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First Lady Biography: Edith Wilson

EDITH BOLLING GALT WILSON

Born:  

Wytheville, Virginia
1872, October 15
 
Father:
William Holcombe Bolling, lawyer, judge, (1837-1899), born and died in Wytheville, Virginia
 
Mother:
Sally White Bolling (1843-1925) born in Virginia, married September 16, 1860; died in Washington, D.C.
 
Ancestry:
English, Native American; Edith Wilson traced her ancestors to colonial Virginia and either by blood or through marriage; she was related to Thomas Jefferson, Martha Washington, Letitia Tyler and the Harrison family. Most notable was her direct descent from the famous Powhatan tribe princess, Pocahontas.
 
Birth Order and Siblings:
Seventh of eleven children; Rolfe Emerson Bolling (1861-1936), Gertrude Bolling Galt (1863-1962), Annie Lee Bolling Maury (1865-?), William A. Bolling (1867-?), Bertha Bolling (1869-1937), Charles Bolling (1871-died in infancy), John Randolph Bolling (1876-1951), Richard Wilmer Bolling (1879-?), Julian Brandon Bolling (1882-?), Geraldine Bolling (1885-1887)
 
Physical Appearance:
5’9”, black hair, blue eyes
 
Religious Affiliation:
Episcopalian
 
Education:
Martha Washington College, 1887-1888, Abingdon, Virginia; during her brief attendance, Edith Wilson was enrolled in a college preparatory-type program with classes in history, mathematics, physics, chemistry, Latin, Greek, French, German, civil government, political geography, spelling, grammar, bookkeeping and typewriting, but she disliked the college and left after two terms; The Richmond Female Seminary, 1889-1890, Richmond, Virginia, also known as Powell's School
 
Occupation before Marriage:
Despite her romantic notions of a childhood spent as displaced aristocracy, Edith Wilson had a difficult childhood, living in crowded rooms above a storefront with numerous siblings and impoverished relatives in rural western Virginia.
 
Marriage:
First Marriage:
23 years old, married Norman Galt, jewelry store owner, born 1862, Washington, D.C. on 1896, April 30. Galt died on 1908, January 28.
 
Second Marriage
43 years old, married to Woodrow Wilson, born 1856, Virginia, President of the United States,  on 1915, Dec. 19. in her Washington, D.C. home. After a honeymoon in Hot Springs, Virginia, they returned to live in the White House
 
Children:
By first marriage: one son, unnamed, born and died in infancy, 1903
 
By second marriage: none
 
Occupation after Marriage:
Courted for four years by her first husband, once she married Norman Galt and moved to Washington, D.C. it is not clear whether she ever worked with him in his family's legendary silver and jewelry store that he managed. After his death, she inherited Galt's. Although she oversaw its daily operations she hired a manager to run the store and direct the staff. She bought a car and learned to drive it, and took numerous trips to Europe where she indulged her lifelong love of fine clothing. With a curiosity about the widowed President Woodrow Wilson, she met him in February, 1914 while taking tea with his cousin Helen Bones and their mutual friend Altrude Gordon. Gordon was dating and would marry the naval physician Cary Grayson who worked for the Wilsons. Within months, she and Wilson were exchanging letters that mixed politics and their passionate love for each other. Wilson proposed marriage to Edith Galt just three months after meeting her.
 
Presidential Campaign and Inauguration:
Eleven months after his wedding to Edith Galt, President Wilson faced a re-election campaign. The fears of some of his Cabinet and advisors that the remarriage (coming barely a year after the first Mrs. Wilson's death) would harm his campaign never materialized. The inaugural was subdued; U.S. entry into the world war was imminent and March 4 fell on a Sunday in 1917, which traditionally did not call for large ceremony. Edith Wilson rode to and from the Capitol beside her husband in an open carriage.
 
First Lady:
1915, December 18 - 1921, March 4
 
From the onset of her marriage to the President, Edith Wilson's primary role as First Lady was as his companion, filter and later guardian. Since most of her tenure occurred during either a presidential campaign - when the couple was not living in the White House- a world war and then during the president's illness, Edith Wilson hosted none of the entertaining at dinners and concerts held during the traditional social seasons in the fall and winter-early spring. That he largely conducted his work from a private office in the family quarters permitted Edith Wilson to remain steadfastly at his side; he soon gave her access to his private drawer and would eventually share a secret wartime code with her. When he worked from the Oval Office, however, she would often sit there listening silently as he conducted meetings with political leaders and foreign representatives. As pressures mounted on the President in the months leading up to U.S. entry in World War I, she began to screen his mail and limit his callers, soon alienating his most trusted advisor Edmund House and his loyal press secretary Joseph Tumulty. She was successful in eventually breaking the long friendship between Wilson and House, in November 1919.
 
