As particular individuals, Ellen and Edith come alive and not just appendages to their famous husband, even though they enthusiastically assumed the role of helpmate as their primary role in life. While opening a new perspective on our 28th President and the entire Wilson administration’s character, this article engagingly tells their tale based on historical facts gathered.
Ellen Louise Axson
The first wife of Woodrow Wilson was born on May 15, 1860, in Savannah, Georgia, and was named after her two aunts. She was raised in Rome, Georgia, where her father was a Presbyterian preacher, the Reverend S.E. Axson. She was first seen by Thomas Woodrow Wilson when he was about six, and she was just an infant. In 1883, “Tommy” visited Rome as a young lawyer from Atlanta and met “Miss Ellie Lou” again, now a beautiful child, holding a house for a deprived father. He was saying, “What glorious laughing eyes!” They did not marry until 1885, despite their immediate attraction, because she was reluctant to leave her broken-hearted father.
From 1864 to 1865, when she was still in pre-school, she attended The Madison Male and Female Academy in Madison, Georgia. The first First Lady to have obtained a formal pre-school education seems to be Ellen Wilson. Prepared in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War by her parents, with classes held in their home on Porter Lane, Ellen Wilson was just four years old when her formal education started.
Biographer Frances Wright Saunders chronicled that Ellen excelled in English literature, composition, and French and even taught herself trigonometry. However, the discipline that proved to have the most profound influence on her was the study of painting, starting with drawing guidance from instructor Helen F. Fairchild, a graduate of New York’s prestigious National Academy of Design.
The distinguished career of Woodrow Wilson at Princeton began in 1890, bringing new social obligations for his wife. She took refuge from such demands, as always, in painting. She had studied in New York for a short time, and her paintings’ quality was favorable compared to the professional art of the period. In 1913, she had a studio with a skylight built at the White House, and, despite that two of her daughters got married within six months and attended the hostess duties for the country, she found time for painting.
Long periods of intense depression have plagued Ellen Wilson. In the new century, she had many personal sorrows. Her brother Stockton began to experience mental and physical disabilities, and in a ferry crash, her other brother, his wife, and son drowned. She also witnessed what is known to have been her husband’s mental, if not physical, affair with a witty neighbor, Mary Hulbert Peck, a rich middle-aged Michigan mother estranged from her husband. Ellen Wilson was well aware of how reliant Wilson could be on women’s business and acceptance and the intense isolation during their separations that he endured.
Edith Bolling Wilson
On October 15, 1872, Edith Bolling was born in a small town in Virginia, and her formal schooling was spotty as her family was big and her brothers were favored. She married Norman Galt in 1896, at the age of twenty-three. In 1908, after the men died, she married the son of a jewelry store owner in Washington, D.C., and she became the owner. Her only child was prematurely conceived, surviving for three days only.
Her road to the weeping widower was through Woodrow’s friend and a personal physician dating Edith’s friend. One-touch led to another until, on March 23, 1915, Edith had her first dinner with Woodrow at the White House. He professed his love within a few weeks and wrote to her every day. On December 18, 1915, they wed, later than Woodrow wanted, but still close enough to Ellen’s death to cause some unseemly gossip.
Once married, Woodrow could hardly bear to be separated from Edith, sharing his work and leisure time with her. She would also read dispatches from overseas to him or translate messages and code his supervision to be sent. She made phone calls, checked his speeches, and behaved like an extension of herself.
Woodrow endured what looked like a series of small strokes in hindsight in the spring of 1919. Numerous causes were attributed to them at the time, particularly overwork. His left hand was thought to have been paralyzed by the massive stroke he suffered in October. In between, he had more bouts of injury, especially on a September tour of the United States to market the League of Nations to the public. Time was cut short in Utah following what would be his last speech. “in ruins.”
The extent of Woodrow Wilson’s disability was not revealed to the public, but there was a lot of speculation that he had suffered a stroke. And though, after four months of dissimulation, news leaked out, it was still unclear how sick he was. Woodrow had suffered from high blood pressure for a long time, but the only remedy at the time was rest, which became difficult during Europe’s treaty negotiations and the League war. Edith now made sure that he had plenty of rest, mainly by not allowing someone with official business to see him at all.
Edith watched her husband closely, serving as his gatekeeper, deciding which public business was sufficiently necessary to take up his limited time and resources. She spoke to officials who could speak to Woodrow and agreed to let him into his sick room. Edith announced decisions on appointments and other matters. All of this led to rumors that she was the first woman president to become President. She gave the impression that she was more than the amanuensis of her husband, although it is doubtful that she made any decisions.
Woodrow Wilson’s family moved into a newly purchased house in Washington after his presidency ended. Woodrow did some research, but on February 23, 1924, he was very frail and died. Edith lived there for another forty years until her death on December 28, 1961, sharing the house with one or more siblings. She spent those decades promoting her husband’s legacy, managing access to his journals, and becoming the dean of all First Ladies in general. Others may have believed she was the woman who would be President, but she never did.