America, of course, is not a monarchy, but that has not stopped the intense interest in palace intrigue. Who is the real power behind the power? Are there really shadowy figures controlling our government? Occasionally, there have been, only they haven’t been hiding in the shadows. They’ve been hiding in plain sight.
This is the Forgotten History of the First Lady President.
Edith Bolling always wanted to be someone. The daughter of a judge from what had been one of Virginia’s most prominent families until the end of slavery forced them from their plantation, the idea that Edith should either achieve or marry into success was instilled in her from a young age.
After dropping out of school at a young age, it was clear she was leaning toward the latter. While visiting her sister in Washington, D.C., she met one of the city’s most prominent jewelers, Norman Galt, and they married a short time later.
The couple was wealthy, but because Norman made his money in retail sales, they were unable to break into the highest of high society in D.C. Still, they were happy.
In 1908, though, Norman died suddenly. Edith was just 34, a widow, and incredibly wealthy. She traveled Europe extensively and grew fond of the trendy fashions that she brought back to Washington with her. She was fiercely independent and determined to show up the tastemakers there who had rejected her and Norman.
They wouldn’t dare ignore her now: By 1915, she was the first woman in the city to drive her own car. Edith was the talk of D.C., especially after she went on a hike with the White House physician and the cousin of President Woodrow Wilson.
As the three of them sipped tea in the White House afterwards, Wilson himself happened upon them and instantly fell in love with Edith. Recently widowed, the President was smitten with her beauty and charm and sent his limousine for her almost daily. On the rare days they were not together, he wrote her steamy love letters.
His advisors were not nearly as fond of Edith as he was, though, as they feared the much younger social climber could jeopardize the President’s re-election effort the following year—even going so far as to leak fake love letters from one of Wilson’s former girlfriends to the press in an effort to get her to think he was cheating on her.
Edith would not be bullied, however, and married the President later that year while swearing to herself that she wouldn’t forget the aides that she felt had betrayed them both.
A year after Wilson was comfortably re-elected and drew the United States into World War I, Edith—not his advisers—became his closest confidante. She screened his mail, read his classified documents and, at his insistence, sat in on all his meetings.
She had almost no formal education and no political training, but she had the ear of the President, and that was all that mattered. He relied on her for help in strategizing battle plans and assessing ally and enemy emissaries alike.
She was his top aide and easily the most powerful woman in the world. She was, at long last, someone.
But just when she was at her happiest, when America was at its most jubilant following a resounding victory in the war, tragedy struck.
President Wilson suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed and unable to perform the duties of his office. Edith was devastated, but she refused to even consider letting Vice President Thomas Marshall assume the duties of the presidency while Woodrow recovered.
She was not about to let her power and status slip away, so she concocted a plan: She would serve as her husband’s “steward.” All communication to and from him would go through her. She attended every Cabinet meeting, and every Cabinet Secretary who wanted to meet with the President would instead meet with her. She would listen to th eir reports and requests and take their papers into her husband’s bedroom.
After a while, she would then emerge with the documents riddled with notes that looked suspiciously like her handwriting.
For 17 months—the remainder of President Wilson’s second term—the public was kept in the dark as to how incapacitated he was, and it certainly didn’t know that the First Lady was essentially acting as president.
Edith, though, denied this.
“I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs,” she later wrote. “The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.”
His aides, however—the same ones Edith made her bitter enemies—all said the exact opposite: For nearly a year and a half, America was essentially run by someone who it never elected…someone who had become a someone and refused to relinquish her power.