Birthday: October 15, 1872
Died At Age: 89
Sun Sign: Libra
Also Known As: Edith Bolling
Born Country: United States
Born in: Wytheville, Virginia, United States
Famous as: Former First Lady of the United States
Spouse/Ex-: Norman Galt (m. 1896), Woodrow Wilson (m. 1915)
father: William Holcombe Bolling
mother: Sarah Spears White
Died on: December 28, 1961
place of death: Washington, D.C., United States
U.S. State: Virginia
Cause of Death: Heart Failure
education: Martha Washington College, Emory & Henry College
Edith Wilson, née Bolling, was the First Lady of the United States from 1915 to 1921. She was raised in an extended Southern family that had lost its holdings after the Civil War. She was taught mostly at home by her grandmother and father. At the age of 43, seven years after the death of her first husband, she married recently widowed Woodrow Wilson, who was the 28th President of the United States at that time. At his insistence, she began to take a keen interest in affairs of state, giving her opinions on various matters. However, she primarily remained concerned about her husband’s welfare throughout his life. When he suffered a stroke in October 1919, it was this concern which pushed her into keeping the exact condition of his health a secret. Instead, she served as “a de facto steward”, deciding the priority of the matters to be presented to the president. Due to her role in important state affairs, she began to be called by various names, such as “Assistant President”, "Secret President”, etc. After Wilson’s death, she worked tirelessly to enhance his legacy, spending the remaining 37 years of her life to support the causes that he believed in.
Childhood & Early Life
Edith Wilson was born on October 15, 1872, in Wytheville, Virginia. Her father William Holcombe Bolling was a circuit court judge. Her mother’s name was Sarah Spears (née White). Prior to the Civil War, both her families were slave-holding elite planters, who traced their lineage to the earliest English settlers.
Edith was born seventh of her parents’ 11 children. Her siblings were Rolfe Emerson Bolling, Gertrude Bolling Galt, Annie Lee Bolling Maury, William A. Bolling, Bertha Bolling, Charles Bolling, John Randolph Bolling, Richard Wilmer Bolling, Julian Brandon Bolling, and Geraldine Bolling.
Apart from her immediate family members, both her grandmothers, several widowed aunts and numerous cousins lived in the same house. Unlike her sisters, Edith was mostly educated at home, learning to read and write from her ailing grandmother, whom she had to take care of.
Her grandmother also nurtured her personality very carefully, helping her polish decision making skills and develop strong opinions. She also learned to speak French and dressmaking from her. Her father also had a considerable influence on her.
At 15, her father enrolled her into Martha Washington College. Unable to adjust to the college environment, she dropped out after just one semester, thereafter enrolling at the Powell’s School. Unfortunately, that too closed down a year later and with that, her formal education came to an end.
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In 1896, Edith Bolling met noted Washington, D.C. jeweler, Norman Galt, eventually marrying him on April 30, 1896. In 1903, she bore him a son; who died within a few days. Moreover, the complications arising from the childbirth made her unfit for bearing further children.
In January 1908, Galt died, leaving her a rich widow. She now took charge of his business and attracted attention for driving cars. She also made several trips to Europe, very soon developing a taste for Parisian hot couture.
In March 1915, Galt was introduced to the recently widowed US President, Woodrow Wilson, while having tea with his cousin Helen Woodrow Bones at the White House. It was love at first sight for the couple. However, they had to defer their wedding till December as Wilson was still in mourning.
The First Lady
On December 18, 1915, Edith Bolling Gait married Woodrow Wilson and became the First Lady of the United States. Although she was never interested in politics before, she now started working from a private office and was provided access to wartime codes and classified drawers.
Mrs. Wilson’s roles increased manifolds when in 1917 Woodrow Wilson was reelected as the President of the United States and led the nation into the First World War. At his insistence, she now began to participate in important meetings. However, her greatest concern remained her husband’s well-being.
During the First World War, she volunteered at a Red Cross canteen at Union Station and stopped using meat, wheat and gasoline on specific days of the week. She also arranged for sheep to graze on the White House lawn and raised $50,000 for war effort by selling their wool.
In 1918, she accompanied her husband to the war-torn Europe in order to meet the American soldiers stationed there. In the following year, she once again went with him to Europe, where he helped to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles and presented his views on the League of Nations.
Back in the USA, Woodrow Wilson faced massive resistance, as he was being blamed for having his personal vision of the League of Nations approved. He tried to sell the idea, traveling across the country by train. In October 1919, he suffered a massive stroke, which incapacitated him for several months.
Once it became apparent that the president would not be able to function as effectively as before, Mrs. Edith Wilson along with his trusted aides decided to keep the exact nature of his illness a secret. She decided against asking him to resign because she feared that it might send him into depression.
She made sure that no one apart from the president’s doctor and his trusted aides saw him during this period. Although she herself did not take any decisions, she decided which matters were important to be presented to the president and what could wait. She also chose the appropriate time to present the important matters to him.
While President Wilson lay incapacitated, the nation faced a severe crisis and it soon became apparent that no one was actually making any decisions. Many critics also objected to Mrs. Wilson running the government, declaring that the nation was under a “petticoat government” and Mrs. Wilson was actually the “Assistance President”.
In March 1921, as Woodrow Wilson’s second presidential term came to an end, the couple moved to their home on S Street, Washington D.C. Edith Wilson continued to nurse her husband until his death on February 3, 1924. Thereafter, she devoted her life to protect his legacy.
She held literary right to all his papers, which she later donated to the Library of Congress. She also helped to write his official biography. She converted his birth home in Virginia and his residence in Washington, D.C, into national shrines.
Although she did not play any major role in the Democratic Party’s policies, she headed the board of governors of the Woman's National Democratic Club in 1924. In 1938, she attended the national presidential convention and spoke at the podium. She published her autobiography ‘My Memoir’ in 1939.
When President Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war in December 1941; Edith Wilson was there by his side. Twenty years later, she also attended the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.
On December 28, 1961, Edith Wilson died of congestive heart failure at the age of 89. She was buried at the Washington National Cathedral next to her husband Woodrow Wilson. Interestingly, it was also her husband’s 105th birthday.
Her birthplace, the Bolling Home in Wytheville, is now a museum. Bolling Wilson Hotel, located on the Main Street of Wytheville, also bears her legacy.