Who Was Edith Wilson?
President Woodrow Wilson's devoted second wife, Edith, is referred to as the "silent president" because it is believed she ran the government following his stroke in 1919.
A descendant of Virginia aristocracy, Edith Bolling was born in Wytheville on October 15, 1872. Her first husband, jeweler Norman Galt, died in 1908, which was five years after their son died in infancy. She knew Woodrow Wilson's cousin and thereby met the president shortly after his first wife, Ellen Louise Axson Wilson, died on August 6, 1914. The romance between the president and a beautiful, well-to-do widow was the talk of Washington D.C. She was sexy enough to turn heads but not so much so that she was a political liability. When they married on December 18, 1915 she immediately became the first lady.
Edith Wilson was a model political wife as well as her husband's constant companion. Their happiness together was evident to friends and to the White House staff. He shared confidential communications with her and often referred to her as his most trusted advisor. She accompanied him to Europe when the Allies conferred on terms of peace to end World War I.
Trained as a southern lady, Edith Wilson was a renowned hostess and party giver. However, social events during Wilson's administration were overshadowed by World War I and the president's health.
In 1919 Wilson suffered a stroke that left him completely incapacitated. Edith took over his responsibilities and, because the press was not as inquisitive as it is today, few knew the extent of his illness. For months the only people to see the president were his family and physicians. When delegations of Congressmen came to see him, strong willed Edith turned them away. She told them the only decisions she made were what matters were worthy of his attention. She would then scribble a note beginning "the president instructs..." and pass it to the government official in charge of that area. More than one Congressman noted that the president's signature suddenly looked a lot like hers. But no one was willing to cross her, and she stuck to this story until her death. It is now known that for one year Edith Wilson ran America. Historians later nicknamed her the "secret president."
Wilson never fully recovered but he was able to go from being bedfast to a wheelchair. At the end of his presidency the Wilsons moved to a home in Washington D.C. with a view of both the Capitol dome and the White House portico. In his second floor library, an ailing Wilson resumed his scholarly writings until his death in 1924.
After spending her first year as Wilson's widow in seclusion, Edith Wilson began appearing in public again. She traveled a great deal, especially to events honoring her late husband or supporting the Democratic party. She was a frequent White House guest when Franklin Roosevelt was president. It was a source of great pride that John Kennedy included Woodrow Wilson in his book Profiles of Courage and she was honored to be a guest at Kennedy's inaguration. In 1961 she died on her husband's birthday, December 28,in Washington D.C.