On JUNE 5, 1915 President Woodrow Wilson took time out from minor worries like the sinking of the Lusitania and the imminent resignation of his secretary of state to tackle something big -- plotting how to be alone with his sweetheart. "My Darling, My Darling," he wrote her after an evening in the company of others, "If ever again I have to be with you for an hour and a half with only two stolen glances to express my all but irresistible desire to take you in my arms and smother you with kisses, I am sure I shall crack an artery!" The 58-year-old president had met the 42-year-old Edith Bolling Galt two months before -- eight months after the death of his wife, Ellen. The 250 ardent letters the pair exchanged between their meeting in April and their engagement in October have recently been made public, and have now been masterfully edited by Edwin Tribble, a former editor of The Washington Star, in A President in Love.
No doubt these letters are, as Tribble says, "unique in Presidential history for their passion and zeal," but they pose no threat to Ableard and Heloise. One man's love letter (even a president's) is another man's mush, and there is plenty of that here. Edith is "dear little Girl." Woodrow is "dear, tired little boy." She was "my delectable comrade -- dear chum of my mind and my heart." He wrote her, "My heart thrilling with pride and fairly melting with tenderness, [I] dream that [my darling's] dear, beautiful form is close beside me and that I have only to stretch out my arms to have her come to them for comfort and happiness and peace, my kisses on her lips and eyelids."
Wildon tried to "immortalize" Edith thus at least once a day and sometimes twice before noon in letters that he wrote in longhand and took up to two hours to compose. One day, Wilson imagined himself as a knight on a "sacred enterprise" to rescue his loved one from her tower. Another day, his sweetheart seemed so noble that he took "the shoes off his feet" when approaching her "sweet and holy place" (only metaphorically, of course).
Even when these letters make you wince, they are intriguing. Tucked away between "My adorable Sweetheart" and "My Precious One" are fascinating nuggets. Woodrow Wilson, the starchy ex-president of Princeton was (who would have guessed?) not only "highly sexed," as Tribble puts it, but totally in need of "intimate love," as Wilson put it, to do his job. "I am absolutely dependent on intimate love for the right and free and most effective use of my powers and I know by experience . . . what it costs my work to do without it." When love was thwarted, he was wiped out. Reading between the lines, it is obvious that something untoward happened between the two when they were driving on the evening of May 27. The next day, President Wilson could not work at all. He canceled cabinet meeting and appointments -- except one with Warren G. Harding, the new senator from Ohio -- and took to his room with an illness even his doctor, Cary Grayson (who had introduced Edith Galt to the Wilson circle) could not cure. No wonder Wilson's closest advisers worried lest word of the love-sick chief of state get out and ruin him politically.
In other ways, the Woodrow Wilson of these letters is the familiar, serious president we have always known.. There do not seem to have been many laughs. Wilson's idea of a lively evening was to gather his family after dinner and read aloud from his book, The History of the American Prople.
But when it mattered, Wilson was capable of sympathy and warmth. Edith Galt was distressed about a Bolling family crisis: her neice wanted to marry a (horrors) Panamanian. Although Wilson, a southern aristocrat to the end, wrote her that it "would be bad enough at best to have anyone we love to marry into any Central American family, because there is the presumption that the blood is not unmixed," he sensibly advised her to stand by her neice. She did; the young woman married the young Panamanian, who later came to Washington as Panama's ambassador to the United States.
Poking through these letters for such homely bits of history is what makes them fun to read. The Wilson presidency had an easygoing charm that seems downright quaint today. Wilson's favorite sport in 1915 was taking long rides in the country in the presidential Pierce Arrow with the removable top and right-hand drive. Grayson prescribed these outing for the president's health, which was a source of worry. (He had suffered a serious stroke in 1906.) Grayson also prescribed frequent games of golf. One day when Wilson and the doctor were on the seventh tee at Columbia Country Club another player hit Grayson with a golf ball "on the fleshy part of his leg." The president was outraged. He marched over and gave the offending player a piece of his mind.
Like some of his successors, Wilson considered reporters no better than "contemptible spies" whose newspapers "make the normal and through conduct of public business impossible." Therefore, he allowed himself the "indulgence" of refusing to read the daily press at all, with the sole exception of the Christian Science Monitor.
When Woodrow and Edith became engaged, the president sat down at his Underwood and typed out the announcement himself. It was more a valentine than a press release. "In the circle of cultivated and interesting people who have had the privilege of knowing her," he wrote, "Mrs. Galt has enjoyed an enviable distincition, not only because of her unusual beauty and natural charm, but also because of her very unusual character and gifts."
Edith's Galt's letters to the president eventually grew to match his in ardor and intensity and they were sometimes better written. "[I] love the way you put one dear hand on mine, while with the other you turn the pages of history," she wrote him at the summer White House in Cornish, New Hampshire.
Edith Galt's metamorphosis from self-deprecating widow who longed "for the wisdom of a well-informed mind," to the powerful First Lady she became, has its beginning in these letters. By August she was eagerly absorbing her sweetheart's briefings on American preparedness. By the time they became engaged, she was finding fault with the most trusted of her "loved lord." Colonel Edward M. House she pronounced a "weak vessel" and Joseph P. Tumulty, Wilson's secretary, she thought was not a gentleman. (Of course not, responded Wilson. "An administration . . . manned exclusively by 'gentlemen' could not make the thing go for a twelve-month.") The stage was set for the unprecedented monent in 1919 when Wilson was stricken by a crippling stroke and his wife became, in effect, his chief of staff, deciding which people and problems could come to him and which could not. With prescience, Wilson wrote her in August 1915 that theirs would be a "divine partnership transforming everything, the Constitution of the United States itself included."
The newly released love letters also turn up in Edith & Woodrow, by Tom Shachtman, but they are nearly lost in a more sweeping panorama. Shachtman has written a popular history of the Wilson romance and marriage, and of the entire Wilson presidency. Relying heavily on what has already been written about the 28th president, Shachtman gives a breezy, readable rendition of the story from the death of Wilson's first wife in 1914 to the death of Edith Bolling Galt Wilson in 1961. Some of his stops along the way are memorable. He explores, for example, the mysterious Mary Hulbert, to whom Wilson wrote passionate letters which embarrassed him in politics and in his romance with Mrs. Galt.
Shachtman sometimes inserts chucks of undigested history and psychology that bring his narrative to full stop. After describing Wilson's victory in the election of 1916, he abruptly launches into a psychological analysis of marriage, including this extraneous bit: "It has been found that older, childless couples who have a healthy sexual relationship, adequate income, social activities, no in-law problems, and a sharing of religious convictions, are generally the happiest of all married pairs."
Both new books on Woodrow and Edith Wilson shed light on one of the most interesting presidential pairs in history. But the letters of their courtship tell, more vividly than any history of the period, how the bond was forged that made their eventual, extraordinary partnership possible.