There was a young man so benighted.
He never knew when he was slighted.
He went to a party
And ate just as hearty
As if he had been really invited.
Woodrow Wilson, a lover of limericks, recited that one as his apology when, in 1919, he crashed a Bastille Day party at the French Embassy. The four years of carnage had ended and the League of Nations had not yet been defeated. It was a hopeful time and people were ready to celebrate.
When, on Armistice Day (now Veterans Day) one remembers President Wilson, one thinks of his eight years in office weighted with war and the failure of his peace plan, and with the death of his first wife. In photographs, the tall silk hat tops a hatchet face staring sternly at the camera.
But Wilson was not only a scholar and a statesman, he was a lover of limericks, a reader of detective stories, a man who played at the Ouija Board, took part in charades and the game of 20 Questions. The private man was very different from the public one and Wilson began his first term of office in private, shunning the traditional inaugural ball.
Instead, he gave a family party at the White House. Thirty-three of his relatives gathered in the State Dining Room for a meal which began with cream of celery soup and ended with Charlotte Russe, Wilson's favorite dessert; the guests relished the arrival of one of the older female relatives, who showed up at the White House sitting on a hotdog cart, commandeered at the railroad station where she had failed to get a taxi.
Since so much entertaining in Washington is official and joyless, it is a pleasure to go backstairs with the Wilsons and see the humor they brought to their official duties.
Wilson's second wife, Edith, recalled in her memoirs: "After a long White House reception, my husband loved to get upstairs and twist his face about as an actor does in playing character parts. His muscles were so flexible, and he had such control over them, he would make his ears move and elongate his face or broaden it at will in a perfectly ludicrous way. He said that after hours of polite greetings and 'smirks,' commonly called smiles, his face needed resting just as other muscles of the body needed exercise."
She writes of a lunch at the Elyse'e Palace: "The President of France escorted me . . . Instead of a perfunctory escort, such as is our custom when a gentleman takes a lady into dinner or to lunch, the French take the office seriously . . .
"Thus, when I accepted Monsieur Poincare''s arm, I was towed along through room after room, and being a head taller than he, I felt like a big liner with a tiny tug pushing her out from her moorings . . . our places were at the far end, to which the approach was through a narrow aisle lined with liveried attendants. Single file that was ample space, but two abreast made it an adventure.
"However, mowing down waiters as we went, we arrived breathless and panting. That was my first experience, but as time went on I got so expert that I felt I could qualify for a football rush."
At a dinner given by the king and queen of England, Edith Wilson recounts how, "At the proper hour the Lord Chamberlain, Sandhurst, and Lord Farquhar appeared to escort us to the royal family, and this is how they did it. As we emerged from our suite the gentlemen stood facing us, each holding in his two hands before him a slender wooden wand, which was his badge of office.
"In perfect unison they bowed until the wands almost touched the floor -- from an athletic point of view a really creditable performance for gentlemen of their years in dress suits. Then they stepped backwards one pace and bowed again. Then one more step -- backwards remember -- and another bow . . .
"Up the steps tripped our escort, backwards, still making their bows at the correct intervals. I was both alarmed and amused and had some difficulty keeping a straight face . . .
"Later, on better acquaintance, I asked Lord Farquhar the origin of the custom. It was very old, he said . . . and was used only in the case of heads of states. I expressed my admiration for his agility. Lord Farquhar laughed.
"As there had been no formal entertaining for four years he said he had really feared for his form, adding: 'My dear lady, had you looked out of your door late this afternoon you would have seen two elderly gentlemen practicing, up and down. Even the maids who were placing flowers in the corridors could not disguise their amusement.' "
Wilson left the White House in sickness and defeat to live in the S Street house, which is now maintained as a museum. The film projector given the Wilsons by Douglas Fairbanks is still in the library and the detective stories are in a bookcase in a room known as the "Dugout." (Wilson was a great baseball fan and was scandalized when Edith, accompanying him to a game, brought along her knitting.)
Wilson took office at a time when Pope Pius X could ban the tango as evidence of a new paganism, and left to the strains of the jazz age. The world has changed dramatically but official Washington has not. It is still pomp and protocol and, one hopes, good times hidden away behind it.
A visit to the Woodrow Wilson House, 2340 S Street, NW, can help recapture the feeling of that time. The house is open Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is $2.50 for adults and $1 for students and senior citizens.