“Woodrow and Edith embody the White House’s greatest love story.” — Kati Marton, Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages that Shaped Our Recent History.
Library of Congress photo, via Wikipedia
Robert Cullinane ’70 remembers Mrs. Woodrow Wilson

On Aug. 6, 1914, the very day that Serbia declared war on Germany and Europe lurched into the cataclysm of World War I, it might be expected that the president of the United States would be a very preoccupied man. But one matter alone claimed his attention that day: His beloved wife of 29 years was dying. As Woodrow Wilson 1879 held her hand, Ellen Louise Axson Wilson, 54 years of age, whispered her last words to friend and physician Admiral Cary T. Grayson: “Please take good care of Woodrow.” For the next 10 years, until Woodrow died in 1924 at the age of 67, Dr. Grayson made it his ruling duty to fulfill Mrs. Wilson’s last wish.

With Ellen’s death, the president fell into a nearly suicidal depression. “God has stricken me almost beyond what I can bear,” he wrote to a friend the next day. Grayson knew that the president must remarry. Becoming love’s impresario, he arranged that Wilson would, by accident, meet Mrs. Norman Galt, a friend of his fiancée and a vital and striking young widow. In describing her very first encounter with the president, Edith Wilson wrote: “I turned a corner and met my fate.” Within a year of their meeting, they were married.

Through the Great War, the triumphs of the Paris Peace Conference, the president’s losing battle with Congress over entry into the League of Nations, and his resultant physical collapse, this formidable woman was at the world’s center stage.

Five decades later, in 1961, Americans were enthralled by John and Jacqueline Kennedy, and few people knew that President Wilson’s widow was still alive. One who did know – and sought her out – was a future member of Princeton’s Class of 1970, Robert Reidy Cullinane. Recently, Robert and I met to record his memories of meeting Mrs. Wilson and of visiting her nearly every Saturday morning in what proved to be the last year of her life.  – Richard Trenner ’70

RT: Impossible as it seems, you and I met 50 years ago on a pleasant fall Sunday in 1966. We were standing near one another on the lawn at Prospect, where President Goheen was having a reception for freshman. You struck me as an old young man. You were wearing horn-rims and clothes of clerical cut. I thought to myself: “This guy’s looking for 1923 and has stumbled into 1966. But he might be amusing to talk with.” Well, you turned out to be so amusing to talk with that we haven’t stopped talking since. A week or so after we met, you invited me to see several of the peerless relics of Woodrow Wilson that his widow had bequeathed to you.

RRC: I was certifiably a young fogey, Richard. My mother said I was born aged 46.

RT:  I believe you were a seventh-grader in Washington, D.C., when your father, a White House correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune during the New Deal, introduced you to Mrs. Wilson. Right?

RRC: Yes, and for an odd little boy obsessed with history and biography, nose forever in books, and disinclined to compete with my brothers in golf, I had an ideal father.

RT: Ah, your father. I love how FDR used to reprove him – “Now, Leo, go stand in the corner!” – whenever he asked an out-of-bounds question at one of the weekly White House press conferences. But I’m getting ahead of the story line. Tell me about your first meeting with Mrs. Woodrow Wilson in 1961.

RRC: President and Mrs. Wilson moved to 2340 S Street, NW, a sedate neo-Palladian house, in 1921, immediately after they handed Warren Harding the keys to the White House. Forty years later I first visited 2340 and met Mrs. Wilson. A boy of 13, I brought two gifts: a purple orchid from a Dupont Circle florist and a charcoal sketch on parchment I had done of the president, a sketch respectable enough, I thought, to pass as a representation of its subject. To further prove my bona fides, I had replicated Wilson’s signature at the bottom. A liveried steward named Ezra Edwards led my father and me up the stairs from the mezzanine to the second floor as the longcase pendulum clock on the landing bonged 11. I couldn't have been more nervous if I were about to encounter the Virgin Mary. 

