The man and woman in the street didn’t know what was going on. The man in the halls of power knew hardly any more. The silence and the misinformation coming from the White House left plenty of room for speculation. “We have a petticoat government!” declared Senator Albert Fall of New Mexico. “Woodrow Wilson is not the president…. Mrs. Wilson is the president!” He might have been aiming to provoke a response (or calling a bluff). None was forthcoming. The Baltimore Star and London Daily Mail identified Mrs. Wilson as the “acting President,” while somewhat more circumspect, the Canton Daily News averred Mrs. Wilson was merely “one of the foremost statesmen in Washington.” What was going on?
White House chief usher Ike Hoover gave his insider view ten years after the president’s death. Edith gave her own account five years after that in My Memoir, which propped up the official White House line of late 1919 to early 1921. To wit: while the president was physically limited he remained mentally sharp. Edith’s support, while significant, was as nurse, wife, and aide, not regent or “acting president.” Corroborating documents remained sealed until 1952, after which historians began to piece together events. In recent years, Phyllis Lee Levin (Edith and Woodrow, 2001) and William Hazeltine (Madam President, 2015) have told for today’s readers the surprising when not shocking tale of “America’s first woman president.”
Woodrow Wilson lost his first wife two days after the start of World War I. So deep was his grief that he was nearly incapacitated as the world burned around him. So concerned was his physician and confidant, Dr. Cary Grayson, that he stooped to play matchmaker. And it worked! Wilson fell hard for Edith Bolling Galt. His spirits revived…then he was nearly incapacitated by love.
Edith had lost her first spouse, too. On the death of Norman Galt, Edith took control of his jewelry business and became a successful woman of affairs. She traveled abroad and became a woman of the world. When Grayson played matchmaker, Edith demurred: “My dear doctor, I am not a society person. I have never had any contacts with official Washington, and don’t desire any.” But events—and the not-to-be-denied passion of the president—overtook her. Wilson fell hard: love on first sight. (“She’s a looker,” the doorkeeper remarked. “He’s a goner,” replied the president’s valet. Over time, less dramatically, she fell for Wilson, too.
It took Wilson all of seven weeks to make a proposal of marriage. The timing with world events was, again, inauspicious: three days after the sinking of the Lusitania. Edith put him off: “Oh, you can’t love me, for you don’t really know me, and it is less than a year since your wife died.” Wilson was devastated for the second time in ten months. So off-balance was he that he went off-script the next day in Philadelphia and let slip the most famously ill-chosen words of his presidency: “There is such a thing as being too proud to fight.” The next day, Woodrow pulled himself together and found the strength to compose his first Lusitania note. All the while, Edith was foremost in his mind: “And oh, I have needed you tonight, my sweet Edith! What a touch of your hand in a look into your eyes would have meant to me of strength and steadfastness as I made the final decision as to what I should say to Germany. You must have felt it. You must have heard the cry of my heart to you and known in every fiber of you that I needed you.”
Blackness threatened to settle over the White House again, but Edith softened and Woodrow toughened (somewhat). By September the two agreed to marry. Picking the date carried even more than the usual amount of weightiness. When would be the most politically expedient time? Too unseemly to forge ahead in the fall? Could they wait until after the election of 1916? They settled on December, just three months away
In the meantime, the president would not allow domestic or world events to keep him from “making love” to his betrothed. “[You are] the companion I want (nobody satisfies my mind or my fancy as you do), the counselor I want (nobody steadies me as you do), the sweetheart I want (nobody delights me as you do), the wife I want (nobody can glorify or complete my life or give me happiness as you can.” Edith was flattered. And thrilled. “Much as I love your delicious love letters, that would make any woman proud and happy, I believe I enjoy even more the ones in which you tell me…of what you are working on—the things that fill your thoughts and demand your best effort, for then I feel I am sharing your work—and being taken into partnership, as it were….”
It is a strange thing to think about: a president spending time wooing a woman while he is supposed to be leading the nation, expending mental energy on romance as the world burns, engaging in the most private relations under the watchful eye of the Secret Service. (This was not the first time a president would marry while in office. Tyler, in the 1840s, and Cleveland, in the 1880s, had preceded him.) Agent Edmunds Starling admitted he had to resist the temptation to look away from the man whose every move he was supposed to monitor. When the president visited Edith (code name “Grandma”!), Starling had to stand outside her house often for four or five hours. He preferred trailing the two lovers on strolls through Rock Creek Park, the president “acting like a boy in his first love experience.” Once, the agent could have sworn Wilson danced a jig.
