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AN HONORABLE AFFAIR

In one sequence of letters, Wilson is in Bermuda and Hulbert is not. He tells her he misses her, and says: "God was very good to me to send me such a friend, so perfectly satisfying and delightful, so delectable."

She responds: "Does the bougainvillea fling itself over the cottage as of old? Why, why can I not be there -- to fling myself where I would!"

Once, Wilson writes her that he cannot walk the streets of the island without thinking of her. "Why have you taken such complete possession of Bermuda?" He was lonely without her, he said: "You really must come down to relieve me."

And then there is this, perhaps as close to a smoking gun as these elliptical and circumspect letters get. Among the letters of Feb. 1, 1908, was a petition that Wilson had drafted and Mark Twain had signed, protesting a plan to bring automobiles to Bermuda. On the back was a scribble. Arthur Link recognized it as professional shorthand. Link knew Wilson better than any scholar alive. He knew Wilson knew shorthand.

Link hunted up an expert.

The scribble was apparently the beginning of a draft of a letter. This is what it said: "My precious one, my beloved Mary . . ." Years later, Wilson would use "my precious one" as a salutation to another woman -- Edith Bolling Galt, with whom he was in love, and would soon marry.

The most intriguing correspondence of all is a series of letters from September 1915 between Wilson and Galt. At the time, the two were secretly engaged, and they were planning to announce it to the public. Wilson's advisers were horrified. They thought it was too soon after Ellen Wilson's death from kidney disease in 1914.

So William G. McAdoo, Wilson's adviser and son-in-law, concocted a plan. He told the president he had heard that Mary Hulbert, incensed at rumors of the impending marriage, feeling jealous and misused, was showing his letters around. This was a wild stab in the dark, and a lie. Mary Hulbert was not, indeed, "that kind of a woman." But McAdoo hoped the threat alone would make Wilson reconsider his marriage plans.

Wilson, however, was no coward. When presented with a problem, he faced it down.

In the files is a letter from Wilson to Galt, dated Sept. 18. It was dashed off hurriedly. It lacks Wilson's customary flourishes of both prose and penmanship. The letter cancels the couple's dinner at the White House that day, and begs Galt to accept a visit from him at her home to discuss "something personal about myself that I feel I must tell you about at once."

They spoke privately that night. No one alive knows what was said.

But in a subsequent letter, Galt tells Wilson that she was deeply troubled by his revelation but forgives him and trusts in his love. What follows is an embarrassing hemorrhage of correspondence from Wilson to Galt -- wretched, writhing, abject letters declaring himself unworthy of her sweet and merciful forgiveness.

In one of these, dated Sept. 21, he says of his confession: "I knew that it would give a tragically false impression of what I really have been and am, because it might make the contemptible error and madness of a few months seem a stain upon a whole life." In another letter, he cited "a folly long ago loathed and repented of," leaving him "stained and unworthy."

Clearly, Wilson had confessed something profound that day in September 1915. What was it? What was the "madness of a few months"?

Is it possible that Wilson was so stiff and proper, so strait-laced, that he might have been confessing no greater sin than lust in his heart -- an unconsummated love affair that moved him to write intemperate letters? "It's entirely possible," says Hirst, the historian.

Is it possible that Wilson actually confessed to a torrid physical affair? "It's entirely possible," says Hirst.

The papers also reveal that Ellen Wilson herself knew of or deeply suspected a betrayal. Shortly before she died, she told White House physician Cary Grayson that Wilson's relationship with Mary Hulbert had been the only episode in their marriage in which Wilson had caused her pain. What she meant by that was never explained. (Whatever his relationship with Hulbert, Wilson deeply loved his wife, and was devastated by her death. At the time, he confided to an aide that he hoped to be assassinated.)

About Wilson and Hulbert, in short, there is ample room for suspicion. The rest is surmise and conjecture. "You can draw your own conclusions as to whether they were just dancing around the bougainvillea or not," Hirst laughs.

