One of the most underrated First Ladies of the 20th century is the intelligent, gentle and multi-talented Ellen Wilson – Woodrow Wilson’s first wife.
Ellen Axson: Georgia Peach
The life of Ellen Axson Wilson (1860-1914) was bookended by war: Born in Georgia, just as the cannons of the Civil War were getting ready to boom, died when the cannons of World War I were about to do the same.
At an early age, she had displayed a distinct talent for art. When she was still in high school, one of her drawings was submitted at a Paris Exposition by her teacher, and it won a medal. Ellen hoped to earn a living teaching art.
Those goals were negated by her family needs. By the time she was twenty-three, both parents had died, and she had three younger siblings who needed her.
Then there was Woodrow Wilson.
Ellen Wilson: Professor’s Wife
Woodrow Wilson met Ellen in an appropriate setting: church. Both were children of ministers. Instantly attracted to the pretty young woman, he arranged for an introduction, and began an ardent courtship, mostly by correspondence. Three years later they married, but from the start, the Wilsons never had an empty house. Her nine-year-old brother Eddie came to live with them, with Woodrow’s enthusiastic approval. The three Wilson daughters were all born within the first five years of their marriage.
For the next twenty years, the Wilson home, wherever it was, became a revolving door of Woodrows, Wilsons and Axsons and assorted other relatives as long-term guests.
Professors do not traditionally make a great deal of money, even highly respected ones like Wilson. With all the mouths to feed, Woodrow wrote prolifically and was a popular speaker. With him absorbed by his work, house management fell to Ellen Wilson, including the bookkeeping, home-schooling the girls, making her own (and their daughters’) clothes, watching over everyone’s health and well-being, entertaining their army of guests, and first and foremost, looking after her husband. She was keenly aware of Woodrow’s mood swings and its effect on his health, which was always iffy. Wilson was a man whose emotional comfort was totally dependent on a woman’s nurturing.
And he never made a speech or wrote a book without Ellen’s input and review. Her insights were intelligent and usually accurate. He listened.
Ellen Wilson: First Lady
It may have been a circuitous route, but Wilson’s rise in politics was neither surprising nor meteoric. He had aspired to “high political” office even before he became a professor of government studies, Princeton University’s president or NJ Governor. By the time of his election to the presidency in 1912, Ellen had already had several years of high-level social activities and entertaining.
Also by the time she became First Lady, her daughters were grown, and she had some uncrowded hours to devote to her art. “EAW” as she frequently signed her paintings, was achieving serious artistic notice – not as Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, but for her art itself. Many American Impressionists knew her, knew her work, and respected her talents. She had an agent, sold her paintings, and was displayed in galleries and museums.
Life was good and all was well in 1912. But Mrs. Wilson came to the White House with a secret: one she did not even know herself.
At fifty-three, she embarked upon a very active agenda: daily political receptions, luncheons, teas and dinners, answering huge amounts of mail, planning and designing the Rose Garden (her permanent contribution), active involvement in Washington slum clearance projects and issues for federal women employees, planning White House weddings for two of her daughters, attending to Woodrow, and finding a few spare hours for her art. If she felt tired, or her energy flagged, she likely suspected her age and her hectic schedule.
She was partially right. She was also partially wrong.
Ellen Wilson: The First Lady Dies
Ellen Wilson was understandably tired, but in early 1914, about a year into Wilson’s presidency, she tripped in her bedroom and fell. It required medical attention, and Dr. Cary Grayson, the Wilsons’ personal physician was summoned. He quickly ascertained that while the fall was not serious (no broken bones or concussions,) it required care. It was a shock to her system, and she would have aches and pains for a while.
He prescribed bed rest with conventional treatment, but Ellen’s body decided otherwise. When Dr. Grayson realized that Mrs. Wilson was not responding as expected, he looked further, and discovered that she was in late stages of Bright’s Disease, a kidney ailment, then always fatal. She had had this disease for years and didn’t know it.
It was still the Victorian age. Doctors did not share an ominous prognosis with the patient or the patient’s family, but in this case, Dr. Grayson knew Ellen. She was a “steel magnolia,” who demanded the truth. They both agreed to withhold the information, and the prognosis, from Woodrow. They knew he would be so unnerved that it would affect his own health, and might compromise his abilities as President.
It was also a fearful time in Europe, a tinder-box about to explode. The United States President had to be fit to withstand the turmoil about to be unleashed.
For a few months, Ellen’s health ebbed and flowed, but mostly ebbed. Woodrow was not told of its hopelessness until two days before she died. As expected, his grief was devastating, and he rode in the baggage car, with the coffin, on the long train ride to her family plot in Rome, Georgia.
Ellen had begged Dr. Grayson to “take care of Woodrow,” a phrase he no doubt understood in both the overt and tacit implications. When Mrs. Galt came into Woodrow’s life some eight months later, both Dr. Grayson and even Woodrow himself may have been comfortable knowing it was with Ellen Wilson’s blessing.
McAdoo, Eleanor Wilson – The Priceless Gift – McGraw Hill, 1962
McAdoo, Eleanor Wilson – The Woodrow Wilsons – Macmillan Co. 1937
Miller, Kristie – Ellen and Edith – University Press of Kansas, 2010
Saunders, Frances W. – Ellen Axson Wilson – University of North Carolina, 1985