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Phyllis Lee Levin
Phyllis Lee Levin
Edith and Woodrow: The Wilson White House
ISBN: 0743211588
Edith and Woodrow: The Wilson White House
Elegantly written, tirelessly researched, full of shocking revelations, Edith and Woodrow offers the definitive examination of the controversial role Woodrow Wilson's second wife played in running the country.

"The story of Wilson's second marriage, and of the large events on which its shadow was cast, is darker and more devious, and more astonishing, than previously recorded."
—from the Preface

Constructing a thrilling, tightly contained narrative around a trove of previously undisclosed documents, medical diagnoses, White House memoranda, and internal documents, acclaimed journalist and historian Phyllis Lee Levin sheds new light on the central role of Edith Bolling Galt in Woodrow Wilson's administration.

Shortly after Ellen Wilson's death on the eve of World War I in 1914, President Wilson was swept off his feet by Edith Bolling Galt. They were married in December 1915, and, Levin shows, Edith Wilson set out immediately to consolidate her influence on him and tried to destroy his relationships with Colonel House, his closest friend and adviser, and with Joe Tumulty, his longtime secretary. Wilson resisted these efforts, but Edith was persistent and eventually succeeded.

With the quick ending of World War I following America's entry in 1918, Wilson left for the Paris Peace Conference, where he pushed for the establishment of the League of Nations. Congress, led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, resisted the idea of an international body that would require one country to go to the defense of another and blocked ratification. Defiant, Wilson set out on a cross-country tour to convince the American people to support him. It was during the middle of this tour, in the fall of 1919, that he suffered a devastating stroke and was rushed back to Washington. Although there has always been controversy regarding Edith Wilson's role in the eighteen months remaining of Wilson's second term, it is clear now from newly released medical records that the stroke had totally incapacitated him. Citing this information and numerous specific memoranda, journals, and diaries, Levin makes a powerfully persuasive case that Mrs. Wilson all but singlehandedly ran the country during this time. Ten years in the making, Edith and Woodrow is a magnificent, dramatic, and deeply rewarding work of history.
—from the publisher's website

Edith and Woodrow: The Wilson White House
Program Air Date: December 9, 2001

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Author of "Edith and Woodrow," subtitled "The First Documented Account of the Woman Who Was President," where did you get this idea?
Ms. PHYLLIS LEE LEVIN, AUTHOR, "EDITH AND WOODROW: THE WILSON WHITE HOUSE": My daughter, Kate, gave me a book called--it was by the chief usher at the White House, and--it'd be his memoir, and she handed it to me and said, `Here, Mom, this is about the first woman president.' So I was curious.
LAMB: What were you doing at the time?
Ms. LEVIN: I had finished a biography of Abigail Adams and I was beginning to research a book on John Quincy Adams 'cause I was absolutely enamored of the Adams family and couldn't think of which one I wanted to do more and...
LAMB: You--you've got a picture in here of Mr. Hoover, I think, is who you're talking about?
Ms. LEVIN: Yeah.
LAMB: He was the chief usher at the White House what years?
Ms. LEVIN: Before Edith Wilson and after. He died early on, and I can't remember when. But his--his bi--his memoir was published posthumously. And so I had forgotten how many presidents he co--he covered, but a lot, I think.
LAMB: What did he have in there, though, that intrigued you?
Ms. LEVIN: Well, we had his account, which diff--of the night that Wilson fell ill. That was quite different than Edith Wilson's. I had then gone and read her memoir, and it was quite different, enough so that I went and got out his original papers, and there the account was definite that there was no one--no one telling it properly about what had happened that night, and so he thought he would--he would--he would tell his version of it. And she minded terribly.
LAMB: So, why do you believe Mr. Hoover over Edith Wilson?
Ms. LEVIN: Well, there were other--as I read on and she made a lot of other differences. She made up a lot of stories along the way and her versions varied considerably from what I found to be the truth of the versions when I went to the original papers.
LAMB: What did she say?
