The Stewardship of the Second Mrs. Wilson

“Steward” was the word that Edith Bolling Wilson used to describe herself during the last 18-months of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, when he suffered a crippling stroke.

Edith Bolling Wilson: A Conspiracy Theory?

President and Mrs Wilson

The Wilsons, around the time of their marriage in late 1915.

Modern historians, freed by the distance of a century, are poles apart on the subject of the second Mrs. Wilson. Some hail her as “the first woman president.” Others disparage her saying that she took it upon herself to “run the country.”

The middle ground point of view is more inclined to focus on a concerted effort to prevent the extent of the President’s condition from becoming public knowledge.

Edith’s role in the so-called “cover up” was more than political. It was personal. She was still a bride. Woodrow Wilson’s first wife of thirty years had died early in his administration. Eight months later, he met the widowed Edith Galt (1872-1961), and they were married in December, 1915. Less than four years later, Wilson collapsed with a severe stroke.

Edith’s priorities never wavered and were summed up simply: she was married to a sick man who happened to be President of the United States. Her loyalty was to her husband, not to his position as head of state.

With the assistance of Cary Grayson, Wilson’s personal doctor, and Joseph Tumulty, his private secretary, Edith controlled the priorities: Protect Woodrow Wilson from any stress that might exacerbate his condition, or worse, cause another episode.

Woodrow Wilson Has A Stroke

“Recovering” Woodrow Wilson and Dr. Grayson in 1920. (photo via Woodrow Wilson Birthplace, Staunton, VA)

In September, 1919, when Edith heard the thunk in the bathroom, Dr. Grayson was urgently summoned to the President’s room.  He recognized the signs immediately. Specialists were called and they all agreed: Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) had had a severe stroke – but he would live. They also agreed that Wilson’s mental impairment was recoverable, but it would require several weeks of bed rest.

The public was told that the President was ill and needed rest, but the details were sketchy at best. Vice President Thomas Marshall was not summoned, nor given any authority or responsibilities.

Dr. Grayson’s thinking, generally corroborated by the attending specialists, was that Woodrow Wilson needed to maintain his “aura” of being The President; if that was removed (i.e. divested to the Vice President) he would lose his will to live. That thought became primary in Edith’s mind: her husband must be protected from stress, and he must remain President.

2ndinaug

WWI takes its toll. The Wilsons at the inauguration in March, 1917.

Between Mrs. Wilson, Tumulty and Grayson, who churned out regularly-sweetened reports of the President’s condition, they carefully orchestrated Wilson’s infrequent appearances, once he was permitted to resume some of his duties. The formidable Mrs. Wilson was in constant attendance, often taking notes – at the President’s request, she claimed.

Edith Wilson: Steward or Dragon Lady?

In the memoirs she wrote twenty years later, Edith Wilson insisted that she made no presidential decisions and assumed no government functions. Her only decisive role, she said, was to determine what was to be brought to the President’s attention, and when: a very important decision.

Edith02

Even as an “older” widow, Edith Wilson remained a formidable presence.

Edith Bolling Galt Wilson was an intimidating woman, both physically and in personality. She stood 5’9″ in her stockings, and was the largest First Lady to that time. She was considered “Junoesque” in physique, nose-to-nose to most of the political men she encountered.

It was Mrs. Wilson who summoned them on occasion; it was Mrs. Wilson who received them; it was Mrs. Wilson  who was on hand to change the subject, if she thought it might be upsetting for her husband and it was Mrs. Wilson who let them know when time was up when they visited the President.

Like a fire-breathing dragon protecting his cave, Edith became an obstacle to members of congress, the cabinet, the press and to some extent, the country as a whole. No one got past her, and as time went on, few of her contemporaries liked her.

Truth or Half-Truth?

Frail ex-President Woodrow Wilson. After his stroke, he never walked again without two canes and/or an aide.

The basic truth is that Wilson did recover to a fair extent, although he had some permanent paralysis and would never walk again without two canes.

His mental acumen, while somewhat reduced, was by no means incompetent. He could read and understand; his memory, while somewhat impaired, was still primarily sound. He was still, for the most part, running the show – whatever show that was.

What was impaired, was his emotional health, his personality, his disposition, and to a fair extent, his judgment. This is a common phenomenon with stroke victims. He cried easily. His fixation on the League of Nations, the key point to the Treaty that concluded World War I, amounted to intransigence. Always flinty with his peers, he became flintier and paranoid, accusing anyone who disagreed with him to be “treacherous.”  The one time Edith suggested that he might compromise, he looked at her piteously saying, “Don’t you turn on me, too.”  She was devastated and never did it again.

Today the Vice President would be summoned at once, and would assume presidential responsibilities. In 1919, however, there was no real constitutional mechanism for a Vice President to assume responsibilities for an incapacitated President. Vice President Marshall cringed at the thought. The status quo needed to be maintained.

Was Edith “running the country” as many people claimed? Had she “become the President?” These are hostile remarks, never said with admiration, let alone any appreciation. Those who knew her at that time grew to dislike her intensely, as do many modern historians. The perception was that she prevented  access to the President. She was the gate-keeper. The dragon protecting the cave.

She alienated most of those associated with the Wilson era, and when several of them wrote their own books, she believed she was treated badly or unfairly.  She wrote her memoirs to present her “side” of the story, which, as might be expected, was skewed to her own advantage.

The only thing to her benefit, was the fact that she lived to be nearly ninety, and outlived all the “Wilsonians,” thus having the final say in the matter.

Sources:

  • Levin, Phyllis Lee – Edith and Woodrow – 2001, Lisa Drew Book
  • Miller, Kristie – Ellen and Edith – 2010, University Press of Kansas
  • Schachtman, Tom – Edith and Woodrow – 1981, GP Putnam’s Sons
  • Weinstein, Edward A. – Woodrow Wilson: A Medical and Psychological Biography – 1981, Princeton University Press
  • 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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