Edith Wilson biographer, Alden Hatch, quoted at length by Hazelgrove, captures the essence of the Wilsons’ relationship. “Very few husbands and wives have ever been as close as the Wilsons. The president’s need for companionship; his complete devotion to his wife; his trust in her judgment; and, paradoxically, his lone wolf method of conducting the government which required a confidante rather than advisors, had led him to expose her and her alone to his most intimate thoughts and to make her a party to his every decision.” [Woodrow needed Edith to ground him and to give him strength. Edith needed (without the emphasis!) Woodrow to gain access to a world otherwise barred to women of her generation. “I, an unknown person, one who had lived a sheltered, in spin inconspicuous existence now having all the threads in the tangled fabric of the world’s history laid in my hands, for a few minutes….” Minutes became hours.
Hazelgrove quotes Wilson biographer, A. Scott Berg, to show the extent of the husband and wife collaboration. They rose at 6:00 for a game of golf; at work by 8:00 with Edith sorting papers and getting his signatures on those that required it. He would discuss their contents with her, and she would listen as he dictated replies to his stenographer. As the United States was drawn into war and demands on his time increased, the two began to wake at 5:00.
Levin shows that Edith was closely involved in the preparation of Wilson’s “Peace without Victory” speech to the U. S. Senate in January 1917. If I read her correctly, Edith began decoding sensitive international communications for the president in August 1917. Later in the year she began decoding and encoding sensitive communications between the president and his closest advisor and attaché to London, Colonel Edward House. In Paris, at the peace conference, she may have appeared to be an accessory, yet, according to Edith’s secretary, Edith Benham, “All noticed that [Mrs. Wilson] was constantly [at the president’s] side, and that a look exchanged between them could sometimes change the tone of the conference.” Did the proximity to power go to her head?
Perhaps. But Edith came by her strong opinions and forceful character honestly: They were part of her nature. As far back as the Lusitania, she pushed her boyfriend to dump his independent-minded secretary of state. “It will be a blessing to get rid of him,” she said of Bryan. Her strong opinions could be retrograde. The women picketing outside the White House in 1917 were, in her view, “detestable suffragettes ” and “disgusting creatures.” (Still, Hazelgrove thinks her input was decisive in getting the president—after years of incremental advances and hedging—to support unequivocally the federal woman suffrage amendment. He asks, after laying out the evidence, “Is there any doubt who really changed his mind for him?”
Edith Wilson was so closely involved in her husband’s work as president that when he became incapacitated by a stroke in October 1919 it was only natural for her to step up and take charge. She didn’t need to be told twice when the neurologist, Dr. Francis Xavier Dercum instructed her: “Have everything come to you; weigh the importance of each matter, and see if it is possible by consultations with the respective heads of the department’s to solve them without the guidance of your husband.” Involving Wilson in affairs of state, he said, would be like “turning a knife in an open wound.”
So it was that Edith Wilson, Dr. Cary Grayson, and Wilson’s secretary, Joe Tumulty—all three unelected to any position by the American people—began a conspiracy to keep from those same voters the true status of their president. In the service of that goal, they were compelled also to make decisions that would affect the operation of the government the Constitution had so conscientiously set up with checks and balances. As the usher Ike Hoover wrote, “Never was deception so universally practiced in the White House as it was in those statements being given out from time to time.” The deception reached its pinnacle on December 5, 1919, when the situation in Mexico dictated that a meeting with the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee could be put off no more. The meeting took place with Wilson still in bed propped on pillows, his paralyzed left side covered, the lighting dim. Gilbert Hitchcock’s report to the press on Wilson’s alertness made him an unwitting co-conspirator of the triumvirate. Hoover called the episode “the great camouflage.”
Edith was protective of her husband’s health, first and foremost. Increasingly she became protective of his legacy, which led her to take unseemly, even dangerous actions. With no constitutional authority, she became the arbiter of access to the president and the gatekeeper of information allowed to reach him. She (in collaboration with Grayson and Tumulty) kept Vice President Marshall from assuming what should have been his constitutional duty. She became, in Benham’s words, “the mouth piece for the president,” actively “transacting a great deal of the business of the government at that time, and her influence decided the P. In few decisions which were brought up to him.” Wilson’s “confidential secretary” Gilbert Close had little firsthand knowledge, having been banished from the West Wing by Mrs. Wilson. Spending his days twiddling his thumbs, it was his understanding that Edith “ran the whole show during that period.”
Other aides and advisors were denied access, even Tumulty. According to Hoover, Wilson’s secretary “tried so hard to get to the president but he was kept away as if he was a leper…. Grayson would have let him in but Mrs. Wilson would not do so.” Secretary of State Robert Lansing, too, was persona non grata, both for his alleged perfidy in Paris and for calling cabinet meetings in the sick president’s absence. “I have to remind you,” Wilson wrote Lansing, in his stroke-induced paranoia and dictated to Edith, “that no action could be taken without me by the Cabinet, and therefore there could have been no disadvantage in awaiting action….” Lansing was miffed.