Ms. LEVIN: She claimed that her husband was just as alive and alert after this attack and that it wasn't serious at all. And, of course, the doctors say that he was--he had a stroke that made him not--unable to govern properly. And then what my luck--my luck really came--and I call it luck--it was very sad to find out that about 10 years ago, the original diagnoses were handed over to--were handed in to Professor Link, who had been the editor of the 69 volumes of Wilson's papers. And the original diagnoses were that this man was unalterably wounded by his stroke and unable to govern, but Mrs. Wilson prevented these diagnoses from being made public. And so by that one stroke, Dr. Grayson, the--was co-opted into what she perceived as--was--as a nervous breakdown. That was thought to be more respectable than a stroke.
LAMB: Let's go back to the beginning.
Ms. LEVIN: Yeah.
LAMB: Woodrow Wilson was president what years?
Ms. LEVIN: He was--he was--from 1912 to '21.
LAMB: And what kind of an eight years was that for him, overall, leading up to the time of the stroke?
Ms. LEVIN: Oh, I thought he was looked on as quite a hero. I think until it came to his illness and--and entering in World War I and the peace conference, and then he--he wasn't well, even in Paris, and he also was almost a naive American in Paris as Clemenceau looked at him and David Lloyd George. He didn't understand that complications and the history of war. He thought--he was so idealistic, he thought everything could be overcome, and--and it couldn't. And then, of course, he was ill. And he listened to no one, you know.
LAMB: 1913, he becomes president. What--what was the country like then?
Ms. LEVIN: What was the country like? He was interested in banking system. He was interested in all kinds of political--political problems that he might solve. There were railroad problems. There were--what--what else can I say about him? He--he did--he--he was a thoughtful president and he was a sensitive man, although it was rather a dour presidency, you realize, because his wife--his wife became very ill during that time and they--it was not an open White House. But he was thought to be a very dearing father and father to the three girls and a very entertaining man. But then his first wife died, you know, in 19--it's August of 1914. Yes. The--almost the days we went to war and Germany invaded Belgium and...
LAMB: He'd been governor of the state of New Jersey and had been president of Princeton.
Ms. LEVIN: Before. Yup.
LAMB: So was this an intellectual coming to the office?
Ms. LEVIN: Well, I think he thought it was, from what I read. I--every Wilsonian is going to be very angry at me, but I didn't admire his writing especially, and I thought he was very wordy and pretentious in his writing. I think what made him a hero, his adopting this philosophy of one world that--that we could have in the league and--and that was--that fired him. At Princeton, he had a problem about accepting funds that would--that would permit building an off-camp--taking an off-campus site for the graduate students. He wanted it all together, which was an ideal thing. But the money wasn't given this way and so he turned his back on it. It was $250,000. And he was simply angry beyond belief that people did not go along with his ideas. And so I think he was very glad when he was tapped to be governor, and I think that he was really quite a hero at the time when he was--he didn't fall in with all the political machinery that existed, and he was quite independent. And--and I think that he went along that way until--and he was just fine until he went--he sort of, I think, overreached and he was warned against going abroad, but he very much wanted to do that.
LAMB: Well, when did he go abroad?
Ms. LEVIN: Well, he went abroad for the peace conference, and he left--What was it?--1918, December 1918, and he meant to be the hero of the conference and--and to lead us all into peace.
LAMB: How did he get us--maybe that's--I shouldn't say it that way--but how did we as a country get into World War I and what role did he play in it?
Ms. LEVIN: Yeah, well, that--he didn't want to go, you know, to--into World War I, but I think the usual channels, the Brits needed help, the French needed help, and the French had helped us in the Revolutionary War, and so--and there were people who were very anti-German in this country and there were people who were very pro-German. But eventually he had no--and--and, for example, Teddy Roosevelt was very angry with him, and--but he--he wanted to--he was elected on--partially because he would maintain peace. But he didn't maintain peace and--and finally declared war when there was enough pressure to--on him to do so. So...
LAMB: What was his relationship with his first wife like? And her name was?
Ms. LEVIN: Oh. Ellen Axson Wilson. And that was a true love affair of a very young man and a very young woman and she was very intelligent. She was very educated for her time and she was an artist, and some of her paintings have been on exhibit at the Wilson House here on S Street. And she translated German for him. She was helpful, a wonderful helpmate all the way, and I think quite a wise woman and--and very eager. They--they--she was quite taunted because she was very interested in--in helping the poor and going--righting the slums and so on.

