Ellen and Edith: Secret Lives of Wilson’s First Ladies


There were two first ladies in the life of President Woodrow Wilson. Ellen, the first Mrs. Wilson, died after a year and a half in the White House. Edith became the second Mrs. Wilson, and thus the second first lady of Woodrow Wilson.

Over time, our fascination with the first ladies has become a national sport. Perhaps it was the oldest daughter of Theodore Roosevelt who got the ball rolling.  Rumor has it that Alice buried a voodoo doll of succeeding First Lady Nellie Taft in the front yard. That's the kind of thing that piques your interest, after all.

Today, numerous authors have delved into their public and private lives. Kristie Miller is one such author. Although her book party being thrown by the Women's National Democratic Club was moved to Feb. 1 because of the 'thundersnow,' Niteside caught up with her to discuss her latest book: "Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson's First Ladies."

"Edith Wilson is a polarizing character," Miller said. "Most previous biographers have either admired or criticized her. I wanted to try to understand her -- to consider what her motives might be for some of the controversial decisions she made -- to keep Wilson in office and to lie to the American people about the extent of his illness."

Going into the project, Miller knew very little abut Ellen Wilson, but she said she thought that a president as interesting as Woodrow Wilson would likely have chosen an equally interesting wife.

"Ellen tolerated her husband's involvement with another woman," Miller said, "but Edith insisted her husband terminate the [extramarital] relationship. Theodore Roosevelt was advised to make an issue of Wilson's special friend in the 1912 election, but he refused. He said no one would believe Wilson was a Romeo because he looked like a druggist's clerk."

How will history judge them? Well now, here's the irony. "Ellen seems admirable to us today, but she was not a very popular first lady," Miller said. "She was not fashionable and she was too ill to be a good hostess. Edith has been harshly judged by history for shielding her husband's condition from the public, but at the time she was quite popular."

The author's first book was nominated for a Pulitzer in the Biography or Autobiography category. "Ruth Hanna McCormick: A Life in Politics" was about Miller's grandmother, a congresswoman who represented the entire state of Illinois in 1928. McCormick later became Thomas Dewey’s campaign manager.

As for Ms. Alice Roosevelt Longworth -- well, she went on to offer the best gossip in Washington. Held at her residence on Massachusetts Avenue, Longworth's salons were best known for the way she greeted her guests: “If you can’t say something good about someone, come sit next to me.”

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