After U.S. entry into the war in April 1917, Edith Wilson was made privy to classified information. Publicly, she led fundraising efforts by selling the wool sheared from sheep that grazed on the White House lawn, volunteered at the Red Cross canteen at Union Station where soldiers were departing for ports and eventually the war front, and released a public service statement warning soldiers against the dangers of venereal disease they might encounter in war-torn Europe. Leading by example, she also instituted certain days of the week when meat, wheat and gasoline were not used, to conserve these resources for the war effort. After the Armistice of November 1918 was signed, ending the war, Edith Wilson became the first First Lady to travel to Europe during her incumbency; she accompanied the President on two separate occasions, in 1918 and in 1919, to visit troops and sign the Treaty of Versailles. Her presence among the queens and other women royalty of Europe put the position of First Lady on an equivalent standing, thus helping to define the uniquely American role in an international context.
 
One of the most dramatic chapters in presidential history unfolded in October of 1919 when Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke. Edith Wilson decided to somehow continue the Administration by conducting a disinformation campaign, misleading Congress and the public into believing that the President was only suffering from temporary exhaustion which required extensive rest. She became the sole conduit between the President and his Cabinet, requiring that they send to her all pressing matters, memos, correspondence, questions and requests. After deciding that Wilson should not resign and that Vice President Thomas Marshall should not assume even temporary responsibility, she began what she termed her "stewardship." Most crucially, she decided what she felt was important enough to trouble her husband about as he lay disabled in his sickroom. The result was often a confused response for the Cabinet, accompanied by their original papers with often-indecipherable notes in Edith Wilson's handwriting, which she claimed were verbatim notes she took of the President's answer to their questions. When the Secretary of State Robert Lansing conducted a series of Cabinet meeting without the President, the first being in October 1919, Edith Wilson considered it an act of disloyalty and pushed for his replacement with the more acquiescent Bainbridge Colby. Wilson requested Lansing's resignation in February 1920. As her husband began partially to recover, she also guarded access to him from advisors and other political figures. When Republican Senator Albert Fall was sent to investigate the President's true condition, Edith Wilson helped arrange Wilson in bed to be presentable and sat through the brief meeting, taking verbatim notes.
 
In September 1919, Edith Wilson refused to have the U.S. accept the credentials of British representative Edward Grey who had been sent by his government to aid in the push for ratification of Wilson's League of Nations unless Grey dismissed one of his aides who was known to have made demeaning jokes at her expense. As the liaison between Wilson and the Democratic Senator Gilbert Hitchcock (who was fighting in the Senate to make the President's case for passage of his League of Nations), Edith Wilson refused to press Wilson to accept the reality that without permitting a compromise of one plank the original version that it wouldn't pass at all. Historians have speculated whether, if Edith Wilson advised otherwise, a partial version of Wilson's League of Nations would have been attained. It was defeated in November 1919.
 
Post-Presidential Life:
Edith Wilson carefully screened the visitors to and activities of her disabled husband until his death in 1924. She devoted the rest of her life to managing his legacy. Edith Wilson held the literary rights to all of her husband's papers in a time before presidential papers were seen as public documents, and she denied access to those whose motives she did not trust and granted access to those who proved their loyalty to her. She maintained full script control of the 1944 Zanuck film biography Wilson, including the depiction of herself as played by actress Geraldine Fitzgerald. Before World War II, she made several trips to Europe for events honoring Wilson's vision of a League of Nations. Although she resisted any substantive involvement in Democratic Party policy, she was considered a potential vice presidential candidate in 1928, and that year attended the national presidential convention and spoke at the podium. She also eagerly attended public events where she was honored as a symbol of her husband. She sat next to Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, as President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his1941 declaration of war to Congress. Edith Wilson maintained close contact with her successors, especially Grace Coolidge, Eleanor Roosevelt and Mamie Eisenhower, but she became overtly partisan in the 1960 election, denying her previous acquaintance with the Republican candidate Vice President Richard Nixon and pledging herself to John F. Kennedy's candidacy. Her last public appearance was at his January 20, 1961 inaugural. Her 1938 autobiography, My Memoir, was later found to be factually faulty by historians.
 
Death:
Her home, Washington, D.C.
1961, December
89 years old
 
Burial:
Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.