We were led into a large and sunny library. There, at a window overlooking the garden, sat the august Dowager Wilson, widow of the author of the Fourteen Points. She was at a card table with her secretary, the chic and charming Margaret Cherricx Brown. Sensing my shyness, Mrs. Wilson smiled radiantly, expressed pleasure at the orchid and the sketch, and had Mrs. Brown, whom she called “Cherie,” pin the orchid to her blouse.  She asked me if I had actually done the drawing. When I assured her I had, she made a reference to the President’s private secretary – “Why, that’s the best forgery of Mr. Wilson’s signature since Tumulty did it” – to put a young boy further at ease. She then inscribed a photograph of the president for me, produced a multi-tiered box of chocolates, and let me select an ivory-colored one, a dainty that I’d never seen before but that has awakened Proustian memories ever since. Behind Mrs. Wilson hung an array of small Bolling family portraits. She was proud of her descent from Pocahontas and John Rolfe: the ultimate F.F.V. [First Family of Virginia].

She wanted to know why I so much admired her husband in preference to “most boys’ favorite,” Theodore Roosevelt. I could only come up with “I think he was the smartest president we have ever had, much smarter than Roosevelt.” She beamed approval, and we were off and running.

RT: Can you describe Mrs. Wilson physically? 

RRC: In her prime she was amply proportioned and tall enough to carry it well. But by the time I met her in her 89th year, she had lost a good deal of weight – a result of what she aptly called her “dropsy.” Her impressive teeth were still intact, one of the many benefits, she said, of eating corn every day, part of her Powhatan Indian heritage. She wore no glasses over cavernous cerulean eyes, which occasionally fell into an unnerving stare. She was unapologetically put out by her advanced age and told me quirkily she never expected to live past 1956, the centenary of Wilson’s birth, and was now hoping to make it to his 105th: the day the Woodrow Wilson Bridge was to be dedicated.

I showed such rapt interest in everything Mrs. Wilson said and showed me, and I asked so many questions, that she invited me to return the next Saturday morning when either she or Cherie would show me more.  And so it went, every Saturday morning for three months, until late November, when she caught a confining cold.

RT: Did you ever ask her about some of the great events of the Wilson presidency – the Peace Conference, for example?

RRC: I didn’t have to. The Peace Conference and other momentous events came up often as she showed me all sorts of awards, silver-framed photographs, and paintings.  Of the Wilsons’ reception in the capitals of Europe, she said that the supernatural ovations and the deafening cheers of “Vive Wilson!” – along with the sight of overflowing crowds in the plazas and boulevards and of flag-wavers perched in trees and windows everywhere – made her giddy and tearful. She found Mrs. Poincaré, wife of the French president, similarly dazed – so overcome in the open victoria that she couldn’t speak, then or for some time afterward. Later President Poincaré told Mrs. Wilson: “Paris spoke with one voice today.” 

RT: Your reference to “one voice” reminds me of something I’m curious about. Wilson spoke in a mellow, modulated voice and with an “educated” but unaffected accent – an accent markedly different from the Anglo-aping (non-rhotic) English that many privileged Easterners spoke in Wilson’s day. What about Mrs. Wilson’s voice? 

RRC: Vintage Tidewater: piano, dulcet. She rarely spoke in public, although she did make a short address at the 1928 Democratic convention. No recording of her voice exists, as far as I have been able to discover.

She was born in 1872. Hers was a Gone With the Wind childhood, riches to rags. Her father had lost his plantation in the war, and in 1866 he was obliged to move his wife and family into a flat over a store in Wytheville, Va.

RT: Wilson’s health, which became the focus of public concern in 1919, has been written about extensively. Did Mrs. Wilson discuss how the president tried to stay fit?

RRC: Yes, but of the time before his stroke. Adm. Grayson saw to it that the president took time for daily exercise. The choices were horseback riding, cycling, and golf. The latter won because Mrs. Wilson said she could not seem to stay seated on a horse or bicycle, but could occasionally outshoot her husband, who loved golf better than he played it. She told me that she and the president would get up at 5 in the morning, nibble finger sandwiches from a tray, motor out to the links at Bannockburn or Kirkside, play nine holes, and then return to the White House in time to change and have breakfast at 8:30, because they didn’t want the press to ferret them out swatting golfballs in wartime.  

