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American Experience - Woodrow Wilson
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Wilson - A Portrait
Woodrow Wilson
Ellen Axson Wilson
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Wilson - A PortraitEllex Axson Wilson

Young Ellen AxsonWilson really needed a companion, and a lover.  The relationship between Ellen and Woodrow is probably the most romantic in Presidential history.
Thomas J. Knock, Historian

The future 28th first lady was born in Savannah, Georgia, on May 15, 1860, and lived most of her childhood in Rome, Georgia. An extremely bright but shy girl, Ellie Lou, as she was known, read widely and even taught herself trigonometry. She graduated from Romeís Female College, and was recognized for her artistic ability. At eighteen, she won a bronze medal for freehand drawing at the Paris International Exposition, and launched a promising career as a professional artist. A few years later, when her mother died and her father suffered a severe mental breakdown, Ellenís plans for a career as an artist were derailed. Her siblings looked to Ellen as the head of their suddenly parentless household.

Ellen Painting
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Young Ellen in oval

Woodrow Wilson then a lawyer, came into Ellenís life when he visited Rome on business and they met at church. A cousin once said that if Ellen ever married, the man would probably be of no consequence, since smart men were rarely interested in smart women. But Woodrow Wilson was eager for the love and support of a strong woman like Ellen. Almost immediately engaged, the couple waited to marry for two years because both had decided to continue their studies. Woodrow entered graduate school, while Ellen, whose father had died while confined to a mental asylum, used money from her modest inheritance to restart her study of art at the innovative Art Studentsí League in New York City. After marriage, Ellen devoted herself to her family and to Woodrowís career, garnering private praise as her husbandís intellectual equal.


Ellen's painting Autumn
Ö she was represented by one of the outstanding agents in 
New York City.  Her work was acquired by some 
of the outstanding museums in the country...
Betty Boyd Caroli, Historian

As Woodrow Wilsonís name became more recognized, Ellen submitted her paintings to exhibitions under an assumed name. The paintings were often accepted. For a brief time, an independent profession seemed possible. Yet Ellen chose to focus on raising her daughters and taking care of her extended family, some of whom lived with the Wilsons.

It was during Wilson's tenure at Princeton University that Ellen found herself in the role of the betrayed wife. Staying at home to care for her family, she sent Wilson alone to Bermuda on holiday in 1907. There, he met socialite Mary Peck, and began a dalliance that would extend through a second Bermuda visit the following year. When Ellen discovered her husband's infidelity, she was grief-stricken -- and he was guilt-stricken. But she eventually forgave him, and the couple moved on.


Ellen staring out window

Thrust into the role of first lady upon Woodrowís election as president in 1912, Ellen Wilsonís artistic desire gave way to official duty. She installed a studio with a skylight on the top floor of the White House, but found little time to use it. While previous first ladies worked behind the scenes, Ellen took on a direct, public role. Her political advocacy included, among other issues, opposition to child labor, help for the mentally ill, and better working conditions for women. She sought to improve living conditions in Washingtonís squalid ghettos by personally leading tours for Congressmen through the abysmal alleys. Her efforts resulted in a federal law bearing her name.


Ellen headshot Wilson was absolutely devastated by Ellen's death . . . she had been his greatest emotional support.  And now suddenly she was taken away . . .John Milton Cooper, Historian

Only a year into her husbandís first term in office, Ellen Wilson was diagnosed with a liver condition called Brightís Disease. Concerned foremost, as always, with her husbandís well being, she exacted a promise from the family physician to look after Woodrow when she no longer could. Ellen Wilson died at the age of 54 as war in Europe was breaking out.

In the days after her death, Wilson wandered alone through the White House. He was heard by his staff to mutter one phrase, again and again. "My God, what am I to do?


Ellen's Death
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