"I am naturally the most unambitious of women and life in the White House has no attractions for me," Ellen Wilson wrote a retiring President Taft. Two years as first lady of New Jersey had given her valuable experience in the duties of a woman whose time belongs to the people. She always played a public role with dignity and grace, but never learned to enjoy it.
Ellen Louise Axson was born in 1860 and grew up in Rome, Georgia, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. Thomas Woodrow Wilson first saw her when he was six and she only a baby. In 1883, "Tommy" visited Rome and met "Miss Ellie Lou" again – now a beautiful girl. Despite their instant attraction they did not marry until 1885, because she was unwilling to leave her recently bereaved father.
That same year, Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania offered Wilson a teaching position. He and Ellen lived near the campus, keeping her little brother with them. Humorously insisting that her own children must not be born Yankees, Ellen went to Georgia for the birth of Margaret in 1886 and Jessie in 1887. But Eleanor was born in Connecticut.
Her husband’s career brought Ellen many social responsibilities. She took refuge in art. She had studied briefly in New York, and when Wilson took office in 1913, she had a studio with a skylight installed at the White House. She found time for painting despite the weddings of two daughters within six months and the duties of hostess for the nation.
The Wilson administration began without an inaugural ball, and while the first lady kept entertainments simple, her unaffected cordiality made her parties successful. In their first year she convinced the president that it would be perfectly proper to invite influential legislators to a private dinner, and when such an evening led to agreement on a tariff bill, Wilson told a friend, "You see what a wise wife I have!"
Descendant of slave owners, Ellen Wilson lent her prestige to the cause of improving housing in the capital's Negro slums. Visiting dilapidated alleys, she brought them to the attention of debutantes and congressmen. Her death spurred passage of a remedial bill for which she had worked. Her health failing slowly from Bright's disease, she died serenely on August 6, 1914. On the day before her death, she made her physician promise to tell Woodrow that she hoped he would marry again. She murmured at the end, "…take good care of my husband." Struggling grimly to control his grief, Wilson took her to Rome for burial among her kin.
"Secret President," "first woman to run the government" - so legend has labeled a first lady whose role gained unusual significance when her husband suffered prolonged and disabling illness. A happy, protected childhood and first marriage had prepared Edith Wilson for the duties of helpmate and hostess; widowhood had taught her something of business matters.
Descendant of Virginia aristocracy, Edith Bolling was born in Wytheville in 1872, the seventh among 11 children. Until age 12 she never left the town then at 15 she went to Martha Washington College to study music, with a second year at a smaller school in Richmond. In 1896 pretty young Edith married Norman Galt. For 12 years she lived as a contented (though childless) young matron in Washington. Norman died unexpectedly in 1908. Shrewdly, Edith chose a good manager who operated the family's jewelry firm with financial success.
By a quirk of fate and a chain of friendships, she met the bereaved President Wilson, still mourning for his first wife. A man who depended on feminine companionship, the lonely Wilson took an instant liking to Mrs. Galt. Admiration changed swiftly to love. They were married privately on December 18, 1915, at her home; and after they returned from a brief honeymoon in Virginia, their happiness made a vivid impression on their friends and White House staff.
Though the new first lady had sound qualifications for the role of hostess, the social aspect of the administration was overshadowed by the war in Europe. After the United States entered the conflict in 1917, Edith Wilson submerged her life in her husband's, trying to keep him fit under tremendous strain. She accompanied him to Europe when the Allies conferred on terms of peace. His health failed in September 1919; a stroke on October 2 left him partially paralyzed.
His constant attendant, Mrs. Wilson took over many routine duties and small details of government. She selected matters for his attention and let everything else go to the heads of departments or remain in abeyance. Her "stewardship," she called this. And in My Memoir, published in 1939, she stated emphatically that her husband's doctors had urged this course upon her.
In 1921, the Wilsons retired to a comfortable home in Washington, where he died three years later. A highly respected figure in the society of the capital, Mrs. Wilson lived on to ride in President Kennedy's inaugural parade. She died later in 1961: on December 28, the anniversary of her famous husband's birth.