I was in the bathtub reading Scott Bergs book WILSON when I dropped it in the water. It wasn’t a spasm but a reaction to the line I read that basically said Edith Wilson was almost the president in 1919. After I hauled the book out of the water with blue ink washing down from the cover I read on and then on and on until I reached The Papers of Woodrow Wilson in the Elmhurst Library. There buried in the tombs was a story of a woman who had only been married to the president of the United States for four years and had only two years of schooling and was required in the forty sixth year of her life to take control of the United States government and step in as president.
It is through the correspondence of the day that this story is told.
There was no email or fax of course so people mailed each other and sent telegrams or letters. In these letters the power flowed from Woodrow Wilson to Edith Wilson as she redirected the presidential river to allow her husband to heal from a massive stroke that made him into a semi invalid who could only be wheeled out to the South portico or shown movies in the Red Room or when he was well enough taken for drives. In these dusty books I discovered that Wilson disappeared for five months and the White House ceased to function and became more like a haunted Victorian hospice than a functioning White House.
And at the center was Edith Wilson signing legislation, making appointments, orchestrating the cover-up, working on official proclamations while trying to fight the battel of the League of Nations. By the time I closed the volumes of letters and official correspondence I had my book and I had my heroine. Her name was Edith Wilson and she was the first woman president. The title flowed out from that idea, Madam President The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson. And as I dug deeper I was surprised to find a love story.
Edith Wilson was a progressive woman who had buried one husband, a child , had been homeschooled by her grandmother and had been left a failing jewelry company. By the time she met a grieving Woodrow Wilson she was a woman of means with the first drivers license in the District of Columbia, an electric car,and a penchant for travel and the good life. The last thing she had on her mind was marriage but Woodrow Wilson woke from his grief and pursued her like a Victorian suitor half his age. Wilson for all his academic frigidity was in reality a sensual man and the love letters would make a woman in 1919 blush. The romantic won over Edith and then he did a very curious thing. He made his new wife his partner in the White House.
By the time they married Edith had been deciphering top secret codes and had become the President’s closest advisor and effectively began isolating him from the men around him. Edith was fierce, loyal, protective, aggressive, and smart. The couple navigated through World War I as Wilsons health deteriorated. The final blow coming outside of Pueblo Colorado on a whistle-stop tour to promote the League of Nations. When they returned to Washington the blood clot in his brain squeezed off circulation and Wilson collapsed, paralyzed on his left side. The Edith Wilson presidency began.
And now almost a hundred years later we entertain the possibility of our first elected woman president. The Edith Wilson Presidency has nibbled at the pages of history for a long time and maybe now with Hillary in the final stretch it is time to shine the light on the dusty pages that reside in the books never checked out. But in those pages is the story of Edith Wilson and her secret presidency. Hillary should take note of the woman who ruled before women even had the vote. She too, had it all against her.