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Edith and Woodrow: The Wilson White House

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The deathbed admonition of Woodrow Wilson's angelic, admiring first
wife, Ellen, that her husband, a great man, should not become a
lonely great man, paved the way to his remarriage. Enter
Edith Bolling Galt -- and the rest is "history," idealized,
sanitized, and indeed, invented in her autobiography: a story
played out in Washington and Paris and around the world, against
the guns of World War I and the partisan cross fire over the
eventual refusal of the United States to join the League of
Nations. The story of Wilson's second marriage, and of the large
events on which its shadow was cast, is darker and more devious,
and more astonishing, than previously recorded.

From the morning of October 2, 1919, when Woodrow Wilson suffered
coronary thrombosis, and a paralyzing stroke, Edith insisted that
her husband, the twenty-eighth president of the United States, was
yet a dynamic leader, an indispensable visionary, physically
enfeebled only temporarily. Though she acknowledged that she
studied every paper sent to her by various cabinet secretaries and
senators and had tried to digest and present in tabloid form
matters that in her view needed imperatively to go to the
president, "I, myself," she protested, "never made a single
decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only
decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and
the very important decision of when to present matters to my
husband." In fact, she could recall only one instance when she had
acted as intermediary in an official matter, "except when so
directed by a physician."

As the White House became hushed and secretive, Edith Wilson
assumed what she defined as her stewardship. When access became
tantamount to power, however, the handful of statesmen, historians,
and politicians who experienced her new authority tended to
describe her in more formidable terms, as female regent, secretary
of state, supersecretary, and ultimately, the first woman president
of the United States. She had become keeper of the key to the now
impregnable White House and to the president himself (Edith's
turbulent handwriting conveys her invalid husband's mumbled and
cryptic answers, such as they were, on all presidential
correspondence of that period), while official Washington pleaded
for her intervention on crucial domestic and international issues.
Edith herself categorically repudiated the allegations concerning
her exercise of power. It was always "others" who meddled with the
truth, whereas she would set and keep the record straight. In
writing her autobiography, My Memoir -- a testament to the
heroic presidency of her husband -- she presumed to take an "oath
to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth -- so
help me God."

No one would prove more adept than she at publicizing this image of
Woodrow Wilson and his Edith struggling valiantly and succeeding in
the White House. In addition to writing her Memoir, which
reflects her recasting of facts and prejudices, she subsidized the
author whom she appointed to compile the eight-volume biography
Woodrow Wilson, Life and Letters, and exercised her
authority over every word uttered in the film Wilson: The Rise
and Fall of an American President,
produced in Hollywood in
1944. That film, a benevolent tour of the twenty-eighth president's
life, depicts the melancholy scene, immediately following Wilson's
severe stroke, in which his physician assures Edith there is no
need for her husband to consider resignation in favor of the vice
president. To the contrary, with certain precautions and support,
administered by Edith, he is declared to be entirely capable of
conducting the government of the United States. In conforming with
this heartening prognosis, Wilson does, in the film, reappear on
the White House veranda as an able, cheerful invalid. Though one
might assume that the dialogue revolving around the momentous
decision that Wilson remain in office should be attributed to the
scriptwriter Lamar Trotti, its source is Edith Wilson's own
Memoir. Her name fails to appear among the screen credits,
but a deputy of Mrs. Wilson's was on the scene to affirm her story
line. Ray Stannard Baker, her husband's anointed and openly
partisan biographer, whose "absurd scenario picture" of the
president "as a stainless Sir Galahad" was denounced by Winston
Churchill, is listed as one of the two technical advisers.

Baker did not disappoint Edith Wilson's confidence. The film was
the fulfillment of her life's work to exalt her husband. Wilson
without blemishes was to be compared to Washington and Lincoln, the
rectitude of his position regarding the League unquestionable, his
opponents in that pursuit indefensible, his physical disabilities
negligible, and his intensely affectionate correspondence with a
third woman, outside his two marriages, excluded.