That is a very sad picture of the two of them, and there is an interim correspondence that--that Wilson had with a woman named Mary Peck, and how much of an influence it was on their marriage, I--I don't know. But I think she--she, at that point, had had somewhat of a nervous breakdown herself be--and--and her family were very frail. Her brother--her--was frail, and so I think that Wilson, in his great need to pour out his heart to someone, wrote these extensive letters to this Mary Peck, and there was great--during the--both campaigns, it was--it was a problem to him.
LAMB: By the way, what did she die of, Ellen?
Ms. LEVIN: Bright's disease, a kidney ailment. And she died--I think it was just the day--was it August 3rd? I can't remember. But just the day that we--that the Germans invaded Belgium. And so she went. And then what happened was that by March he had met his second wife.
LAMB: Edith.
Ms. LEVIN: And--Edith.
LAMB: Go back to Mary Peck for a moment. You've got a picture in here. It's hard to see her in here.
Ms. LEVIN: It's very--it was the best one I could get, sadly.
LAMB: She's the one standing next to him?
Ms. LEVIN: She's standing--she's a plump lady. Yes, she's in back of--of Mark Twain. Can you see her at all?
LAMB: Sure.
Ms. LEVIN: And...
LAMB: Right in the middle there with...
Ms. LEVIN: Yeah. And she looks a little plump and apparently had almost like a salon in--in Bermuda. She was very unhappily married for the second time and very attractive. Her correspondence is--is quite exuberant for a long time and very supportive of him.
LAMB: Where did you find the correspondence?
Ms. LEVIN: That's at Princeton. Princeton and at the Library of Congress, both. There's more of his letters to her. I've for--I've forgotten the proportion, but they exist. She's been a footnote. She's been sort of a pain to historians. They tend to--if they acknowledge her at all, it's in the tiniest type at the bottom of the page. But other than that, they don't. Or they ac--or they--there's the other side of the coin when they'll say that--that there was a true physical romance relationship, and I--I don't know that that's true at all.
LAMB: How long was his relationship with Mary Peck?
Ms. LEVIN: Well, he--it--he met her in 1907, and oddly enough, when he went on his--well, and then the correspondence came, petered out, and it came to an end when he--not an end, but it dwindled com--radically, when he met and married Edith Wilson. But he did stop--when he made a tour of the country on behalf of the League of Nations trying to sell his Fourteen Points--he did stop in Los Angeles and asked Mary Peck to come to lunch and introduce her to Edith Wilson. So there was some sentimental connection for all, I think, his life. Whatever the depths of it was, I don't know. But he had great need of her.
LAMB: You--you wrote about basically the three women: Ellen, Mary Peck and Edith.
Ms. LEVIN: Yes, I think I did.
LAMB: And Mary Peck--I mean, what--what did you learn about Woodrow Wilson in the language that he wrote to all the women in his life?
Ms. LEVIN: That's interesting. It was impassioned as a young man to Ellen and it was most becomingly--excuse me--when he was a young man. `There was never such a lover as I,' that kind of a thing to his first wife. And then with--with Mary Peck, it was more confessional. He--the days were so long for him. There was nothing interesting about the presidency. He--I--I don't--I'd like to think he wasn't really, truly sincere on how lonesome he was, 'cause his wife, you know, was so lonely in the White House and that sort of thing. It was so confessional, I didn't quite understand how this president could have the time and the patience or the need to--to lean on this lady so much. And...
LAMB: Who was she?
Ms. LEVIN: She was the so--the wife--she was married to a proper--I think he was a manufacturer in Williamstown, New York. Quite prosperous. She had lived abroad when her first wi--her first husband died. I think she spoke French and she had quite a worldly outlook and apparently she was very attractive in Bermuda when Wilson went alone. He was always recovering from kind of little semi-nervous breakdowns or such. When the tension was too much, he would go--have to go away. And when there was a problem at Princeton, he went off in 1907 to Bermuda to recuperate and met her there and quite admired her and struck up this almost lifelong friendship.
LAMB: Why was he going--why--how would he go to Bermuda and why did he go so often?
Ms. LEVIN: Well, I don't know how often--let's see--but four or five times. Well, I think he felt that it was a refuge for him and he honestly loved it and his wife would--Ellen understood his nature and he just needed to recuperate and he needed peace and he needed solitude in a way. And that was part--he was a--he was a very nervous, sensitive man and if crossed, he just couldn't tolerate any kind of dissention, as far as I could see, reading these letters so closely as I did.