Actually, he suspects that's all it was: an infatuation that never resulted in a physical union. The late political historian August Heckscher looked at the same documents and reached a different conclusion. In his excellent 1991 biography of Wilson, he flatly declares it a love affair, and speculates that the "madness of a few months" took place between November 1909 and February 1910, when Hulbert was living in a New York apartment with her mother. Shortly before and during this period, Wilson's letters betray maximum ardor. And Wilson is known to have visited New York several times around then. Sometimes Ellen was with him. Sometimes she was not.

This is a fascinating time in Wilson's life, coinciding with a period of almost reckless political experimentation. During this time he would abandon his lifelong caution, initiating a series of moves that would lead to his resignation from Princeton. It was a major gamble: Wilson lost stature as an academic administrator but gained a national reputation as a fighter for intellectual freedom and an enemy of the monied elite. It launched a political career that would lead him first to the governorship of New Jersey and soon thereafter to one of the great presidencies in American history.

Is it possible that a romantic liaison had emboldened him? Consider this: In his June 1908 baccalaureate address, Wilson dourly told the young Princeton men: "I am not sure that it is of the first importance that you should be happy. Many an unhappy man has been of deep service to the world and to himself."

A year later, speaking before the next graduating class at a time when his letters indicate a growing passion for the company of Hulbert, Wilson changed his tone. He told the graduates that there are things one does for duty and things one does for joy "with the free spirit of the adventurer." These, he said, "are the inviting by-paths of life into which you go for discovery, to get off the dusty road of mere duty into cool meadows and shadowed glades where the scene is changed and the air seems full of the tonic of freedom."

Hulbert's correspondence at the time makes it clear that Wilson sought her opinion on his switch from academia to politics, and that she offered unambiguous advice: Go for it.

Did she also provide him a more explosive boost to his self-confidence? Perhaps it is appropriate that the final words on this matter belong to Mary Hulbert herself.

After 1915, she stopped writing to Wilson, and he to her. Her fortunes had taken a downturn because of bad investments and the illness of her son. She remained indebted to the president; he purchased the mortgage on some of her real estate, and once lent her $600.

In her 1925 Liberty magazine articles, written "to silence whispering tongues," Hulbert is protective of Wilson's legacy, and reticent about their relationship.She pronounces Wilson one of the giants of American history. Defiantly, she decries any efforts to sully his name: "Woodrow Wilson is dead; he will not be impeached in the court wherein God presides."

Yet this was not quite her final word. Years later, Hulbert would write of Wilson once again. In 1933, she authored "The Story of Mrs. Peck," a book that was billed as a tell-all account. It did not make much of an impact. Americans scarcely remembered the story of Mrs. Peck, and those who did no longer much cared. It was 1933; the country had bigger things to worry about.

Even some Wilson historians don't know of, or fail to recall, this book. Frank Aucella, curator of the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington, hadn't heard of it.

There are perhaps a half-dozen copies of "The Story of Mrs. Peck" in existence. The Library of Congress has one. The pages are the color of buttermilk. They smell sturdy with age.

Perhaps, at last, we will get the lowdown on the sex.

Here, on Page 143, Woodrow Wilson makes his appearance.

He is called "Mr. Wilson."

He remains "Mr. Wilson" throughout the book.

Here he is, boyishly taking shorthand notes on his cuffs.

Here Mary gently rebukes him for leaving his teaspoon in the teacup. And another time for absentmindedly wearing his muffler in the house.

He cannot dance.

He has an excellent tenor.

He has sensitive digestion.

He doesn't much like dogs.

All his suits are made of the same gray cloth.

He is partial to chicken and rice, with corn and spinach.

Of romance, there is nothing. Mary does not deny it. She does not admit it. She simply does not address the question at all.

And that's all she wrote.

As the most tawdry sex scandal in history unfolds in Congress, we are left to contemplate the lessons of the scandal that never was, the impeachment that never happened.

The fact is, we will never know the precise topology of the relationship between Woodrow Wilson and Mary Hulbert. Our curiosity will never be satiated.

In a sense, of course, it does not matter. A man and a woman loved and respected each other. They did not permit whatever passion they shared to destroy a marriage. What happened, happened. They took it to their graves.

Whatever degree of intimacy they enjoyed, the details shall remain -- as one might argue these matters should remain -- completely, eternally, gloriously private.


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