More About Woodrow Wilson and Edith Bolling Wilson (2 cents)

Refer to the December 8 2013 posting for my thoughts after reading Gene Smith’s “When the Cheering Stopped”, about the decline of the influence and health of Woodrow Wilson.

After reading “When the Cheering Stopped”, I came across the copy of “My Memoir”, the reminiscences of Wilson’s second wife, Edith Bolling Wilson, who married him a during the middle of his second term, saw him through his illness and death, and outlived him by 35 years.  It is well worth reading, and well written.

Just a couple of thoughts about this book, which was published about 15 years following the President’s death, and which, according to the preface, took about 10 years to write.

First, Smith’s description of Edith’s devotion to her husband is replicated in Edith’s memoirs.  She seems clearly to have given her life to his needs and welfare.  After he suffered his debilitating stroke, she seems not to have left his side for almost five years.

Second, everyone speaks of her “running the country” for the last part of Wilson’s second term, when he was so ill, and Smith (while I don’t think he mentioned anything she did that she hid from her husband) seemed to agree that this was pretty much the case, it is important to note that Edith herself denies this.  Of course, she may have a self interest in this denial, but her description of what she did was more in line with what today might be called a presidential “chief of staff”.  Basically, she says that she acted as a clearing house, deciding what was important enough to get to the president’s attention, but made no other decisions on her own.  What she actually did, however, may not be completely known.  (I wonder what Scott Berg says about this.)

Third, and this relates to the previous comment, Edith’s involvement with her husband’s running of the presidency did not start when he fell ill.  They clearly had a very close and supportive relationship and she read papers that were delivered to her husband, sat in on many meetings with other government officials, and discussed matters of policy with Wilson in depth.  So her access might not have changed much after the President’s stroke, although his activity was slowed to a crawl.

Fourth, on a different subject, in general access to a president in the 1920s was very different than today.  It was much easier to get to the White House and to obtain an appointment with him, and the president got out much more.  Wilson (before and somewhat after his illness), for example, just to go for a drive through the Virginia countryside, or Rock Creek Park, or to Great Falls, almost every afternoon (driven by a chauffeur and accompanied by his wife, his physician and sometimes others).  And they used to go to friends’ houses for dinner and other events.  Secret Service men did accompany them, but this just meant one car following the President’s.

But, although mobility and access was easier, protocol appears more important, including (and maybe in particular) how one dressed.  Wilson, just as an example, according to his wife, would not eat in the dining room of his S Street house unless he was properly dressed, even if it was only the two of them eating.  His left side paralysis often making dressing a chore, he would eat in a dressing gown or sweater, but only in the upstairs lounge.

Another example, and there were many, came before his illness during that lengthy period when the Wilsons were in Europe waiting for the (delayed) start to the post World War I treaty conference at Versailles.  They spent part of this unexpected wait in England. During this visit, she met Alexandra, the widow of King Edward VII and two of her daughters (one of whom was Queen Maud of Norway).

“Both of these ladies wore dark dresses, as did the Queen, but, to my surprise, all had on long brown suede gloves to the elbow, and no hats.”  Edith, after leaving the queen mother, as her appointed escort:  “Remembering the brown suede gloves, I asked if he could tell me whether, as the dinner was to be informal, and in our suite, I should wear gloves–explaining that during the War we, in America, had not worn gloves even on formal occasions.”  He later responded to her:  “Her Majesty will not wear gloves but she and Princess Mary will carry a new pair with the string still keeping them together, held with fingers up, in their left hands.”  [Pages 194-196]  No sartorial detail was unimportant.

Finally, Wilson, a Virginian, is known as being racist and segregationist, or at least not in even thinking about the possibility of changing southern norms of the time.  But I found Edith, in her book, to be racist to an extent that I could not imagine.  Not that others might not have shared her views, but I thought that putting these views into print, as a former first lady, in 1939 was over the top (and am equally surprised that her editors and advisers would not have convinced her otherwise.

Again, a couple of examples:

From the first chapter, describing her first trip to Washington (she too was from rural Virginia):  “It was full of people changing from the Richmond to the Washington train, and fortifying themselves with legs of fried chicken from the big trays that were carried on the heads of tall black negro women. Dressed in calico dresses and big white aprons, the chicken vendors smiled as only darkies can smile, revealing the generous white teeth and something of the happy-go-lucky nature of the negro of the South.” [page 12]

And again during the trip to London, referring to her long time “servant” and maid, Susan:  “She had just been taken up to see the throne room where the tables were spread for dinner. Her eyes were popping out at the gorgeous gold service which had been brought up from Windsor Castle, and all the beautiful things which the room contained. With true Southern darky genius for getting words wrong, she called it the “thorn” room.” [Page 200]

What do you think?  Are  you surprised these words made it into print?



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