Edith Wilson Juvenile/Educational Biography
Edith Bolling Galt Wilson
(October 15, 1872-December 28, 1961)
Edith Bolling was born in Wytheville, Virginia, on October 15, 1872, the seventh of eleven children. Her parents were William Holcombe Bolling, a circuit court judge, and his wife, the former Sallie White. The Bollings were an old Virginia family with a long, distinguished history. Sallie’s family was reportedly descended from Pocahontas, the Native American princess, Edith being a ninth-generation descendent. Although the family had been quite wealthy, Edith’s father had lost all his lands from the destruction of the Civil War. Therefore, he was unable to afford an education for Edith’s brothers or for her. However, he had taught her to read, write, do arithmetic, speak French, and love the classics.
As a child, Edith remained close to home, not traveling out of Wytheville until she was twelve. At the age of 15, she went to Martha Washington College in Abingdon, Virginia, to study music. A year later, she traveled to Richmond to study at another smaller college, Powell’s School.
When she was 19, she traveled to Washington, DC, to visit a married sister. While there, the pretty young woman met a jeweler and jewelry store owner, Norman Galt. They were married in 1896 after a four-year courtship. For the next 12 years, she lived the life of a wealthy young matron in the nation’s capital, frequently vacationing abroad. She became known for her clothes, her orchids, and her electric car. The couple had one child in 1903 that lived only for only 3 days. In 1908, Norman died unexpectedly, and Edith inherited the jewelry firm. The 36-year-old widow quickly hired a good manager who continued to operate the family jewelry firm with much financial success. It is reported that she later sold the business to the employees.
Edith met President Woodrow Wilson in March 1915, about six months after his wife Ellen’s death. The President’s hostess was his cousin, Helen Woodrow Bones, with whom Edith was a friend of long standing. The two women were at tea in the White House after a long walk when the President joined them after a game of golf. Although her muddy shoes embarrassed Edith, she noted that Woodrow’s golfing attire wasn’t very stylish. Woodrow was clearly enchanted by his cousin’s friend and it wasn’t long before he was having her over to dinner at the White House. Long walks, automobile rides, and trips up the Potomac on the presidential yacht soon followed and by May, the president told Edith of his growing affection for her. She was stunned and surprised. She did not think they knew each other sufficiently well and it had been less than a year since Ellen’s death. Woodrow acknowledged her feelings but Edith noted in her memoirs that he said, “In this place time is not measured by weeks, or months, or years, but by deep human experiences; and since her death I have lived a lifetime of loneliness and heartache.” She refused to commit herself, but they continued to see each other during the summer and early fall of 1915. Edith took up golf in order to spend more time with Woodrow and became the first First Lady to play the links. By late autumn, Edith agreed to marriage and their engagement was announced October 6, 1915. Their wedding was held in her Washington, DC, home’s parlor. She wore a stylist black velvet dress, a black velvet hat, and a corsage of her beloved orchids.
This was a marriage of minds as well as hearts. Wilson’s career in academe gave evidence of the power of his intellectual abilities. Edith, although not highly schooled, has been characterized as having a fine mind but narrow views. Like Wilson, she saw things in terms of good and evil; and she was fiercely loyal. He grew to rely heavily on her for advice and as a sounding board. Wilson used a private office in the family quarters of the White House. There Edith would be, sitting quietly and listening, just as she was when he used the more ceremonial Oval Office. She began to screen his mail, limit his callers, and restrict access to Woodrow. In the process, she alienated his trusted adviser Edmund House and his press secretary Joseph Tumulty. Less than a year after their wedding, Woodrow faced reelection (November, 1916). Many feared that his remarriage would become a campaign issue; however, his victory was solid.
Since 1914, Europe had been engulfed in World War I. The United States was officially neutral in this conflict. However, the social aspects of the presidency were overshadowed by the war, even though American troops were not in combat. This all changed in April 1917 when the United States entered the war. Edith kept sheep on the White House lawn. They kept the grass short and saved manpower and she was able to sell their wool to benefit the Red Cross. In addition, she volunteered at the Red Cross canteen at Union Station. Soldiers passed through Union Station on their way to ports and eventually to Europe. She educated them to the dangers of venereal disease they might encounter in Europe. In addition, she instituted a plan whereby, on certain days, the White House would serve no meat or wheat products and would use no gasoline in order to conserve these resources for the war effort.
After the Armistice on November 11, 1918, which ended the armed conflict of World War I, Edith was the first First Lady to travel to Europe while her husband was in office. Together, they attended the peace conferences and visited the troops. Many historians believe that her presence among the queens and other royalty of Europe elevated the position of First Lady to that of equivalent standing, thus defining this American role within an international context. The couple returned to the United States to campaign for the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and, with it, approval of the League of Nations.
On October 2, 1919, the President suffered a debilitating stroke that left him partially paralyzed. Warned by his doctors that Woodrow was unable to take any stress, Edith took over the routine duties of the presidency and the details of government. Although she did not initiate programs or make major decisions or try to control the executive branch of government, she did select the particular matters for her husband’s attention and send everything else to department heads or just held them back. As a result, some have described her as “the secret president” or as the “first woman to run the government.” In her memoirs, Edith referred to this period as a “stewardship” and stated that Woodrow’s doctors had urged this course on her to protect his health. She allowed people to believe that the President was suffering from exhaustion that required extensive rest. She then became the sole contact between the President and his Cabinet. As Woodrow began to recover, she guarded access to him from advisors and other political figures. When the Republicans sent Sen. Albert Fall to investigate the President’s true condition, she helped arrange Woodrow in bed so that he appeared presentable and alert. However, she was unable to manage the campaign for ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and with it the creation of the League of Nations. The treaty was defeated in November 1919.
After the inauguration of the new president in 1921, Woodrow and Edith retired to their home in Washington, DC. She continued to carefully screen his visitors and his activities in order to avoid over-tiring him until his death three years later. She devoted the rest of her life to maintaining Woodrow’s legacy. She held the literary rights to all Woodrow’s papers in this time before presidential papers were seen as public documents. As a result of this, she controlled who had access to the papers and refused those whose motives she did not trust. Prior to World War II, she made several trips to Europe to attend events that honored Wilson’s vision of a League of Nations. She eagerly attended public events where she was honored as a symbol of her husband. For example, she sat next to Eleanor Roosevelt when President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his 1941 declaration of war to Congress. Her last public appearance was at the inaugural activities of John F. Kennedy in January 1961 when she rode in the parade. She died December 28, 1961, on her husband’s birthday. She was buried beside him in Washington National Cathedral.