RT: Here comes the inevitable question: Do you think Edith Wilson overstepped herself by assuming presidential powers during her husband’s very serious illness?

RRC: Well, there’s what she told me in 1961, and there’s what I’ve read since then. She sternly advised me that if anyone ever tried to say that she ran the country between late 1919 and early 1921, I should dismiss it as “pure tittle-tattle.” At no time did she presume to perform presidential duties, she said. And she had no desire to do so. She knew without being assured by Grayson that her husband had lost none of his mental faculties, and he wanted to get back to work.

The crisis of the president’s health only came up twice as a topic of conversation. At our very first meeting, when I asked her how Joe Tumulty had mastered his chief’s signature, she referred obliquely to documents that Tumulty signed for the president on those days when the great man was “too ill to get out of bed.” On another occasion (and more to the point), she said that she had no skill or interest in statecraft, but that one of the country’s best teachers of politics and public affairs was her confidante and constant companion. In every important matter of executive discretion, she consulted with the president, who would then delegate the matter to Tumulty, who, she said, not only knew the politic thing to do but also was familiar enough with the president’s ways of writing and thinking that Wilson felt comfortable with him as understudy.   

This surprised me, because she was not reticent about expressing her unvarnished opinion of anyone, but if there was ever any animus against Tumulty, as clearly there had been, she didn’t show it to me. Tumulty died in 1954, eulogized as Wilson’s staunchest ally, and at the end of her life she may have come around to that view. For a time Tumulty was the only person besides Grayson who was permitted regular access to the president. This entrée was possible only with the assent of Mrs. Wilson, who publicly eschewed power, authority, and guile, but who – and here’s my answer to your question – privately wielded all three. But I certainly did not get the impression that she felt she had done anything out-of-line. To forestall criticism, she defended her actions as doing her bounden duty as a wife, which in this case (she devoutly believed) was also in the best interests of the country.   

RT: From Wytheville to the White House; that’s a summa cum laude version of the American dream. Everyone knows the White House, but how would you describe the house on S Street when it was still a home and before it became a national historic shrine?

RRC: Fly in amber top to bottom. “Lived in.” Stately but not overstated. Candlestick phones. Every lamp had a dangling fringe and a doily underneath. When Mrs. Wilson showed me around the house, it became obvious that she had changed nothing, moved nothing, since her husband died on Feb. 3, 1924. She still used a gramophone and played 78s. In fact, she put several Victor records of the president’s speeches on the green felt turntable for me. I listened with the reverence of an acolyte at consecration.

RT: Speaking of old recordings, did she like music?

RRC: Vaudeville fare, sentimental stuff. A lot of her record collection had been the president’s: Scottish and Irish ditties, “Leezie Lindsay,” the songs of Harry Lauder. There was an inadvertently risible Caruso recording of “Over There” in which he seemed distinctly to be singing “wart” not “word” in “Send the wart, send the wart, over there.”

RT: Did she read much?

RRC: Mostly nonfiction, especially biographies. But she kept up with some of the current fiction – best sellers like The Agony and the Ecstasy, Advise and Consent, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

RT: Since we’re now living in an era of diet fads and self-confessed foodies, tell me about the kind of diet she followed.

RRC:  Unlike her abstemious husband, she was an epicure; for example, she favored shellfish thermidors. Mr. Edwards often drove her down to the Seventh Street wharves where she would select the plumpest crabs or lobsters. For my mother, she scrawled an elaborate recipe for planked shad. And Mrs. Wilson partook quite liberally of every description of spirits. Mrs. Brown joined her for cocktails poured from a hammered silver shaker. When she ventured out in cold weather, she carried a flask of brandy. In her wine cellar I spotted Methuselahs of Moët champagne, vintage 1916, long since given up the ghost.

