Edith Bolling Galt Wilson
Wife for a Crisis
By Anne Adams
For a few months in the earlier part of the 20th century, Edith
Wilson occupied an unusual position for a First Lady when her
husband was incapacitated with a stroke. While she described this
as her “period of stewardship,” critics were sure she had actually
assumed total control of the presidency. Indeed, it was an
unexpected role for a lady who just a few years before had been a
middle aged widow who fell in love with a love struck ex-professor
who just happened to be President of the United States.
Edith Bolling was born in Western Virginia in October 1872, the
daughter of a successful, popular lawyer/judge and she grew up in
a richly cultured environment with loving attention from parents
and grandparents. The Bollings were proud of their family heritage
and particularly of their descent from Pocahontas.
After a home education Edith as a teenager attended a female
academy but it was an unpleasant experience because the management
spent so little in food and heat that after a year at the school
it took her a year to recover. After another year at another
school she went to live with her oldest sister in Washington, who
had married into the Galt family. One of the family was a cousin
named Norman Galt.
Norman’s father owned a fine Washington jewelry store and
Norman was set to take over the business and though he was only
nine years older than Edith he somehow seemed older because of a
stuffy formality. He was obviously smitten with her and she was
fond of him, and after several years of courtship they were
married in April, 1896.
The couple was very happy as Norman pampered his wife as their
finances improved. They traveled often to Europe where Edith could
be fitted with elegant fashions and where she acquired a life long
love of good clothing. However, despite her husband’s business she
always preferred small pieces of jewelry with a sentimental
meaning. Galt also provided her a unique means of transportation
around Washington. It was an electric completely equipped with
every luxury including dual vases mounted inside and usually
filled with her favorite orchids. Since Edith was the only woman
in 1904 driving such a vehicle in Washington she acquired a bit of
local fame. Unfortunately, the Galts remained childless after
Edith miscarried early in their marriage.
In January 1908, Norman suddenly succumbed to a liver infection
leaving a 35 year old widow. She inherited the jewelry store,
which continued to be profitable, and with an efficient manager
her supervision was minimal.
Several years later Edith befriended a young woman, daughter of
a deceased friend and they took several vacations together. Then
in the winter of 1914 the young woman introduced to Edith her male
companion, Dr. Cary Grayson who was the White House physician. In
turn, Dr. Grayson introduced Edith to Miss Helen Bones, the
President’s cousin who was seeking outside friends as a break from
a bereaved White House after the death of Ellen, President
Wilson’s first wife the previous August. Miss Bones and Edith
began taking regular walks in neighboring parks, and then having
tea at Edith’s home.
A few months later, in March 1915, after such a walk, Helen
asked Edith to return to the White House with her for tea, saying
that they would be alone since Dr. Grayson and the President were
out playing golf. Edith was concerned that her shoes were too
muddy after their walk, but Helen persuaded her to come. They were
to take the elevator to the second floor family quarters, but just
as they were coming out of the elevator around the corner came Dr.
Grayson and the President, in golf togs and with equally muddy
shoes. Edith later recalled that she was actually better dressed
than the President in his casual sports clothes.
Naturally the men stayed for tea and after a change of clothes
and a shoe cleaning they ended the evening with an invigorating
conversation. Wilson found Edith entertaining and stimulating and
though she declined his dinner invitation that day she accepted
future dates. They had a great deal in common, particularly their
common southern heritage.
Edith soon found that while she enjoyed the friendship of the
President he was becoming more serious about her. By May, 1915 he
proposed but the surprised Mrs. Galt declined saying they had
known each other too short a time and that his first wife’s death
had been too recent.
Still, Edith said she consider his proposal, and she did for
many weeks, as she continued to see Wilson and accompany him and
his family group on drives, to vacation spots and even sailing on
the presidential yacht. During part of the summer of 1915 when she
spent time away from Wilson she realized her affection for him had
grown over her absence. When she finally returned to a white House
dinner she was ready to accept his proposal.
Their engagement remained private since they still had not
settled on a wedding date. Edith wondered if they should wait till
after the 1916 election, since there was the possibility he might
not be re-elected. However, Wilson pressed her to marry sooner,
saying he needed her support at that time. However, news of the
engagement had leaked to Wilson’s political advisors and his
family and they expressed concern that a second marriage soon
would threaten him politically.
At the same time there surfaced a letter from a Mrs. Mary Peck
who threatened to reveal Wilson’s romance with her if he married
Edith. Mrs. Peck had been a female friend of both his and Ellen’s
and they had been correspondents but it is doubtful if there had
been any affair. Wilson felt that there was nothing to her claim
but feared that even her lies about her alleged romance with him
might expose Edith to malicious gossip. He was willing to release
Edith from the engagement.
