America’s First Ladies

America’s First Ladies, #28 — Ellen Axson Wilson and Edith Bolling Wilson

America’s First Ladies, #28 — Ellen Axson Wilson and Edith Bolling Wilson

Twenty-eighth US President Woodrow Wilson’s two terms in office were unique in that he started with one First Lady and ended with another. His first wife. Ellen Axson died during his second year in office. The following year, Wilson married again, to Edith Bolling, who served as First Lady for the rest of Wilson’s time in the White House. Here are the stories of these two remarkable women who Wilson loved.

Ellen Axson was born on May 15, 1860, in Savannah, Georgia. Her family was slave owners, and her father was a Presbyterian minister. She was the daughter of Samuel Axson and Margaret Hoyt. Ellen was an artistic woman and studied at the Art Students League of New York before marrying. She was considered refined and enjoyed art, music, and literature of all kinds. She also produced her own artwork, which she pursued her entire life.

Edith’s family moved to Rome, Georgia early in her childhood, and it was there, in April of 1883, that she met Woodrow Wilson, who had come to town to visit his cousin on business. They began courting, and became engaged a few months later, but put off the wedding so Woodrow could pursue his post-graduate studies, and Ellen could care for her widowed father, who was suffering from depression.

Ellen’s father was eventually hospitalized for depression, and he killed himself while in the hospital for treatment. After this, Ellen went to New York to study art, where she specialized in portrait art and received a medal for one of her paintings from the Paris International Exposition. Upon graduating, she returned to Georgia, where she and Woodrow married at her grandparents’ house on June 24, 1885. They honeymooned in Waynesville, North Carolina.

Later that same year, Woodrow was offered a teaching position at Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania. He and Ellen moved there, bringing Ellen’s younger brother with them.

Ellen and Woodrow had three daughters together, and Ellen, ever the Southerner, insisted her children not be born up north as “Yankees.” So, she went to Gainesville, Georgia to stay with relatives for the births of her first two daughters. Her third daughter, however, was born in Connecticut while Woodrow was teaching there at Wesleyan.

Woodrow went on to teach at Princeton and was then elected US President. He and Ellen preferred to not have an inaugural ball, and the social affairs Ellen hosted as First Lady were simple but tasteful and refined. She had a painting studio set up on the third floor of the White House, where she took refuge from social responsibilities and donated much of her portrait work to charity. She also arranged White House weddings for two of her daughters during her time as First Lady.

The year after Woodrow took office, Ellen died at age 54 of Bright’s disease (kidney disease, as it was called back then). She asked her doctor to tell Woodrow after she passed, that she hoped for him to remarry. Reportedly, her last words were “Take good care of my husband.” She died August 6, 1914, and was buried with her family at Myrtle Hill Cemetery in Rome, Georgia.

Woodrow’s next wife, Edith Bolling, was born on October 15, 1872, in Wytheville, Virginia. Her parents were William Bolling, a judge, and Sarah White, and Edith was the seventh of eleven children born to the couple, nine of whom lived past childhood. Edith had an impressive pedigree, with her great-grandmother being Thomas Jefferson’s sister, and also being a direct descendant of Pocahontas, through Pocahontas’s granddaughter, Jane Rolfe, who married Robert Bolling.

The Bolling family claimed to have been quite wealthy before the Civil War but lost most of their wealth during Reconstruction. They always believed their slaves were content working on the Bolling plantation and had no desire for freedom. After the war, Edith’s father took up law to support his huge household, which included nine living children, a wife, both of Edith’s grandmothers, and a large contingent of aunts and cousins, all of whom lived in the same house, and most of whom had lost their husbands during the Civil War.

While Edith’s sisters attended the local school, Edith was tutored at home by a private tutor, and also by her Grandmother Bolling, who was confined to bed by a spinal cord injury. Edith was tasked with taking care of her grandmother and her grandmother’s twenty-six pet canaries, and in return, her grandmother taught her how to read, write, speak Creole, crochet, knit, embroider, and more. She also instilled a love of poetry and music in young Edith.

Edith attended boarding school twice….once for a semester when she was 15, but she hated it and came home, and again for a year when she was 17, but the school closed at the end of the school year when the headmaster had an accident and lost a leg. Edith’s father refused to pay for any more schooling for Edith and sent her three brothers to college instead.

Edith married Norman Galt, a prominent Washington D.C. jeweler in 1896. They were married twelve years and had one son who lived a few days; his difficult birth left Edith unable to conceive more children. When Norman died, Edith was left with considerable wealth, and hired a manager to run the jewelry business and pay off debts. She bought herself a car and became one of the first women in her area to drive, and also took many trips to Europe.

Edith had been widowed for two years when she met the much more recently widowed Woodrow Wilson through a cousin of Woodrow’s. Woodrow and Edith took to each other right away, but the swiftness with which Woodrow found love again after losing Ellen caused rumors. Woodrow was accused of cheating on Ellen while she was still alive, and Woodrow and Edith were both accused of murdering Ellen together. Woodrow offered Edith a chance to back out of the relationship, but she refused. She did, however, ask that they postpone their wedding until the official year of mourning for Ellen was completed.

Woodrow and Edith were married December 18, 1915, at Edith’s house in Washington, D.C. They honeymooned at Hot Springs, Virginia.

While Edith was well-qualified to be First Lady, the US’s entrance into WWI made most social events a luxury not even the President and his wife could afford. To set an example for the nation, Edith observed gasless Sundays, meatless Mondays, and wheat-free Wednesdays, in an effort to encourage others to do the same. Rather than use man-power to mow the White House lawn, she had sheep graze it, and sold their wool at auction to benefit the Red Cross.

Because of the war, Edith became the first person besides the President to receive full-time Secret Service protection. She also went with Woodrow to Europe to help negotiate the peace treaty at the end of the war… a trip that was a 1st for any President or First Lady.

Woodrow Wilson’s first posed photograph after his stroke. He was paralyzed on his left side, so Edith holds a document steady while he signs. June 1920. (Wikipedia)

After they attended the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Woodrow suffered a debilitating stroke, and Edith effectively took over all the duties of US President for him for the remainder of his time in office. In this way, Edith can truthfully be said to be the first female US president, because she did everything for Woodrow in regards to his presidential duties. If Woodrow had to sign something, Edith brought it to him, as he was bedridden. She went to great lengths to keep this hidden from the public, and the people at the capital assisted her in keeping it secret. One US Senator even referred to her as the “Presidentress,” and “Acting First Man.”

After leaving the White House, the Wilsons returned to their home in Washington, D.C, where Edith cared for Woodrow until his death three years later. She served as the Director of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, accompanied Franklin Roosevelt to Congress when he went to ask them for a Declaration of War to enter WWII and was at President John Kennedy’s inauguration.

She died December 28, 1961, of congestive heart failure at age 89, and was buried next to Woodrow at the Washington Cathedral. She left her home in Washington to the National Trust for Historic Preservation with the stipulation it is used to make a museum dedicated to Woodrow. The house was re-opened as the Woodrow Wilson House in 1964.