Eluding the eyes of occasional skeptics of "the White House of
Mysteries," Edith Wilson retained a host of acolytes, including
several senior historians, who accepted her interpretation. Perhaps
they knew her as a youthful widow and were of a generation too old
(and too gentlemanly) to believe that the Southerner with the soft,
musical voice might have deceived them, or that any such woman
might arrogantly preempt power and deliberately distort her
country's history. One of her prominent champions, for example,
acknowledges that "Mrs. Wilson's memory is often faulty, colored by
her preconceptions," while simultaneously insisting that her
Memoir is an "essential document." With such support, Edith
Wilson has had her way with history -- and might have continued to
do so but for recently disclosed medical reports dating back to
1919, which refute the romantic story she assiduously devised. All
turned to ashes on the Memorial Day weekend in Upperville,
Virginia, in 1990, when the sons of Wilson's physician and
confidant Cary Grayson -- James Gordon Grayson and Cary T. Grayson
Jr. -- released the original diagnoses made by their father and his
colleague Dr. Francis X. Dercum on the occasion of Wilson's stroke.
These papers make it clear for the first time that on October 2,
1919, Wilson suffered a devastating trauma, so extensive that it
precluded anything "more than a minimal state of recovery." Given
Wilson's beclouded presidency, the late Arthur S. Link, dedicated
editor of sixty-nine volumes of The Papers of Woodrow
who regarded the task as a "divine call," and who had
originally dismissed the idea that Edith Wilson ran the government
after her husband's illness as "pure nonsense...more into the realm
of legend than scholarship," would concede, on further thought and
almost wistfully, that "Edith emerges as the master of the cover-up
(such as it was), doesn't she?"

Though Wilson, due no doubt to his frail health, never managed to
write the history of his presidency, a multitude of surrogates --
and one has the impression that everyone attending the Paris Peace
Conference kept a diary -- abundantly filled the void. Yet Wilson,
who appeared to the world as a dogmatic idealist, more preacher
than diplomat, did leave behind a confessional autobiography in his
correspondence with three women. Those letters reveal throughout
the seasons of his life the rise and fall of a narcissistic,
ambitious, sensual, dependent, emotionally vulnerable, and
physically impaired man, who led the United States during World War
I. The intimate letters -- to Wilson's treasured first wife, Ellen,
and subsequently to his epistolary beloved, Mary Allen Hulbert
Peck, with whom he maintained an extensive correspondence until his
remarriage -- help to prepare us for the whirlwind courtship and
capitulation of the widower of eight months to the reverential
Edith Bolling Galt. Flattering and possessive and physically
attractive, she was soon his lover and trusted political adviser.
Wilson met Edith Bolling Galt in March 1915; he proposed marriage
in May. In June she acknowledged her joy in being taken into a
"partnership as it were." By August, Wilson gave affirmation of
their shared lives and work. By December, they were man and wife.
There would be much to learn about his new partner, his "strange,
lovely Sweetheart," and there is no doubt that Edith revealed her
"secret depths" with style and imagination and, according to her
whim, with more than a tinge of fantasy. By the time her formidable
talent for fiction was disclosed, the damage was done. Her victims
included her husband's closest and trusted adviser, Colonel Edward
Mandell House, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Secretary of State Robert
Lansing, and a renowned British ambassador; and of course, the
president himself.

The revelation of the physical and mental condition of the invalid
Woodrow Wilson alters history's pious perception of him as a
star-crossed victim of other people's frailties, rather than as a
deeply flawed man. Princeton's Arthur Link and his staff have
accordingly cautioned biographers and historians who write of
Wilson as, in those last years, a reasonably healthy and
responsible person to reconsider his impulsive, irrational behavior
"with some understanding of its causes." The truth of his
incapacity naturally poses grave questions of its consequences for
world affairs. Link seems to imply that a healthier Wilson would
have been a more conciliatory diplomat. Entry into the League of
Nations could have transformed the record: "In a world with the
United States playing a responsible, active role, the possibilities
of preventing the rise of Hitler were limitless."

We must therefore consider whether events leading to the Second
World War might have been recast had Edith Wilson permitted the
vice president, Thomas R. Marshall, to supplant her incapacitated
husband in the White House in 1919. Given Marshall's reasonable
temperament, is it not possible that he might have reached a
compromise with Henry Cabot Lodge over the degree to which
Americans ought to involve themselves in foreign wars, and have
thus led the United States to membership in the League of Nations?
Such great questions are central to my reconsideration, in the
present book, of the role and influence of Wilson's wife during
"one of the most extraordinary periods in the whole history of the
Presidency." Edith Wilson was by no means the benign figure of her
pretensions; the president far less than the hero of his
aspirations. On closer examination, their lives are a sinister
embodiment of Mark Twain's tongue-in-cheek observation that he
"never could tell a lie that anyone would doubt, nor a truth that
anybody would believe."

Excerpted from EDITH AND WOODROW © Copyright 2001 by
Phyllis Lee Levin. Reprinted with permission by Scribner, an
imprint of Simon and Schuster. All rights reserved.

Edith and Woodrow: The Wilson White House
by by Phyllis Lee Levin

  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • hardcover: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 0743211588
  • ISBN-13: 9780743211581