Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
American Experience - Woodrow Wilson
The Film & More
Wilson - A Portrait
Woodrow Wilson
Ellen Axson Wilson
Election of 1912
Legislative Victories
African Americans
Edith Wilson
America at War
Women's Suffrage
League of Nations
Special Features
Teacher's Guide

Wilson - A PortraitEdith Bolling Galt Wilson

Wilson meeting Edith Bolling Galt Not long after Ellen died, the week that the war broke out, Wilson made a comment that he wished somebody might shoot him.  He was that miserable over the loss of Ellen Thomas J. Knock, Historian

With war raging in Europe and his beloved wife Ellen dead, Woodrow Wilson was a lonely and unhappy man. But all of that changed one afternoon in 1915, when the doors of the White House elevator opened to reveal a striking woman in walking clothes and muddy boots. The president wasted no time introducing himself to Edith Bolling Galt, a 42-year-old widow.

Edith Bolling Galt Wilson

Edith lived most of her life either within or near the American capital, rarely bothering to follow politics. She was born on October 15, 1872, in the rural Virginia town of Wytheville. One of eleven children, Edith claimed a lineage of southern aristocracy extending back to Pocahontas, the 17th century Native American woman who married into the English settlement at Jamestown. Edith married the heir of a prominent jeweler in Washington, D.C. only after compelling him to endure a rather extended four-year courtship.


Edith & Woodrow She was a wealthy widow, her husband had been dead for years.  She wore clothes from Paris.  She drove her own little electric car around Washington. Betty Boyd Caroli, Historian

Friendship with Woodrow Wilsonís cousin led to the widow Galtís chance meeting of the president in the White House. Over fifteen years Wilsonís junior, Edith captivated him with her charming, independent vitality. After an intense, whirlwind, and almost unseemly courtship, Edith and Woodrow were married, only nine months after meeting, in a very small ceremony at her Washington, D.C. townhouse.


Presidential Limo
[56k] [220k]

Edith Boling Galt Wilson

The new first lady rarely took an active public political role, but dazzled the American people with her gracious manner and fashionable couture. Privately, Edith worked arduously at the presidentís side. She was apprised of state matters and, after the outbreak of the First World War, even decoded secret transmissions. All the while, Edith was attendant to her husbandís increasingly burdened health.

After the warís conclusion, she pleaded with Woodrow not to undertake a grueling cross-country campaign in support of his cherished League of Nations. Wilsonís resulting physical breakdown and paralyzing stroke gave occasion for Edithís most enduring legacy.


Edith and Wilson Wilson's stroke caused the worst crisis of Presidential disability in American history.  And it was handled terribly. Essentially, Mrs. Wilson became a kind of regentÖ.John Milton Cooper, Historian

During the presidentís months-long convalescence, Edith imposed a self-described "stewardship" of the Presidency. Seeking to protect her husbandís health at all costs, she allied with his loyal physician to shield the president from all outside visitors. She served as the only conduit to the president. White House usher Ike Hoover recalled, "If there were some papers requiring his attention, they would be read to him -- but only those that Mrs. Wilson thought should be read to him. Likewise, word of any decision the president had made would be passed back through the same channels." Edith faced criticism for her actions, but she was specific that she never made decisions on her own. Though she carefully controlled her husband's days, the charges that she usurped the duties of the Presidency were exaggerated

 A frail Wilson muddled through the last year of his Presidency. His favorite activity was watching newsreels from his time in office, with old friends like Ray Stannard Baker. At the conclusion of Wilsonís term in office, he and Edith retired to a Washington, D.C. townhouse where Wilson died just three years later. Edith would survive him by more than thirty-seven years.


Wilson's Stroke
[56k] [220k]



Woodrow Wilson: Home | The Film & More | Timeline | Gallery | People | Teacher's Guide | Special Features

American Experience | Feedback | Search & Site Map
New content 2001 KCET: This site was produced by KCET for American Experience and PBS Online.

Exclusive Corporate Funding is provided by: