Books: Phyllis Lee Levin's Edith and Woodrow

Culture Watch

Mr. Anthony is the author of seven books, the most recent of which is The Kennedy White House: Family Life and Pictures, 1961-1963.

In the current crisis, there has been considerable media speculation on Laura Bush's emotional role for her husband. In the midst of impeachment, Hillary Clinton was said to have helped construct the White House defense. But even Nancy Reagan's role in seeking to expel White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan in the midst of the Iran-contra scandal cannot be compared to the personal power of Edith Wilson 82 years ago. The legend of Edith Wilson as our"first woman president" has long been locked in the curio cabinet of presidential rumor, along with Zachary Taylor dying from iced cherries or Ulysses S. Grant being alcoholic. Just as recent DNA tests have proved Jefferson's fathering of a slave child, so too does Phyllis Lee Levin's Edith and Woodrow unequivocally prove the long-rumored assumption of power by Mrs. Wilson. The book will become a cornerstone to understanding the presidency and personality in politics. In fact, Levin's meticulous chronicle of Edith's unprecedented and unconstitutional role surpasses any such previous accounts, including those of the Princeton editor of Wilson's papers, Arthur Link. The case is airtight, through detailed bits of evidence, that Edith seized control of the presidency after her husband's debilitating September 1919 stroke.


This is not a definitive first lady biography, but rather a saga of the most important period of her life. Her 13-year marriage to her first husband, Norman Galt, is explored in only four pages, for example, and indeed her entire life up to the time she met Wilson when she was 42 years old is covered in 17 pages; Wilson's life up until the time he met second wife, Edith, is covered in 41 pages. This is where the alchemy for disaster is set with an acute analysis of their righteous and petty personalities. Ultimately, it gives us Wilson through a new prism--his marriage. Their romance assumes a compelling human scale with Levin's liberal use of their love letters. Inextricably intertwined with the purple prose of an adult woman who seems to suffer from arrested emotional development and a man admittedly desperate and dependent upon female attention is raw politics. Amid the gushing coos, for example, is their dialogue on Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan's disagreement with the president on how to cope with German aggression. Lacking any political education or experience, Edith begins pushing her views on state affairs, even suggesting that Wilson's official response to Germany suffered in comparison to Washington's Farewell Address, which he had apparently sent her to study. More disturbing than Edith's successful edict to fire Bryan for presenting an adverse opinion is Woodrow's decision to essentially act as his own secretary of state."My how I like you," Wilson responded to her unrelenting malice for Bryan,"And how you can hate, too. Whew!" Perversely, it seemed to endear her all the more to him.

As Levin takes the reader through the Great War, Versailles Treaty and fight for Wilson's League of Nations, Edith echoes what she considers his infallible views, comments on ugly physical characteristics of Europeans and records her fashions, but focus naturally shifts to Wilson and his negotiations. Throughout, Levin weaves regular medical references to Wilson's deteriorating health into the political narrative. It lays the case for the inevitable stroke. In this same methodical manner, when complexities pile up in especially important episodes, Levin gives us daily, sometimes hourly, breakdowns of events. While some material will be familiar to Wilsonites, all of it is fleshed out here for the first time. One is never left wanting for this or that detail; Levin snaps every button.


Part IV,"Illness," is the most fascinating. Drawing heavily from the previously untapped Edith Wilson papers, those of the White House chief usher and recently discovered private papers of the presidential physician, these nine chapters are the heart of Edith and Woodrow. Each chapter evidences how the first lady acted as the sole conduit between Woodrow and the world, with examples of her own loopy notes that she claimed were verbatim directions of the president in his sickbed in response to questions of state she decided to raise with him, and tentative notes from frustrated cabinet members and senators trying to keep the government machinery going. Most alarming is an outrageous act of personal retribution that destroyed a diplomatic effort that would have ultimately aided Wilson's League. She further manipulated reporters such as Louis Seibold and Lionel Probert into believing that Wilson was mentally agile.

With her southern belle training, Edith insisted she must keep away anything that would disturb him: she knew better than the pesky old democratic system that had a vice president in place to take over--a paralyzed Woodrow was still the best thing for the nation. When one realizes just how deluded the Wilsons became, one almost has the paradoxical urge to forgive their sins. Almost. Even nearly a century after the fact, one can't help coming away feeling bitter that Edith's insistence on Woodrow's"exaltation" could so trample the Constitution. Wilson also cannot be absolved; once repaired enough to speak and shuffle, he only fortified Edith's contempt for even long-term loyalists who had the audacity to gently raise a contrary position to his own.

The only regret about Edith and Woodrow is that there isn't enough space to fully explore the widow's full-time profession as"Mrs. Woodrow Wilson." Even with time, she had nothing but a sycophantic view of the man she addressed in one letter as"little Boy Lover." Her autobiography was filled with one outright lie after another. With formidable legal bullying, she refused use of his papers to chroniclers until settling on one she could entirely control. Edith even had her tentacles in Hollywood, with script approval for the film"Wilson." One wonders what she thought about the overt political honesty of Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom she maintained a correspondence over some four decades. Considering the opportunities for insight that being first lady provides, it's tragic that Edith Wilson never evolved out of her bigotry against Jews, blacks and women.

In the end, both Wilsons emerge as vastly insecure, with no interest in engaging healthy debate. Edith never became close on any substantive level to any woman confidante and she trusted--used, is perhaps more accurate--only those men who proved their Woodrow worship. She systematically alienated a few who had his ear--unofficial advisor and presidential representative Edmund House and press secretary Joseph Tumulty--out of spite rather than rational political astuteness.

Edith and Woodrow is chilling in showing how self-obsessed and pitying Woodrow Wilson was as president and how Edith richly deserves to be ranked as America's worst first lady. Despite these conclusions, the narrative is utterly engrossing because of its seamless, exquisite flow. Levin writes straightforwardly, without the need of bells or whistles to urge on the reader.

This piece originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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