After a great deal of thought Edith decided to proceed with the
marriage despite the threat of gossip and wrote him a letter
reassuring him of her position. Yet after three days when she had
heard nothing she was surprised when a concerned and disturbed Dr.
Grayson appeared at her door. He pleaded with her to come to the
White House where the President was ill, and on her arrival she
reassured Wilson of her feelings for him. At that time he showed
her the unopened letter she had written, saying he had so worried
she would reject him that he had become ill.
The wedding was set for December 18 and Wilson was evidently
happier than he had ever been – clowning, cracking jokes and even
clicking his heels in the air and singing the popular song “Oh,
You Beautiful Doll.”
The President and the new First Lady returned to the White
House just after the New Year, 1916 where Edith was to prove a
popular, glamorous and charming First Lady. Wilson found her a
sympathetic and attentive listener to his concerns and problems.
Then as war was declared on Germany in 1917, Edith embraced the
patriotic efforts to save resources for the war effort. She ceased
much official entertaining, sewed garments for the Red Cross and
took her turn serving sandwiches and coffee at train yards to
soldiers who were passing through.
In December, 1918 Wilson and Edith and their party sailed for
Europe for a tour and for victory celebrations and then to Paris
for the Peace Conference where Wilson was to present his Fourteen
Points and plan for the peace treaty he hoped would establish the
new League of Nations. He came down with influenza, greatly
concerning both Edith and Dr. Grayson, and Edith began to hope
that they could take a vacation when they returned home after the
conference. However, that would need to be postponed since the
Senate had to ratify the Peace Treaty, and he needed popular
support for it, he decided to take a national speaking tour.
He started out in the summer of 1919 as again Edith and the
doctor became concerned about his health, which was precarious at
best. He so intensively believed in his cause that they knew he
would never consider reducing his efforts until it became
impossible to do so. He would soon find that is exactly what
For over three weeks Wilson and Edith toured, as he gave
speeches but he soon developed severe headaches. Eventually they
became so serious that Edith finally convinced him to cut the tour
short and to return immediately to Washington. Just four days
after returning to the White House he collapsed with what seemed
to be a massive stroke paralyzing one side of his body.
However, though his body might be incapacitated Wilson’s mind
was clear and he had not lost his belief in his cause of the peace
treaty ratification. He knew that if the public realized how
seriously he’d been stricken, it might jeopardize the passage of
the treaty so he wanted his condition to remain confidential. .
Thus following his instructions, all press releases about his
health were uninformative and revealed nothing of his true
condition. However, when people have no information, they tend to
create their own ideas and concepts, and soon there was
speculation and rumors about the President’s condition. The most
commonly believed story was that Wilson had become mentally
ineffectual and that Edith had assumed total control.
Actually though Wilson’s mind was entirely clear, he wasn’t
able to concentrate for long periods. There was speculation that
Wilson might resign but a specialist suggested that might not be a
good idea. First, they believed that even in his weakened
condition the presidency was in better in his hands than those of
anyone else. Also, if he left office it might jeopardize his
recovery since he might think he would have lost the chance to
have the treaty ratified.
Edith later wrote about the doctors’ advice; “But recovery
could not be hoped for, they said, unless the President were
released from every disturbing problem during these days of
Nature’s effort to repair the damage done.” So with only concern
for Wilson in mind and with the doctors advising her she decided
what matters to present to him, what to withhold and what to defer
to others. As she put it: “So began my stewardship. I studied
every paper, sent from the different Secretaries or Senators, and
tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that,
despite my diligence, had to go to the President. I myself never
made a single decision regarding the disposition of public
affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important
and what was not, and the very important decision of when to
present matters to my husband.”
However, despite his hopes, in March 1920 the Senate defeated
the treaty yet soon after the president’s health began to improve,
he regained some strength and even presided over some cabinet
meetings. Then as they prepared to retire from office they also
began to plan and build a new home in Washington. When they left
the White House in March, 1921, their new home in Washington was
They made plans their retirement – for Wilson to write another
book or even to practice law, but he proved too weak to accomplish
much of what they had planned. So they lived a very quiet life
until Wilson died in February, 1924.
Edith retained the honored and special status of a former First
Lady as she continued to live in Washington and receive
distinguished visitors. She visited the White House regularly
during the Democratic administrations of Franklin Roosevelt and
Harry Truman, and then rode in the Kennedy inaugural parade in
1961. She died later that year in December, at age 90.
Though her period in the public eye and as First Lady had only
been eight years out of her life, as Wilson told her when he
proposed: “Time is not measured by weeks, or months, or years, but
by deep human experience.”