Colonel House was deeply hurt. He could not understand why his longtime friend and benefactor was pushing him away. In time he came to see that it was Edith who might have been threatened by his close relationship with the president which long predated her own. As early as Paris, 1919, Edith began undercutting House’s influence. After Wilson’s stroke, she cut him off completely. Because she could. She played off her husband’s paranoia, like Iago off Othello’s jealousy, and deepened his intransigence. House went months from his post in Europe without communication from his boss. Yet, still, he labored on Wilson’s behalf. Returning to the States he worked to salvage a compromise on the League with Lodge and the Republicans. House had nothing to gain except his benefactor’s gratitude. He incurred his disdain, instead. This time, we get the words directly from Edith: “By conferring with Lodge, his arch enemy” [whom elsewhere she had called a ‘snake in the grass’] House had “broken the president’s heart.” And he House’s.
Wilson’s snub of House on the issue of League compromise holds the possibility of world historical consequences. The possibility becomes near certainty when taken with his Edith-incited snub of British ambassador Lord Grey. The man who had failed to prevent the apocalypse of 1914, was called out of retirement to prevent the implosion of the League of Nations. Arriving in Washington just before the president’s stroke, he left three months later without ever having been granted an audience. Edith would not allow it.
The reason for her intransigence: an indelicate intrigue involving Grey’s aide, Charles Crauford-Stewart. It seems, in the previous ambassadorial regime under Rufus Lord Reading, Crauford-Stewart had earned opprobrium for an ill-advised crack against the president. Edith demanded that the aide be removed from the current legation before the president would deign to meet with Grey. An impasse resulted that was never bridged. Grey went home in disgust. Crauford-Stewart’s crime? He was the originator, according to Levin, of the joke that had made the rounds in 1915: “When Wilson proposed to the second Mrs. Wilson, she was so surprised she nearly fell out of bed.” Edith could not forgive–or ignore–such insolence, even at the cost of worsened international relations. Levin describes Edith, early in her book, as “disarmingly adventurous and purposeful,” while “at the same time frivolous and petty.” The last descriptor is especially apt in this episode.
Both Levin and Hazelgrove wonder how history might have been different had Edith not undercut House’s efforts, had she allowed Grey access to an admittedly enfeebled president, had she allowed the so-called Bonsal compromise to reach her husband’s eyes. “Surely the United States led League of Nations would have been better in checking arising Germany then the isolationist cocoon the country found itself in,” opines Hazelgrove in his book’s conclusion. And in her forward, Levin asks us to “consider whether events leading to the Second World War might not have been recast had Edith Wilson permitted the vice president, Thomas R. Marshall, to supplant her incapacitated husband in the White House in 1919. Given Marshall’s reasonable temperament,” compromise with Lodge Republicans would have been a very realistic possibility.
Many less world-historical issues were affected by Edith and the triumvirate’s extra-constitutional legerdemain. Bills requiring response within ten days were allowed to become law without presidential signature. Other documents were signed with Edith holding his hand or forging his signature. Correspondence of unknown importance was allowed to go unopened and unanswered. Cabinet posts unfilled. Levin believes Wilson was uninvolved in “his” veto of the Volstead Act (which he would have agreed with and which was swiftly overridden). She says, too, he might have been unaware of the constitutionally questionable Palmer Raids.
It feels unfair to pick on Edith. She had energy and boldness and independence at a time when women were allowed little outlet for such qualities. Hazelgrove calls her “formidable” with better political instincts than her husband. At the same time, he downplays the groundbreaking nature of her accomplishment. At her first husband’s death and her second husband’s incapacitation, she had done as all American women who had lost a spouse had done before her. She stepped up to “run the family business.”
Levin is perhaps less charitable. The documentary record, in her view, opens her up to the charge of being “ruthless, presumptuous, and shallow in her regard for the highest office in the land.” Ditto the Constitution. Cavalier is another word that comes to mind. So consumed was she with protecting her own interests, even if motivated by the lofty emotion of love, she was blinded to the consequences of her actions on her country and the wider world. Second wave feminism would have been shocked—and appalled—by this earlier iteration of “the personal as political.”
Hazelgrove, William. Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson. Washington, DC: Regnery, 2016: 37, 61, 62, 64, 78, 105, 117, 141, 143, 175, 224, 236, 272.
Levin, Phyllis Lee. Edith and Woodrow: The Wilson White House. New York: Scribner, 2001: 14, 70, 75, 79, 103, 111, 143, 180, 343, 351, 362, 365, 368, 373, 389, 404, 407, 422, 428-429.