LAMB: Lyn Nofziger, who used to work for Richard Nixon, wrote a review of your book in the last couple of days and he reminds the reader that his old boss, Richard Nixon, his favorite president was Woodrow Wilson. Can you see that? Could...
Ms. LEVIN: Oh, yes, I can--it's sort of black and white. You'd believe in--in--I shouldn't be so hasty, but, yes, he stood for what he stood for and you--and you were right. You thought you were right, and therefore, you were right. And also, these were not men who had great--I don't think--I don't know as Nixon leaned on anybody for real advice. I think he probably--this was quite a singular man and I think in a way this man was quite the same kind of personality. Certainly I don't mean the darkness of--of--of--of--of the Nixon as I have followed him through the years. I don't mean that. But the one man he was close to, Mis--Colonel House, there was a closeness, but it was not--there wa--there was not the depth of closeness there. And I don't know anyone else he was close to except his--except his--the women in--that he seemed to have more of an affinity for.
LAMB: Here's a picture of the president and Edith, his second wife, and Colonel House. Who was Colonel House?
Ms. LEVIN: Colonel House was a Texan of some wealth, who had ambitions politically, but felt somehow he wasn't strong enough to pursue them and was introduced to Wilson, and the two of them thought alike as far as the League went and had great aspirations and--and--and idealized--and ideals. And Edith Wilson, unfortunately, was immediately put off by the relationship. And it eventually foundered, perhaps when Wilson needed someone to temper his ideas.
LAMB: How close was he to Woodrow Wilson?
Ms. LEVIN: Well, according to Hoover, and according to...
LAMB: This is Ike Hoover, the--the chief of the ushers?
Ms. LEVIN: Irwin, yeah.
LAMB: Although you used the word Ike in here. I wanted to ask you about that. Somewhere--maybe it was a mistype.
Ms. LEVIN: Don't tell me.
LAMB: Yeah, somebody--anyway, I saw that, I thought maybe that was his nickname.
Ms. LEVIN: Oh, my. Oh, my word, no. Irwin Hoover--well, he was called Ike Hoover. Yeah, he was. But he was never called Irwin, as a matter of fact. He came, he would stay overnight. They welcomed him at lunch. They took carriage rides together and they really both had the same idea in mind. It would be wonderful if the world would unite in the name of peace and--and to get all the nations together. And it had been an idea that had been floating around for some time and adopted and sponsored by many--many, but certainly a number of people. And to Wilson's credit, he grasped it completely and--and House really fortified his dreams. He went abroad a little bit. He was kind of the eyes and ears for--for this man for a long time. But Edith immediately painted him as a weak vessel and didn't really like him and not--and wasn't comfortable with him and then eventually developed a case against him and he was out of the picture completely.
LAMB: How did Woodrow Wilson meet Edith Wilson?
Ms. LEVIN: Oh, very romantically.
LAMB: And this is a picture from when she was young.
Ms. LEVIN: Dr. Grayson, his--his physician, was in love with the young woman Edith had traveled with, and I think--and he knew Edith very well--and I couldn't trace this. He knew Edith when he was an intern, and it may be that he had known her when she gave birth to her child. She had a son by her first marriage, and--who didn't live. And I think he had his eyes on Edith, thinking she might cheer the president up, because he was really in the depths of despair and the White House was--was just the most gloomy place in the world, and as described by his brother-in-law, they just sort of sat around and reminisced about what old times had been.

And any rate, Dr. Grayson then persuaded Edith s--Wils--Edith Galt, as she was known, to come and meet the--cousin of Wilson's. Her name was Helen Bones. And then there is this picture of two ladies having tea, and in came Wilson and Grayson, I guess from a ride of the golf course, and he was immediately taken with Edith Wilson, who in her memoir says she was glad she was wearing a marvelous French outfit. And--and so I think he invited her immediately to the--come back for dinner, and it was a done deal.
LAMB: This is after the death of Ellen, his first wife?
Ms. LEVIN: Yes. Ellen--Ellen had died in August, and they were introduced in March, the following March.
LAMB: You keep mentioning the--the doctor and Mr.--Admiral Grayson, big important part of your book, though, Admiral Grayson.
