Family and friends had known about the president’s intimate relationship with another woman for years, but whispers about their involvement were growing.
Woodrow Wilson was so worried that he asked his close adviser, Colonel Edward M. House, to meet him after dinner in his White House study on Sept. 22, 1915. In the meeting, Wilson talked about his longtime friendship with Mary Peck, a divorced woman he had met in Bermuda eight years earlier. He told House that the friendship was platonic but that he had been “indiscreet in writing her letters rather more warmly than was prudent.”
Besides personal embarrassment, the release of the letters would complicate Wilson’s hopes to marry the younger, richer Edith Bolling Galt and cast a shadow over his bid for reelection just as the war in Europe was expanding.
But Wilson had in fact done more than write passionate letters to Peck.
Eight days before his meeting with House, the president sent Peck $7,500 — about $183,000 today — after she said she needed money for a California business deal.
Wilson also had written letters from the White House seeking financial assistance for Peck. On Feb. 4, 1915, he asked Ladies’ Home Journal editor Edward William Bok to consider publishing an article Peck had written called “Around the Tea Table — Afternoon Tea.” An annotation said that Peck had sent a handwritten draft of the article to Wilson and he had the article typed “and then edited it carefully in his own hand” before sending it to Bok. On Feb. 12, Peck wrote Wilson telling him that the Ladies’ Home Journal had sent her a check for $50 (equivalent to $1,220 today).
The Wilson-Peck drama of sex, favors and money is reminiscent of other White House scandals, including the current revelations about President Trump, women and payoffs.
Two days before his meeting with House, President Wilson drafted a statement that could be used in case the letters were published.
“These letters disclose a passage of folly and gross impertinence in my life. I am deeply ashamed and repentant.” Wilson said his wife, Ellen, who had died the previous year, “knew and understood” his relationship with Mary Peck and “has forgiven.”
An annotation to the statement said Wilson’s handwriting “makes clear, reveals his high state of agitation.”
That statement and more than 200 of the letters that Wilson wrote Peck — along with the personal letters he wrote to his wife and to Galt — are scattered through “The Papers of Woodrow Wilson,” a 69-volume collection edited and annotated by historian Arthur S. Link. The books are in the German Historical Institute in Washington.
Wilson’s fear that his fervent letters to Peck might damage his presidency came four months after the sinking of the Lusitania, a British ocean liner, by a German submarine. As pressure for the United States to join the Allies in the war was building, Wilson was courting Galt while trying to avoid alienating Peck.
“The affair with Mary — as corroborated by his letters — shows there is nothing new under the sun,” said John B. Henry, the playwright of “Republic Undone,” a new play about Wilson. “Wilson proclaimed he was born to do God’s work by leading mankind to a higher moral universe while carrying on a secret romance that violated his sacred marriage vows.”
In preparing to portray Peck in the play, I went in search of the letters and, with help from Portrait Gallery lecturer Lorna Grenadier, found them. What impressed her about the letters was how “Mary encouraged Woodrow in his political aims, remaining forever loyal to him.” Wilson narrowly won reelection in 1916 despite rumors about his involvement with Peck.
Wilson met Peck in Bermuda in February 1907. He was 50 and she was 44. Wilson, then president of Princeton University, had sailed alone to the British island to relax in its subtropical climate. His wife had insisted he take a winter vacation to recover from the fights he had had with colleagues over Princeton’s future. Ellen Wilson, who had a history of depression, remained at their New Jersey home to tend a sick daughter.
Peck was in Bermuda to escape the cold weather in Pittsfield, Mass., and her unhappy marriage to Thomas Peck.
The stern-faced, bespectacled Wilson, the Virginia-born son of a conservative Presbyterian minister, was smitten with Peck. In his first letter to her, dated Feb. 6, 1907, he wrote: “It is not often that I can have the privilege of meeting anyone whom I can so entirely admire and enjoy, and I take the liberty of writing you this little note to thank you for the pleasure you have given me.”
In his next letter, Feb. 20, Wilson said he was sending a volume of his essays “that you may know me a little better.” He later sent books and a birthday gift of a brooch.
