Edith Wilson (1872-1961) was an American first lady (1915–21) and the second wife of Woodrow Wilson, 28th president of the United States. The couple married just a year after the 1914 death of Wilson’s first wife, Ellen. Though Ellen admitted she had no prior knowledge of–or interest in–politics, she soon became deeply involved in presidential affairs. As first lady during World War I, she volunteered with the Red Cross and encouraged rationing efforts by American women. Edith Wilson’s role as self-appointed “steward” for her husband following his debilitating stroke in 1919 has left her with a complicated and controversial legacy as first lady.
Edith Bolling Galt Wilson traced her ancestry to Virginia colonial aristocracy. The daughter of Sallie White and Judge William Holcombe Bolling, she was a direct descendant of Pocahontas on her father’s side, and was related by blood or through marriage to Thomas Jefferson, Martha Washington and Letitia Tyler. However, Edith did not grow up in luxury; her paternal grandfather had lost his plantation after the Civil War, and the large Bolling family lived in cramped quarters above a storefront in Wytheville, Virginia. Edith briefly attended Martha Washington College and Powell’s School as a teenager, but otherwise received little formal education.
Edith met Norman Galt, a partner in a prominent Washington, D.C., silver and jewelry store, through her sister’s marriage into the Galt family. After a lengthy courtship of more than four years, the two were married from 1896 until Galt died unexpectedly in 1908. Edith then took over ownership of the store, overseeing its day-to-day operation while hiring a manager to handle the business minutiae. The arrangement proved successful, as Edith earned enough income to make regular trips to Europe and motor around town in a fancy new electric car.
Her courtship with Woodrow Wilson lasted just a few months. Having made the acquaintance of Woodrow Wilson’s cousin, Helen Bones, Edith met the recently widowed president during tea at the White House in March 1915. He invited her to dinner a few weeks later, and soon began discussing matters of state with his new companion, such as whether or not to declare war on Germany after the attack on the Lusitania in May. The smitten president typed up a press release in October announcing their engagement, which was followed by their wedding on Dec. 18, 1915. Although aides worried that Wilson’s speedy return to the altar would rub the public the wrong way, it proved an insignificant obstacle in his bid to seek a second term in 1916.
As first lady, Edith delegated traditional ceremonial duties to a secretary and retained a close interest in presidential affairs. Her prominent role snowballed, however, after Wilson’s stroke in October 1919. Aiming to keep Wilson’s fragile state hidden from the public, she became the sole conduit between the president and his cabinet, determining which matters were important enough to require his attention. The situation killed Wilson’s hopes of drumming up Senate support for the Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations, as Ellen was unwilling and unable to broker any sort of compromise. Despite her best efforts, word of the president’s condition leaked and became a matter of public concern by early 1920.
After Wilson’s death in 1924, Edith took to carefully guarding her husband’s legacy. Owning the literary rights to his personal papers, she denied access to anyone she felt would damage his reputation, and maintained control over the script for the 1944 biopic “Wilson.” The former first lady also addressed her controversial stint as the presidential steward in her 1939 autobiography, although historians have since questioned her account of historical events. A staunch supporter of John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, Edith last appeared in public at his 1961 inauguration. She was stricken with a respiratory infection later that year and passed away on December 28.