Ms. LEVIN: Admiral...
LAMB: The doctor.
Ms. LEVIN: Admiral Grayson is a very important part of her--of the book, because he carried on Edith's me--message. If he--I think--I can't remember quite--but did--were there 30 announcements of how--after he had his stroke, of how it was a--just a nervous breakdown and he was getting better and he would soon be better and so on. And he wasn't getting better. Dr. Grayson had turned in diagnoses that said that he was irre--irrevocably wounded by this stroke. But I think Edith must have been such an alluring creature that she sort of co-opted Dr. Grayson to be part of this whole--What--What shall I say?--staged this whole thing that meant he was well.
LAMB: Put the time frame on this. In 1912 was when he was elected, took office in 1913...
Ms. LEVIN: Yeah.
LAMB: ...war started in 1914. When did he have the major stroke that Dr. Grayson is...
Ms. LEVIN: The major stroke was in October. I think October 6th, October 3rd, 1919. And that was when he was found on the floor--or on the bed and that was--that was--that was the stroke that--that called--that was really such a radical stroke, that--that all the--there was many--there were many consultants, maybe four or five con--were brought in. Dr. Grayson was quite a good doctor. First, I was suspicious of him. He was very well-trained and I thought maybe he didn't diagnose things well 'cause he didn't have the background. But he did. He--he had had good schooling and he was very, very bright. And with that, at some point in that--in--immediately, he and a Dr. Dirkam, who was also an outstanding doctor, wrote these analyses, and then Edith--and Dr. Grayson read it to Edith Wilson and she said that was not the way it was to be. And so from then on, if you look at The Times, which I did, you follow them through--the boxes were...
LAMB: The New York Times?
Ms. LEVIN: The New York Times daily came out. I was just looking for some water, but I don't...
LAMB: Right there.
Ms. LEVIN: Oh, thank you. Then--then it was always a nervous breakdown. He would get better.
LAMB: And by the way, you worked for The New York Times from what year to what year?
Ms. LEVIN: Oh. I worked on and off from--let's see--about 1950, something like that, on and off. I had--between all my children--and I kept going back and they kept having me back. But I--I just couldn't--the pace of it, of which I adored, was not conducive to being where I needed to be, and so...
LAMB: And what was your byline there?
Ms. LEVIN: Well, my byline at the beginning and--was Phyllis Lee Schwaldy. It wasn't a famous one, but we were on the women's page. It was called Four F's: food, family, fashion and furnishings. And...
LAMB: When did you leave The Times?
Ms. LEVIN: Well, when I finally--the last time I wrote for them was for the travel section a number of times, and it's probably more like 15, 20 years ago then.
LAMB: And this is what book for you?
Ms. LEVIN: That's my fourth.
LAMB: What was the one--what were the two before the last one?
Ms. LEVIN: Well, the first book I did came out of my Four F experience, and it was called "The Wheels of Fashion," and I did profiles on Richard Avedon and Diane Vreeland. It was the first time that we had dignified the--you know, the fashion industry and the marvelous talents that there were there. And the second was on historic houses, and that's where I found--I had to write about Adams family and Quincy and fell in love with Abigail. And that was--that was my great romance. So I loved--loved writing about them and I spent days at the Massachusetts Historical Society and really would have gone on with them forever until Edith and Woodrow came along.
LAMB: If you're in love with Woodrow Wilson, what are the--what are people who read your book gonna think of him after you reading--read this?
Ms. LEVIN: Oh, not in love with Woodrow Wilson. No.
LAMB: No, I say if you are.
Ms. LEVIN: Oh, I think--well, I think I told you that this morning I spoke at the Wilson House on S Street and there was one gentleman who was in love--well, not in love, but he really admired him to pieces--and Edith and--and the--Professor Link, and he really took great exception to what I had written. In the--in my defense, I can only say that I had document--I didn't--I didn't expect to find all the material. I don't know why others didn't look at the dis--documents and see her name over and--everything and not think that was important.
LAMB: Now what's new, if I understand it correctly, is that this material didn't come to the public until 1991, the new mat--the material about the doctors' analysis.
Ms. LEVIN: The--the--absolutely not. The--that was given--Dr. Link, Pro--Professor Link, I should say.
LAMB: Who is he, by the way?
