Edith Bolling Galt Wilson
Biography: "Secret President," "first woman to run the government"
-- so legend has 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 aristocracy, she was born in Wytheville in 1872,
seventh among eleven 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, pretty young Edith met a
businessman named Norman Galt; in 1896 they were married. For 12 years
she lived as a contented (though childless) 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. A man who
depended on feminine companionship, the lonely Wilson took an instant
liking to Mrs. Galt, charming and intelligent and unusually pretty.
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
their 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 September 1919; a
stroke left him partly 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 Kennedy's
inaugural parade. She died later in 1961: on December 28, the
anniversary of her famous husband's birth.