"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.
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