One hundred years ago today the trajectory of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency was forever altered by the German torpedoing of the ocean liner RMS Lusitania. Already concerned with the growing war in Europe, many in the US now called for the peace loving president to enter the conflict in revenge for the more than 100 Americans killed in the sinking. However, the spring of 1915 had brought the prospect of more than just war to Wilson’s mind. Approximately six weeks before the Lusitania was sent to the bottom of the Atlantic another life altering event had occurred in Wilson’s life. In March 1915 he met Edith Bolling Galt; a meeting that may have changed Wilson’s place in history just as much as the Lusitania.
After returning from a golf game, Wilson and Dr. Cary Grayson ran in to Edith coming off an elevator at the White House. “I turned a corner and met my fate,” is how Edith later described the meeting in her memoir. She had been at the White House for tea with Wilson’s cousin, Helen Bones, who promptly invited the men to join them. Historians have speculated that the meeting may have been purposely orchestrated by Bones and Grayson to help the morale of the depressed widower. If so, the set up worked. Wilson spent the afternoon sitting and chatting with Edith and soon invitations from him to her for dinners, car rides, and chats proceeded in the weeks that followed.
On May 4, 1915 the Lusitania steamed toward Liverpool oblivious to the tragic place in history it would occupy in less than 72 hours. At the same time, Woodrow Wilson sat alone with Edith Galt on the South Portico of the White House. No longer able to hold back his feelings he drew his chair close and told her he loved her and wanted to marry her. Shocked, Edith reportedly exclaimed, “you can’t love me for you don’t really know me; and it is less than a year since your wife died.” She left a disappointed Wilson at the White House that night but promptly wrote him a letter explaining she was not turning him down, but simply wanted to get to know him better before making a decision. Accepting her answer, Wilson wrote back, “Here stands your friend, a longing man, in the midst of world affairs—a world that knows nothing of the heart he has shown you . . . but which he cannot face with his full strength or with the fullest of keen endeavors unless you come into that heart and take possession, not because it is exposed but because, simply and only because, you love him. Can you love him?”
Edith received this letter on May 6, 1915, and the couple began what proved to be a swift course toward marriage. The following day at 2:12pm the Lusitania was sunk. Wilson was thrust in to decision making and negotiations to try and keep America out of the war. As part of his courting of Edith he shared every step of the process with her and even began soliciting her advice on this and other state matters, a habit he would continue for the rest of his presidency and that most certainly influenced Edith’s decisions after his stroke.
As we remember the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania and the nearly 1200 people who perished because of it, we look on May 7th as a major turning point in the First World War. However, behind closed doors, it was also a large turning point of sorts in the evolving love story of Woodrow and Edith Wilson.
– Kimberly Shepherd