RT: Do you recall particularly funny or otherwise remarkable moments?

RRC: One day I asked her to show me letters that had not yet been sent to the Library of Congress. She took me in a rickety elevator to the third floor, where large olive-green filing cabinets were kept. From one of these she withdrew some manila folders. When a document happened to drop to the floor, Mrs. Wilson inadvertently stepped on it. I stared at it and recognized the distinctive signature of Secretary of State Robert Lansing in peacock blue ink. I thought of saying nothing but at last timidly said, “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Mrs. Wilson, but you are standing on a letter from Secretary Lansing.” She replied, “Leave him there – it’s where he belongs!”

Another amusing story. Herbert Hoover lived three doors up S Street. Mrs. Wilson told me that in November 1928 she walked over to congratulate her neighbor on being elected president. He stiffly shook her hand and “made a low harrumphing sound.” Hoover knew, of course, that she had campaigned conspicuously for his opponent, Gov. Alfred E. Smith of New York. 

One wistful moment occurred as we were looking out the solarium window. She pointed to a fountain – Pan playing his pipes. “That’s the only boy I have,” she said. I later learned that in 1903 she had given birth to a baby boy who only lived for three days. 

While she was showing me the books in the study, she described them as a “hodgepodge” and added, “I’ve sent most of his books to the Congressional Library.” On one bookshelf reposed a regal bronze tiger. I asked her what it meant. “Ah,” she replied, “that’s the mascot of Princeton University, Bobby, where you will go someday.” My destiny was sealed: Six years later I was a freshman living in Tommy Wilson’s old room on the second floor of Witherspoon Hall.

RT: Did you detect anything about Mrs. Wilson’s attitudes on race?

RRC: Following her cue, I took to addressing her African American steward as Edwards until I was corrected by my father, who said I should call him “Mr. Edwards.” Abashed, I looked to Mrs. Wilson for reassurance. “Your father is right,” was her soft but conclusive answer.

The campaign platform of John Kennedy, which contained groundbreaking proposals for civil liberties and voting rights amendments, received Mrs. Wilson’s enthusiastic endorsement. Even though she’d been raised in Virginia just after the Civil War, over the years she adopted far more democratic and inclusive values. As you know, Wilson himself was born in Virginia five years before the Civil War, and his earliest memories were of life in wartime Georgia. As a boy and young man, he was acquainted with the all-pervasive provincial prejudices of whites in the South. Though his father couched the master-slave relationship in biblical terms from the pulpit, he did set up a Sunday school for slave children. Now he is branded a racist, but in his day he was a centrist. I cannot believe there can be any question that if Woodrow Wilson, constitutional scholar and great visionary idealist that he was, had lived another 40 years he, like his wife, would have grown with the times and perhaps surpassed them.

RT: So Edith stayed au courant and remained a steadfast Democrat?

RRC: The woman could be said to be steadfast in everything she did. She’d written a letter to Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, after all, disinviting him to her husband’s funeral. If any guest to 2340 parked a car in the driveway bearing a Nixon-Lodge sticker, Mrs. Wilson requested that the car be removed, presumably with the owner in it!  She became friends with Jacqueline Kennedy and had the new First Lady to lunch at S Street. A short time later, President and Mrs. Kennedy invited Mrs. Wilson to attend the event that marked the start of the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Commission. The commission led to the establishment of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

All this happened in the depths of the Cold War, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev ordered resumption of nuclear weapons testing. One day we heard on the radio that President Kennedy just advised all Americans to build or find access to bomb shelters. Her reaction was, “Think of that!  Hiding from atomic bombs!” I asked Mrs. Wilson where she intended to go if the order was given to take shelter immediately. “Oh,” she said, “Cherie and I have already decided we’ll go to the wine cellar.” And I commented, “At least you’ll have something to do.” Which produced titters from both women. 

RT: I know that Edith Wilson died on what would have been Woodrow’s 105th birthday – the day chosen for the dedication of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge across the Potomac. Were you planning to be with her on that day?

