The Magazine

The Two Mrs. Wilsons

The 28th president and the women who sustained him.

May 9, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 32 • By KEVIN R. KOSAR
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Ellen and Edith

Wilsons

Corbis

Woodrow Wilson’s First Ladies

by Kristie Miller

Kansas, 348 pp., $34.95

For some time I have been struggling to find a near-synonym for “uxorious.” It is an ugly old word that rebukes a man for being “overly fond” (Webster’s) or “submissively fond” (OED) of his wife. Its earliest written usage (1598), by Joseph Hall, bishop of Norwich and poet, growled of “mannish housewives [who] make a drudge of their uxorious mates.” Clearly, “whipped” will not do: That is a crude, more recent pejorative that has the same essential meaning as uxorious. What I want is a word that describes a man who passionately loves a woman but remains his own person with his own self-chosen sphere of work.

I suppose I will have to make do with the word “needy,” but in the sense of Genesis 2: “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’ ” Bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh, a man becomes a whole man only with woman. And defined thus, we can now say that Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States during 1913-21, was a very needy man.

I would not have believed it were it not for Kristie Miller’s eye-opening Ellen and Edith. I had always thought of Wilson as a bit of a cold fish, an aloof figure and devout Presbyterian who had a Ph.D. in history and political science, and read books like Abel Hendy Jones Greenidge’s Handbook of Greek Constitutional History (1896). All of which is true, but he was also intensely romantic.

Wilson was no Casanova, for sure. That he managed to find a woman at all is a little surprising. Born in Virginia in 1856, Wilson grew up a frail boy in Augusta, Georgia, who did not learn to read until he was 12 years old. There were two sisters in the household, and he was reared largely by his mother, a woman he admired for her “sweet womanliness, her purity, her intelligence, [and] her strength.” Once out of his parents’ nest, he floundered. Wilson quit Davidson after one year, got through Princeton, and then dropped out of law school. At age 26, he was without prospects. He had the mien of a dour apothecary’s clerk, and was often sick.

Then, by luck, he met Ellen Axson, a smart young fellow Georgian. She found Wilson interesting, but she wasn’t husband-hunting; she wanted to become a painter. Wilson wrote to her frequently and soon asked Ellen to affirm that she was “interested in my work and fortunes. .  .  . To be believed in by the woman who has his highest esteem is, you know, [everything] to a man.” Against her wishes, Ellen began to love Wilson. They were engaged in September 1883, just five months after they had met, and were married less than two years later.

Ellen became the rock upon which Woodrow Wilson built his fame. She goaded him onward with encouragement, kept his house, and bore his (three) children. Ellen translated books for him and wrote digests of his readings, which helped Wilson finish his doctorate at Johns Hopkins in three years. He became a professor of jurisprudence and political economy at Princeton in 1890 and president in 1902.

Life was not easy for Ellen Axson Wilson. She homeschooled their three daughters, cared for a troubled brother who lived with them, and bore the brunt of the multiplying social and political demands that came with her husband’s successes. Ellen’s sister suffered from depression and another brother died in a freak accident. Woodrow Wilson, meanwhile, did not make things any easier: He often was away from home, first chasing the governorship of New Jersey (1910) and then the presidency (1912). When Wilson was present, he would (as he put it) go to Ellen “as a tired boy would go to his mother, to be loved and petted.” He was so needy that Ellen told a friend, “If I am just a little sky-blue he immediately becomes blue-black!” Wilson also began experiencing physical breakdowns: One of his hands froze up, and one morning he awoke blind in one eye. Medicine’s knowledge of hypertension was slim in those days, so Wilson’s treatment consisted mostly of relaxing in Bermuda while Ellen held down the fort in New Jersey.

Ellen’s tireless efforts proved insufficient. Wilson began a flirtatious relationship with Mary Allen Hulbert Peck, a widow and remarried woman, in 1907. Ellen was not amused, but she tolerated Wilson’s caddish behavior: Peck, she told herself, was good for his health because she made him “feel young and gay.”

But when Ellen died of kidney disease in August 1914, the 28th president was a wreck: “I never dreamed such loneliness and desolation of heart possible,” he declared. Wilson was inconsolable for months, and his advisers saw the peril: World War I in Europe had begun, and the president was floundering.

Wilson bucked up when he met Edith Bolling Galt. This “outgoing, buxom” Washington widow and jewelry store proprietor was literally what the doctor ordered: Dr. Cary Grayson, the president’s physician, arranged their first encounter. Soon Wilson was head over heels. He told Edith she was “the perfect playmate” who could “match and satisfy every part of me .  .  . the man of letters, the man of affairs, the boy, the poet, the lover.” They were married in December 1915.

As it happens, Wilson had no idea just how much he would come to need Edith. She buoyantly handled all the White House entertaining duties and social correspondence, and kept the weakening Wilson steady by compelling him to play golf and take long car rides with her. After the president was disabled by a stroke in October 1919, Edith held the White House together over the remainder of Wilson’s term. She beat back both the press and members of Congress and the cabinet who clamored for Wilson’s attention (or resignation), continued to dote on the invalid after he left office, and was at his side when he died in Washington in 1924.

“For the next thirty-seven years,” Miller writes, Edith devoted “her considerable energies to burnishing her husband’s legacy.” Her monuments to her husband include a presidential library, a foundation, a collection at the Library of Congress, and a museum. Woodrow Wilson had two wives who spent their lives for him. Woodrow Wilson was a very fortunate man. 

Kevin R. Kosar is the author, most recently, of Ronald Reagan and Education Policy.

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