If you’ve been over to my reading blog, then you probably know I am not a big fan of Woodrow Wilson. In fact, I would go so far as to rank him in my top five worst presidents we’ve ever had, and that is a pretty competitive list.
But I’m not here to talk politics, I’m here to talk history. And regardless of how I feel about the man, he did pick a pretty savvy second wife. While I don’t agree with all (most) of her actions (least of all marrying a sexist, racist jerk who, among his many accomplishments, extended WWI 2-3 months longer than necessary, put war news above preventing the spread of a worldwide pandemic, didn’t believe women should be educated, and gave us segregation at the federal level), she made the best of a bad, stressful situation came out on top.
Edith Bolling was born in 1872 in Virginia to Judge William Bolling and his wife, Sallie. Descended from wealthy slave owners, William Bolling sold the plantation after the Civil War when his law practice proved unable to pay the taxes on the property and managing the land without slave labor proved too difficult. Indoctrinated with these believes, Edith grew up quoting the idea of the “lost cause”, and was extremely proud of her planter heritage.
She had eight other siblings, which stretched money thin. Her father chose to concentrate on the education of her older brothers, and Edith was largely and sporadically educated at home. She had little interest in her schooling, even after being given the opportunity to study at two different female seminaries. The first she hated, and was brought home after only a semester. Her second try lasted a year, but the school closed down after an accident left the headmaster with only one leg.
Four years later, she was visiting her sister in Washington, D.C., when she met and fell in love with jeweler Norman Galt. They married in 1896, and by all accounts had a happy marriage until Norman died in 1908. They had no surviving children; the one child she gave birth to in 1903 died after only a few days and left her unable to have any more.
Heartbroken at the loss, she hired a manager to handle her husband’s business and took her inheritance from the estate to travel Europe.
For the next several years, Edith concentrated on travel, fashion, and ignoring the snobs in Washington society who looked down on her for inheriting a fortune that came from “trade.” Instead she became the first woman in the city to drive an automobile, which scandalized those who thought she wasn’t good enough for their drawing rooms.
In August of 1914, President Wilson’s first wife, Ellen, died of kidney failure. He sank into a deep depression until the following spring, when his cousin, who was temporarily serving as White House Hostess, in the absence of a first lady, introduced him to Edith. He fell hard and fast and within weeks had asked her to marry him.
Though not known for her intellect, Edith was not one to pass up an opportunity. She agreed, and the rumor mill instantly set to spinning. The former First Lady had barely been dead six months, and now the president was remarrying? In an age not far divorced from the Victorians and their 2.5 year mourning period for widows, this was shocking, especially from a head of state. Instantly there were rumors that not only had the president cheated on his wife with Edith, but that the two had conspired to murder her.
The rumors grew so intense the Edith postponed the wedding, and even considered calling off the engagement altogether. Somehow, Wilson convinced her not to and they were married on December 18, 1915, after a year of mourning that she insisted on. The wedding took place at her home in Washington before she moved to the White House. It was a small ceremony with only 40 people present.
Though America had not yet entered WWI, she introduced various cost- and resource saving measures including Meatless Monday and Wheatless Wednesday, and allowing sheep to graze on the White House Lawn. The wool was later auctioned to benefit the Red Cross and sold for over $52,000. In today’s money, that would be just under a million dollars. After the US entered the conflict, she joined her husband on two trips to Europe.
In 1919, after the grueling peace talks in Paris, which lasted for months amid the third wave of the Spanish Flu epidemic, the Wilsons returned home. The president was ill for much of the trip and failed to recover his full strength. Today, historians are divided on what exactly he suffered from. Most agree he contracted the flu, but it is also possible that he suffered from one or more TIAs, or mini-strokes. Over the course of the trip, his stamina, breathing, and appetite suffered, but he also experienced a severe decrease in cognitive function, memory lapses, and other symptoms that indicate it was more than a “simple case” of the flu. Another option is that the 1918 flu, which was particularly virulent, left him, like many thousands of others, with long term health problems. We may never know for certain what the true cause was.
After weeks of being bedridden, he returned to the peach talks deflated and exhausted. Though he’d spent months trying to convince France and Britain to meet Germany halfway, he gave up on all his previous demands for the treaty. The subsequent “agreement” stripped German of resources. which was directly responsible for the rise of Adolf Hitler and the start of WWII barely twenty years later.
In October of that year, he suffered a massive stroke which left him partially paralyzed and bedridden. Afraid of inducing a panic so soon after the war, Edith and his cabinet chose to hide his condition from the general public, carrying on as though everything was fine. She handled his correspondence, bringing him only the things she thought truly necessary for him to see, and limiting his contact with others. She continued this practice until the end of his term a year and a half later.
During this time, she was the only conduit to the president. Any messages had to go through her, and she in turn would decide what should be presented to him and what could be handed off to the Vice President or another committee. She insisted that she made no decision on his behalf, other than what information to give him–which itself could be problematic. She inserted herself fully into acting out what she perceived to be his wishes, giving priority to items she knew Wilson would be strongly for or against. She explained things to him in the early days of his recovery, and assisted him in filling out and signing paperwork.
Not everyone appreciated her work. Secretary of State Robert Lansing held several secret cabinet meetings to debate the removal of the president from office on account of his inability to perform, but at the time the 25th amendment, which allows Congress to vote on the removal of the president due to an inability to “discharge the powers and duties” of the office, had not yet even been drafted (this would actually be the impetuous behind it, but we were still only at 17 fully ratified amendments in 1919, so there was a ways to go). If there is any doubt that despite her modesty Edith did have power, she successfully lobbied to have Lansing removed from office because of these meetings.
Considering her lack of education, and the lack of oversight government officials had when it came to exactly what she communicated to the president (all of their meetings were private), many have understandably taken issue with her role during this time. It can be said that with no 25th amendment, and no effective way for removing the president and ensuring a smooth transition of power during an uncertain time, she did the best she could with what she had. However, she also tried to force Lansing to fire an employee of the British Embassy who made a lewd joke at her expense (okay, she had a point there; that’s not okay behavior for anyone, but she still doesn’t get to dictate who works for what embassy).
A large portion of those in government still mistrusted her after her hasty marriage. It does, after all, look like a power-hungry widow took advantage of a grieving president, then leapt at the chance to take over when he was incapacitated. And if there were rumors of Edith and Wilson poisoning Ellen Wilson, what was to say she hadn’t–and wasn’t still–poisoning the president slowly so she could keep her new position, effectively acting as president? She was the only one with access to Wilson, and therefore the only one with access to his signature. She was convinced he would not recover if he lost office, but perhaps it was only herself she was looking out for.
When Wilson left office in March of 1921 (remember those other amendments we talked about? One of them changed when presidents and other members of government started and ended their terms), Edith took him home and continued to nurse him until his death three years later.
After, she went back to scandalizing society and kept up with her political ambitions, supporting the Women’s National Democratic Club, of which she headed the board of governors, and was present for several later inaugurations and major speeches, including when Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war in 1941. She passed away in 1961 and was buried with Wilson.