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Woodrow Wilson | Article

Edith Bolling Galt Wilson

Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, 1913. Courtesy: Library of Congress

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 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. 

Friendship with Woodrow Wilson's cousin led to the widow Galt's chance meeting of the president in the White House. Over fifteen years Wilson's 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.

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 president's 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 husband's increasingly burdened health.

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

During the president's months-long convalescence, Edith imposed a self-described "stewardship" of the Presidency. Seeking to protect her husband's 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 Wilson's 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.

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