“Secret president,” “first woman to the woman to run the government”—some historians have 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 salve owners, she was born in Wytheville in 1872, seventh among 11 children of Sallie White and Judge William Holcombe Bolling. Until the age of 12 she never left the town; at 15 she went to Martha Washington College to study music, with a second year at a smaller school in Richmond.
Visiting a married sister in Washington, Edith met a businessman named Norman Galt; in 1896 they were married. For 12 years she lived as a contented young matron in the capital, with vacations abroad. In 1908 her husband died unexpectedly. Shrewdly, Edith Galt chose a good manager who operated the family’s jewelry firm with financial success.
By a quirk of fate and a chain of friendships, Mrs. Galt met the bereaved president, still mourning profoundly for his first wife Ellen. A man who depended on feminine companionship, the lonely Wilson took an instant liking to Mrs. Galt, charming and intelligent. Admiration changed swiftly to love. In proposing to her, he made the poignant statement that “in this place time is not measured by weeks, or months, or years, but by deep human experiences.” 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 heir 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 and abandoned after the United States entered the conflict in 1917. Edith Wilson submerged her own 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.
Wilson returned to campaign for Senate approval of the peace treaty and the League of Nations Covenant. His health failed in October 1919; a stroke left him partially paralyzed. His constant attendant, Mrs. Wilson took over many routine duties and details of government. But she did not initiate programs or make major decisions, and she did not try to control the executive branch. She selected matters for her husband’s 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 John F. Kennedy’s inaugural parade. She died on December 28, 1961, the anniversary of her famous husband’s birth.
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