Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, the powerful second wife of President Woodrow Wilson, died 50 years ago today: on December 28, 1961.
Edith Wilson had lived through seven other presidents since she was herself First Lady: Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, and then John F. Kennedy, who was in office when she died.
But her real fame lies in what happened during her husband’s second term:
One of the most dramatic chapters in presidential history unfolded in October of 1919 when [Woodrow] Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke. Edith Wilson decided to somehow continue the Administration by conducting a disinformation campaign, misleading Congress and the public into believing that the President was only suffering from temporary exhaustion which required extensive rest. She became the sole conduit between the President and his Cabinet, requiring that they send to her all pressing matters, memos, correspondence, questions and requests.
After deciding that Wilson should not resign and that Vice President Thomas Marshall should not assume even temporary responsibility, she began what she termed her “stewardship.” Most crucially, she decided what she felt was important enough to trouble her husband about as he lay disabled in his sickroom. The result was often a confused response for the Cabinet, accompanied by their original papers with often-indecipherable notes in Edith Wilson’s handwriting, which she claimed were verbatim notes she took of the President’s answer to their questions.
“Verbatim notes,” yes.
Other First Ladies have had an unhealthy influence on the administrations of their husbands — Nancy Reagan planning the President’s schedule to match astrological charts comes to mind — but Edith Wilson came closest to a palace coup. Luckily World War I had ended in 1918, or she might have been running the armistice, too. (Not that she could have done that much worse.)
Still, you have to salute her moxie. It’s not easy to buffalo a bunch of hardened old pols and Cabinet secretaries, no matter who you are. She made it work with not much more than the phrase, “The president is too ill to see you right now.”
The White House has the rest of the story:
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.