RRC: Oh yes, but Mr. Edwards, who was going to drive Mrs. Wilson to the dedication, telephoned to say that she had “the grippe” and couldn’t go out. I vividly remember my father waking me at midnight to tell me that the Mrs. Wilson had just died. I sat up in shock: I thought she was indestructible. I remember thinking with a shiver down my spine of her expressed wish to survive to that very day.

A few weeks after her death, I had a telephone call from Cherie Brown. She said that Mrs. Wilson had “left some mementos” for me, and that I should tell my father to come down to S Street and pick them up. I suddenly recalled what Mrs. Wilson had said to me in the library one Saturday morning: “I will set a few things aside for you.” I’d assumed she meant books. But the “mementos” turned out to be six large steamer trunks full of relics, including a Saratoga trunk that Wilson had used from his undergraduate years in Witherspoon Hall to his emeritus years at 2340 S Street. A delivery truck had to be brought in. The trunks contained an assortment of treasures: clothing, golf hats, silk and collapsible toppers, pince-nez, and white canvas plimsolls. And there were, as expected, books – some elaborately inscribed to “Miss Ellie Lou Axson” when Wilson was courting Ellen. At the bottom of one trunk was a large stack of clippings taken from movie magazines like Film Fun, Photoplay, and Screenland and containing racy pictures of Hollywood divas like Theda Bara, Lillian Gish, Gloria Swanson, Marion Davies, and Norma Talmadge. Many clippings bore his penciled assessments in Graham shorthand, Pepysian style.    

RT: Even after all these years have come and gone, I still remember what you showed me of these relics. Didn’t President Goheen stop by to see them?

RRC: He did. In the summer before freshman year, I requested assignment to Wilson’s old room in Witherspoon. But I was informed by the director of housing that (1) nobody knew or could ever find where Wilson’s old room was, and (2) freshmen were not allowed to pick their own rooms. Neither contingency was going to deter me, a kid who’d been directed there by Mrs. Woodrow Wilson.

So I said to the director of housing, “What if I find Wilson’s old room? Will you let me have it then?”  He snorted, “Well yes, you can try. Good luck!” It took me about 45 minutes in the University Archives to find his 1877 room assignment. I won the room. Somehow, the recording secretary of the University, Freddy Fox ’39, got wind of my discovery and reported it to President Goheen. Even before I’d settled in, both of them stopped by unannounced to have a look. The timing was perfect: Wilson’s Saratoga trunk, the one he used as a student in that very room, had just arrived from Washington. Years later, when Witherspoon was being gutted for renovations, I received a large cardboard parcel in the mail, and delving through the excelsior and crumpled newspapers I found a jewel box containing one rusty nail wrapped in tissue.  The accompanying note read: “Robert, I salvaged this nail for you from the mantel in Wilson’s room. Fred Fox.”

RT: How would you sum Edith Wilson up?

RRC: A stately magnolia from the Virginia backwater, grown in the shade, but translated by fate, her own willpower, and marriage, to the bright pinnacle of the world.

RT: When you and I met, among my first impressions were one that proved wrong and one that proved right. The wrong impression was of you as a classmate who would never be seen not wearing a jacket and tie. That was true for a long time, but today I find you rakishly tieless in Palmer Square. The right impression was of you as a classmate who plays the English language like a virtuoso.

RRC: Thank you, but let’s end the interview with a few words not from you and not from me, but from the man who married Edith Bolling Galt 100 years ago. When he proposed to her, Woodrow Wilson said: “Here stands your friend, a longing man, in the midst of the world’s affairs, a world that knows nothing of the heart he has shown you, but which he cannot face with his full strength or the full zest of keen endeavor unless you come into his heart and take possession.” And after a fateful decade, when the cheering stopped, as the president lay blind and dying in the house on S Street, his last utterance was: “Edith!”

Robert Reidy Cullinane ’70 is assistant director in the Office of the Recording Secretary at Princeton. Richard Trenner ’70, a former lecturer in public and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, is a teacher, editor, and photographer.