The widowed Wilson married the widowed Mrs. Galt only eight months after they had met.
The Wilsons: A New First Couple
The morning of December 16, 1915, Woodrow Wilson was a happy man. Aides said the new bridegroom was whistling and dancing. He had married the forty-three-year-old widow Edith Bolling Galt the previous evening at a small ceremony in her Washington town house.
The new Mrs. Woodrow Wilson sold her town house and moved into the White House ready to assume traditional First Lady duties, but her first responsibility was to her husband. Dr. Cary Grayson, Wilson’s personal physician, was also Edith’s friend, and primarily responsible for introducing them. Now that they were married, Dr. Grayson shared some of the troubling facts about Wilson’s health with the President’s new wife.
Grayson explained that Wilson had a long history of un- or misdiagnosed strokes, chronic digestive ailments, severe headaches and arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Arteriosclerosis was untreatable, according to the doctor, but other problems could be helped by a change of diet, fresh air, exercise and reduced stress. Edith was charged with the task of making sure the President obeyed that regimen. She took the charge very seriously.
The newlyweds were inseparable. They rose very early every morning, had coffee in their room, and then went to play nine holes of golf. Neither were good golfers, but the fresh air and exercise was healthy, and they enjoyed it immensely. Then they had breakfast together, before they went to their daily duties. Unhappy with those arrangements, Wilson had a desk moved into his own office for Edith. He wanted her near him.
Woodrow Wilson had something with Edith that he had never had with his first wife: the luxury of time and companionship. He had spent most of his first marriage immersed in family and financial obligations. With Edith, there were no families to raise, and they had no financial worries. They were very deeply in love. They could enjoy each others’ company.
Edith Wilson’s New Role: Presidential Confidante
Traditionally, First Ladies were concerned with social matters and housekeeping management. Since the first Mrs. Wilson’s death some fifteen months earlier, those activities had been curtailed, if not neglected. Edith Wilson was an experienced hostess, and assumed those duties easily. White House dinners and receptions glittered under her expert supervision.
The Wilsons appeared together at every opportunity: at vaudeville and theatrical performances; on near-daily carriage rides; at baseball games. Edith Wilson loved appearing in public. She was photogenic, and happy to pose for the photographers. She was also happy to accept bouquets and take a bow.
World War I had erupted in Europe a year earlier, and the President was immersed in keeping up with the tumultuous events. In a decision that would be unheard of today, he taught Edith the secret cipher codes, so she could “translate” his confidential messages. Professor Wilson was also giving her a crash course in on-the-job governmental education. She began reading her way through his extensive library, and poured over the daily newspapers. Professor Wilson encouraged her to ask questions, and was delighted to explain the fine points. President Wilson never talked down to her, expecting her to understand completely. She usually did.
Woodrow Wilson had never been a familiar man in the sense of glad-handing and personal relationships. Those few who had become close to him began noticing the increasing influence the new Mrs. Wilson seemed to have with the President. They did not like it one bit. They were shocked at her access to privileged information. They were being shunted aside – and besides, a woman had no place in politics. Edith made no effort to woo them either. She would not permit anything to come between her and her husband.
Edith Wilson and The First World War
The United States finally entered the Great War, as it was called then, in 1917 – three full years after it had inflamed Europe – and after Wilson had exhausted all efforts to keep America out of the fighting.
Now the First Lady embarked on new duties and activities. When Mrs. Wilson’s photo was printed in newspapers across the country depicting her as a Red Cross volunteer, wearing her uniform cap and apron, thousands of women joined up to help with the humanitarian effort.
She dismissed the White House gardeners to free them for more important war work. Then she bought a flock of sheep to keep the lawns cut au naturel. When the sheep were sheared, a pound of their wool was sent to each state, to be auctioned off for war bonds.
Edith was also in charge of “renaming” captured German vessels. Drawing on her old lineage dating back to Pocahontas, she gave the ships Indian names. When “meatless,” “wheatless,” and “heatless” days were introduced to save food and fuel, the Wilson White House was happy to participate. Edith insisted that the policy was strictly enforced – and even more important, made public.
Those were the happy years for Edith and Woodrow; three wonderful years of intimate partnership. If the politicians found their closeness annoying, they were nevertheless polite, but they were beginning to dislike her intensely. Edith sniffed enemies trying to breach her relationship with the President, but she held her tongue – but it rankled. And she made no bones about letting her husband know how she felt.
It would rankle her even more, once the War had ended.
- 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