It was to be a simple bribe. Dollars for dirt. As the lady recalled it many years later, the stranger at the door said his name was Wilson, but soon amended this to Smith. He said he was a patriot, on a mission of national urgency. Gallantly, he inquired after her health. Solicitously, he wondered if her wardrobe was adequate for the winter months. Mightn't she be more comfortable in furs? With gentle disapproval he surveyed her modest Manhattan hotel room, tut-tutting that a woman of her breeding should surely be able to afford a full suite, with a proper parlor and sitting room. She was quite comfortable, she assured him. Still, he said, an extra $250,000 would make a difference in her life. She arched her eyebrows. Two hundred and fifty thousand was indeed a great deal of money, she agreed. Or $300,000, he said. Money was no object to the men he represented. I see, she said. And she did see. They wanted the letters. She inclined her head encouragingly. She knew how to keep a gentleman talking. Once, she had been a society hostess to the mighty and the witty, holding forth from beneath great feathered hats, scandalizing genteel society by smoking cigarettes openly and without apology. She traced her ancestry to Colonial New England, in 1636. On this day in 1916 she was still handsome, but well past the blush of youth. She was 52, already widowed and divorced. Her soft Victorian features had tautened, her coquettish manner replaced by an appealing, mischievous cynicism. Time and troubles had taken their toll. In the moving pictures, she could have played the careworn, rawboned farm family matriarch, ringing the chow bell and mopping her hands on her apron; indeed, she would soon be reduced to auditioning for just such bit roles in Hollywood. The fact is, at the moment she was strapped for cash. Her mysterious visitor continued: He represented the Republican Party, an emissary for men who had only the best interests of the nation at heart. If she cooperated, he admitted, she might well discover that America would become temporarily inhospitable to her. But he and his friends could see to it that she was well provided for in Europe. All to what end, she asked? To bring to justice the cad who had used and then jilted her. To bring about, the visitor said, the impeachment of the president of the United States. The president was Woodrow Wilson. He was, of course, never impeached or even publicly accused of misconduct. His presidency was never imperiled. This first, feeble effort to unseat a president for sexual improprieties never got off the ground. But there are lessons in this tale that are germane to our times. For Americans sickened by the ongoing national spectacle of presidential sex conducted as sport, of casual gropings and casual betrayal, of stunning indiscretions and ludicrously loose lips, of private matters played out as public pornography, the story of Woodrow Wilson and his alleged lover, Mary Allen Hulbert, provides a charming respite. Theirs may have been the most proper and dignified and discreet and downright honorable illicit affair in history. Hulbert, the woman in the hotel room, was said to have possessed compromising letters that attested to a lengthy extramarital dalliance between herself and Wilson. There had long been rumors to that effect. Hulbert and Wilson had long denied them. But now there was, apparently, an offer on the table. And talk -- however reckless -- of impeachment. That a nation headed for war would have jettisoned a popular president because of an alleged romantic entanglement is highly unlikely. That a serious sex scandal would have been devastating to Wilson's presidency, and eroded his moral authority at a critical time in history, cannot be doubted. In any case, nothing ever came of it. Having extracted all she could from her visitor, Mary Hulbert regarded him with contempt. Any letters that might exist, she said icily, would only redound to Mr. Wilson's credit and further burnish his good name. Furthermore, she said, "I am not that sort of a woman," and asked him to leave. Of all the presidents, few seem as unlikely a candidate for sexual scandal as Woodrow Wilson, son of a puritanical Presbyterian minister. Proper, prudish, punctilious, famously repressed, Wilson is said to have remained a virgin until his first marriage at 28. His long, dour face and prim pince-nez spectacles gave him a look of impenetrable rectitude, and the high starched collars and stovepipe hat in which he was frequently photographed suggested Edwardian formality. Striding the world stage beside the dapper, diminutive Lloyd George and the walrus-mustached Clemenceau, Wilson seemed more modern but also more aloof and unapproachable. When rumors of an affair initially surfaced during Wilson's first presidential campaign in 1912, his opponent, Teddy Roosevelt, peremptorily dismissed them: "You can't cast a man as a Romeo when he looks and acts so much like an apothecary's clerk." Throughout Wilson's eventful eight-year presidency, the gossip about Mary Hulbert -- then known by her married name, Mary Peck -- persisted. To the wags of the day, Wilson was "Peck's bad boy." But for a half century, historians gave the talk little credence. In his 1958 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Arthur Walworth made it clear he considered the rumors of an affair to be calumny: Wilson and Mary Hulbert, he suggested, were merely fast friends. And that would have remained the official verdict, but for certain events. After the death in 1962 of Edith Bolling Wilson, the president's second wife, tens of thousands of his personal papers became available for publication by the