, a decade after the Civil War diminished the family fortunes, despite their gentry standing and the fact that Edith’s father was a Judge.

Being low in the birth order, and a girl, her education was average at best.  College was out of the question.  Her opportunities were even more limited.  An advantageous marriage was by far her best option.

Edith Bolling was an attractive young woman, but tall: five-foot-nine in her stockings.  With maturity, her figure would become what people would euphemistically term “statuesque.”  Suitable young men, in that generation decimated by war, were scarce.  At twenty, she met Norman Galt, several years her senior, and it would be a lukewarm, pleasant courtship.  Edith neither encouraged nor discouraged, but Norman persisted.  With no better prospects on the horizon, they married when she was twenty-four.

Edith Bolling as Mrs. Galt

Marrying Norman Galt had indeed been a very viable option.  He was a prominent Washington jeweler, whose shop had been around since Lincoln’s time.

Despite their childless marriage, it was a happy one, albeit not overly exciting or romantic.  Edith would claim that she and Norman Galt were “great friends.”  The best part was that Norman was well-to-do, and happy to spend his money on whatever would make Edith happy.

edith in car

When electric cars became fashionable, Edith Galt bought one and learned to drive.

She was always stylishly and expensively dressed.  Fine jewelry was a given.  They enjoyed a pleasant social life and traveled widely.  They went to dinners and the theatre.  When automobiles were introduced, Edith was the proud owner of her own electric car.  She was also able to help her aging mother and single siblings from time to time.

A dozen years later, Norman died.  Edith as his sole heir would be a very comfortable widow.  She continued to dress well, to travel regularly, and through her interest in the jewelry store, developed a good head for business management.  She also maintained relationships with a small but select group of friends.

One of those friends was Alice Gertrude (Altrude) Gordon, a twentyish young woman whose deceased parents had been Edith’s close friends.  She took Altrude under her wing and was like a second mother.  Altrude had a beau:  thirty-something Cary Grayson, a Navy doctor, and personal physician to President Woodrow Wilson.  Edith liked him.

Wilson Meets the Widow Galt

President Wilson was a widower whose wife Ellen had died a few months earlier.  It had been an uncommonly happy thirty year marriage, and the President was understandably devastated and depressed.  To help ease the social burdens and house management, he had invited his cousin, Helen Bones, to move in.  She was a single woman near in age to Edith Galt, and Dr. Grayson thought they might have interests in common.  The two women became friends, meeting frequently for lunch or walks or shopping trips.

According to Edith (maybe a little massaged….) after an outing one day, they were caught in a rainstorm.  Since they were close to the White House, Helen suggested they go there for tea.  Edith had never been inside the White House despite living in Washington for two decades.  Her first reaction was to decline – her boots were all muddy.  Assured that it wouldn’t be a problem, they proceeded inside, where they encountered the President at the elevator.  He promptly invited himself to their tea party, where Edith found him to be delightful and engaging.  She would later claim that if he was depressed, you would never have known it from his charm and wonderful sense of humor that afternoon.

The following day, the President sent Edith a note, enclosing a copy of a book they had been discussing.  Days later, she was invited to luncheon – as “Cousin Helen’s friend.”  Invitations to dinners and teas and afternoon carriage rides followed.   It didn’t take the forty-two-year-old Widow Galt long to realize that she was being wooed.

President Wilson, the Lover

Woodrow Wilson was a Southerner, born in Virginia and raised in the Carolinas and Georgia.  He understood the nature of charm.   A woman’s nurturing and care was vital to Wilson’s emotional well-being  and once he had determined that Edith Galt was essential in his life, he proceeded to lay siege to her heart.

Within a month of their meeting, he not only had fallen in love, but had fallen hard.   This was a completely new experience for Edith.   Her courtship with Norman Galt had been steady, but bland.   Fifteen years her senior, Woodrow Wilson was a brilliant man, a professor, college president and author of several books.  He was President of the United States.  He was a romantic and passionate courtier.  Edith was overwhelmed.

edith_wilson

This is the photograph of Edith Bolling Galt that President Wilson had framed and kept on his desk.

Her photograph sat on Wilson’s desk.  A private telephone line was installed between his office and her town house, only a mile away.  He called often.   Letters between them flowed as well, and he sent his private aide to the post office every day to circumvent the White House mailroom.  Wilson had been a gifted teacher, and now he was teaching Edith politics and government – a subject she knew little about.  She was a quick learner however, and began reading her way through his library.  Their letters seesaw between ardent sentimentality and serious and often remarkably confidential political discussion.

Edith Bolling Galt was subconsciously being prepared for a role that neither of them could have known was coming.

Sources:

·         Hatch, Alden – Edith Bolling Wilson: First Lady Extraordinary, 1961, Dodd, Mead

·         Levin, Phyllis Lee – Edith and Woodrow – 2001, Lisa Drew Book

·         Schachtman, Tom – Edith and Woodrow – 1981, GP Putnam’s Sons

·         Wilson, Edith Bolling – My Memoir – 1939, Bobbs Merrill

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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