Soon he was addressing her as “Dearest Friend,” and signing his thousand-word missives as “Your devoted friend.” Wilson revealed his innermost thoughts in the correspondence and urged her to respond in the same manner. “Tell me everything you can about yourself,” he wrote her in February 1910. He said her letters “mean more to me than I can ever say, or can ever hope to repay you for.”
Wilson resigned from Princeton in October 1910 to run for governor of New Jersey. He won, and five days after he was sworn into office, in January 1911, he found time to write Peck: “You cannot know what a delight your letters are! The pleasure I take in them is like the pleasure I take in you.”
Meantime, Peck’s marriage was ending. She received her divorce in July 1912 on the grounds that her husband had deserted her. But Wilson had not. Their stream of letters continued as she moved from Pittsfield to an apartment in New York and as he prepared to run for president. At one point, Wilson, a Democrat, heard that Republicans knew of a letter linking him to Peck and her divorce. But Wilson’s opponents were not convinced.
Theodore Roosevelt, who ran against Wilson as a Bull Moose candidate, is reported to have dismissed the rumors: “No evidence could ever make the American people believe that a man like Woodrow Wilson, cast so perfectly as the apothecary’s clerk, could ever play Romeo.”
Wilson won, but 17 months after the family moved into the White House, Ellen Wilson died from a kidney disease. Wilson was devastated. As he wrote Peck: “God has stricken me almost beyond what I can bear.” Peck responded with sympathetic letters.
On Dec. 23, 1914, she wrote Wilson that she was in serious financial trouble because of some business failures. He wrote back two days later: “You were right to tell me everything, and to tell me at once. … I must immediately confess what I have done. I know how intensely you want to get to work and earn something…”
Three months later, Wilson met Galt, then 42 and the widow of a wealthy Washington jeweler. Enchanted with this new friend, Wilson began writing her with the same intensity that he had written to Peck and his first wife. He proposed to Galt in July 1915.
Knowing he would have to tell her about Peck, he wrote his future wife: “Dearest — There is something, personal to myself, that I feel I must tell you about at once, and I am going to take the extraordinary liberty of asking you if I may come to your house this evening.” Galt accepted Wilson’s story, telling him that they must both “get back to normal and think only that this earthquake has left our love untouched.”
On Oct. 4, Wilson wrote Peck, now living in California, that he was engaged to Galt.
A stunned Peck wrote back: “I wish you had told me before, for your letter was only mailed the 4th and the newspapers had already published the fact. The cold peace of utter renunciation is about me, and the shell that is M.A.H. (Mary Allen Hulbert) still functions. It is rather lonely, not even an acquaintanceship to make the air vibrate with the coming warmth, perhaps of friendship. God alone knows — and you — partly, the real woman Mary Hulbert, all her hopes and joys, and fears, and mistakes. I shall not write you again this intimately but must this once.”
During the 1916 presidential campaign, Peck wrote that she was “openly approached on the ground of patriotism to lend my help in impeaching Woodrow Wilson.” She declined.
Another man went to her New York apartment and offered her $300,000 ($7 million today) for the Wilson letters. The man said he represented the Republican Party. Peck rejected the offer and reported the “plot” in a letter to Wilson. His wife wrote back “to say how much and how sincerely we have been distressed to learn of the annoyances to which you have been subjected” and added that Peck should write to her — rather than Wilson — in the future.
The correspondence between Wilson and Peck stopped for three years.
Then, in September 1919, he wrote Peck, suggesting a meeting in California, where she was living and where he and his wife would be on his cross-country speaking tour to promote his League of Nations proposal. The three of them had lunch on Sept. 21, 1919, at the Los Angeles hotel where the Wilsons were staying. Four days later, Wilson collapsed after his speech in Colorado. The Wilsons returned to Washington, where he suffered a massive stroke on Oct. 2 that left him partially paralyzed. Wilson died Feb. 3, 1924.
Four years later, Peck signed a contract to sell the letters to Wilson biographer Ray Stannard Baker for $31,500 (about $448,000 today). In her 1933 autobiography, “The Story of Mrs. Peck,” Peck said “it seemed strange and a little sad” to see Baker walk away with the letters she had kept so close for so many years.