Library of Congress. Under the guidance of renowned Wilson scholar Arthur S. Link, a team of historians began the arduous task of copying and cataloguing them. The collection included papers that Hulbert had sold to an official biographer, long after Wilson's death, as well as voluminous correspondence between Woodrow and second wife Edith. Over the years, as researchers descended on the Wilson Papers and focused on the matter of Mary Hulbert, a new story line began to emerge. One of the first biographers to look at the years 1907-1915 was Frances W. Saunders, who was writing a book about Wilson's first wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, who died during his first term. Poring through the papers in 1975, Saunders found intriguing letters. Curiously intimate letters. More than 200 of them. The letters. "Woodrow Wilson was not," Saunders says today, "the old dried-up prune that people portray him to be." The precise nature of the relationship between Wilson and Hulbert remains an enduring mystery, debated robustly by historians. Scholars have taken turns combing the same trove of lush correspondence, parsing it for revealing nuance or hidden metaphor. Both Wilson and Hulbert write with elegance and clarity, but the letters are very much a product of their time. Matters of the heart are discussed only obliquely, with Victorian propriety. Certain things must be understood by inference. What these new documents made clear to Saunders and others is that the president and the society lady were, for a time at least, passionately in love. Also, that this relationship was liberating to Wilson at a critical time in his political life, and may even have affected the course of history. What is not clear, to put it bluntly, is whether they ever had sex. "I go back and forth on it," says David Wayne Hirst, Princeton historian and senior associate editor of the Wilson Papers. "So did Arthur." He means Arthur Link, who died last year, certain about most things related to Wilson, but uncertain of this. Hulbert and Wilson met in 1907 in midwinter on the island of Bermuda. She was 44 and temporarily alone, on her yearly escape from a loveless marriage in Massachusetts. Wilson was 50, then president of Princeton University, also vacationing alone, decompressing from a grueling fight with university trustees and a popular dean over the disposition of private endowments to the graduate school. Wilson's wife, Ellen, was back in New Jersey, ailing, beset by a depression that strained their marriage. In Bermuda, the bougainvillea was in bloom. "The setting for an affair," says Saunders, "was perfect." Hulbert owned Shoreby, a huge, windswept estate on the island. She entertained governors and captains of industry and luminaries like Mark Twain. She was vivacious, free of spirit, fun-loving -- everything the high-button Princeton president was not. One day Wilson noticed her hurrying across a hotel lobby, a trim, elegant woman aflutter in silken shawls. He wangled an invitation for dinner, and a friendship developed. Side by side, he and she walked the beaches and country lanes of Bermuda. They discussed literature and politics; Hulbert was well read and well spoken, unsparing in her opinions, and Wilson appreciated strong, intelligent women. He counseled her on her marriage, advising her to seek a separation. He shared with her his professional frustrations, and she offered her advice. For the next eight years, through much of his presidency, the two would exchange letters nearly weekly. All of this was known. Wilson never denied their correspondence or the depth of their friendship. When he was president, his letters to Hulbert arrived on White House stationery. Her servants saw them. Rumors were inevitable, but they were steadfastly denied. In a fact frequently cited by early Wilson historians as proof of the innocence of the relationship, Wilson himself had introduced Mary to Ellen Wilson. The two women were friends. They had shopped together. Hulbert was descended on more than once by men with agendas, politicians wishing to prove a romance. She always denied it. The story of the alleged hotel room bribe appeared in a 1925 series of memoirs Hulbert wrote for Liberty magazine, a year after Wilson's death. When it was published, there was a one-day furor in Congress. Rep. Frank Reid, an Illinois Democrat, introduced a resolution demanding an investigation. If Hulbert was right, he said, there had been a heinous effort to smear an innocent man and subvert the Constitution for political gain. On Jan. 4, 1925, this story was reported on Page 1 of The Washington Post. Congress at the time was heavily Republican. No one was about to investigate 10-year-old allegations of an attempted bribe engineered by the GOP. House records show the resolution was referred to committee, where it unceremoniously died. As did Mary Hulbert, in 1939. The story of her alleged love affair, more or less, died with her. The Wilson Papers brought it back. "Dearest friend" is how the married Woodrow Wilson addresses his most ardent letters to Hulbert. "With infinite tenderness" is how he signs them. He was smitten. 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. CAPTION: The Other Woman: Woodrow Wilson and Mary Allen Hulbert, left, loved each other. But were they lovers? The nature of their extramarital relationship is an enduring mystery of Wilson's presidency. Below, an excerpt from a letter in which Wilson confesses to his second wife "the contemptible error and madness of a few months." ec CAPTION: Wilson, standing right, and Mary Hulbert, next to him, are among a group surrounding Mark Twain in Bermuda circa 1908. ec