The Georgia-born daughter of a schoolteacher mother and a Presbyterian minister father, Ellen Louise Axson displayed an impressive intellect at an early age, teaching herself trigonometry while excelling in English literature and French. Although her family was unable to afford university tuition funds, Ellen continued her education via post-graduate classes at Rome Female College and long stints in the library. She later became proficient in German to conduct research for one of her husband’s books, and enjoyed reading the works of such luminaries as Plato, Homer, Milton and Keats.
Woodrow Wilson first laid eyes on Ellen when he was 6 years old and she was a baby. They met again in 1883, when he was a young lawyer visiting from Atlanta and attended a service held by Ellen’s father. Wilson was able to arrange a visit to the Axson home, and a few months later he shrewdly scheduled a vacation that brought him to Asheville, North Carolina, at the same time as his wife-to-be. Although Ellen had long professed indifference towards marriage, she accepted his surprise proposal at the end of the trip. They were married in Savannah, Georgia, in June 1885.
Ellen may have been the most artistically gifted of anyone who has resided in the White House. She was earning money for her crayon portraits by age 18, and she attended the prestigious Art Students League in New York for a year before devoting herself to family interests. Ellen later spent several summers at an artist’s colony in Old Lyme, Connecticut, where she was influenced by a group that formed the core of the American Impressionists. An exhibition of her work was displayed in Philadelphia’s Arts and Crafts Guild just before she entered the White House in 1913, and she sold four of her paintings that summer.
During her 17 months as first lady, Ellen famously guided politicians and civic leaders through Washington D.C.’s slums to draw attention to her “alley clearance bill,” and she threw her weight behind causes to support the arts, schools and workforce conditions. However, she may have been most influential in her private time with President Wilson. Having studied political theory while helping her husband research his earlier books, the well-read first lady was more than capable of engaging in policy discussions. She also displayed keen political instincts, once helping to foster agreement on a tariff bill after suggesting the president invite key lawmakers to dinner.
It is unclear when Ellen became aware she had Bright’s Disease, the kidney ailment that killed her. Evidence of kidney problems had first surfaced following the complications of childbirth in 1889, but the first lady seemed fine until undergoing a nasty fall in March 1914. Her health deteriorated after she oversaw her daughter’s wedding in May, and even after a doctor moved into the White House in July, the truth of her fatal condition was not revealed to Wilson until days before her death. When Ellen succumbed to the illness on August 6, she was the third first lady to die in the White House, following Letitia Tyler in 1842 and Caroline Harrison in 1892.