Ms. LEVIN: Now he was the editor in chief of the 69 volumes of the papers of Woodrow Wilson, published by Princeton University.
LAMB: And he's not alive any longer?
Ms. LEVIN: No, he died just a few years ago, and he felt that it had been a God-given assignment and he truly admired Wilson, the--and gave a great deal of his life to it and he sat on the fifth floor of the Firestone Library and lived with great dignity, and various staff members came and went, and tea was served at 11 and 3. I doubt if there's such a gentlemanly, scholarly corner anywhere else on Earth.
LAMB: And you got into that life a little bit with him. Didn't you go up to the library? Didn't they...
Ms. LEVIN: I commuted there for three weeks, and I had a--he was not so anxious to have me. He--he had jurisdiction over two important papers, Dr. Grayson's and Professor Axson, Ellen's brother. And so I had--I tried very hard to see those, and at first he was very put off. He didn't think they were important, and I mustered up enough courage to say that would be for me to decide. And so he was gentlemanly enough to receive me, and then it turned out that a lot of people didn't acknowledge his scholarship and went off and pretended it was their own, and so I assured him I would, and I sent him a copy of "Abigail Adams," which is extravagantly noted. And so then he was very accepting and so I had an--a little office there--or a desk for three weeks and worked away at what I needed to. And then the papers, the state documents are all in the Library of Congress, but they're also on microfilm at the Graduate Center in New York City, which was very nice for me. So that's where I found all her signatures, and I found a lot of wonderful press coverage. A lot of women reporters in those days, which are--a lot more than--than I would have bargained for, and very--and very discerning about her.
LAMB: But--but go back to the--the--in 1991 when these papers came out, did anybody publicize--the information, I mean?
Ms. LEVIN: No, not really. You know, I--this--I don't--I don't mean to be negative, but anything like that that came to ruffle the Princeton Papers was always put in the finest print, so only if you were me, you'd go through the ad--ap--appendix, you'd go look at the letters and you'd see in the left-hand corner the f--the initials inferring that they were in someone else's handwriting, if, as his secretary wrote some things for them, there'd be JPTH, or E--well, Edith--BWH. And so that was the only way. Otherwise, everything was--was, you know, very straight--looked very straightforward, so...
LAMB: So, again, setting up the--the scene, it--he--he had this stroke, where was he, specifically, when he had the--the major stroke?
Ms. LEVIN: In--in his bedroom.
LAMB: At the White House?
Ms. LEVIN: Yeah.
LAMB: And what happened immediately after that?
Ms. LEVIN: Well, immediately after that was--immediately what happened--and he must have fallen on the floor of the bathroom and cut his head, though, according to Hoover, but Edith Wilson said she never saw that blood. But what she did do was call Hoover to call Grayson to come immediately, and Hoover and Grayson came immediately, went--opened the door, came out, made some motion as if to say, you know, `Something's happened,' and that was it. And then no one was able to see him. Tumulty, the secretary, for three weeks, a stenographer for two months. And--but what Grayson did do was call a conference, and a very respectable group of--of physicians came to analyze what was wrong with him and...
LAMB: And you're sa--and you saw those documents. And those were all...
Ms. LEVIN: And those are all--the--that--that they came, yes, that he called them, and that they were--that they ca--I--but the doctor--the doctors themselves, the only two original documents, were the ones in nine--s--19--in '91 are the ones you--the two by Dr. Dirkam and Dr. Grayson giving the exact diagnosis, 1919, were only seen 70 years later. And those I--those you see. And those are printed in the book as well, in fine print in the ap--appendix, of volume 64.
LAMB: You show in your documentation that The New York Times and other papers back in those days basically took the word of the White House.
Ms. LEVIN: They did.
LAMB: That this man was all right and getting better all the time.
Ms. LEVIN: Yep. Yep.
LAMB: And every time that Admiral Grayson would issue a press release saying he's getting better, he's getting better, they'd just take it like it was.
Ms. LEVIN: Yep.
LAMB: Did anybody back then question it?
Ms. LEVIN: Yes, there were, but very few, and it--it seemed to be a gentlemen's agreement that you didn't question things. There must--there were--there were a couple of newspapers. There was something called The War Weekly, and they wondered after a time, after several months, where he was, because, you see, he wasn't seen until March. I...
LAMB: This happened, again, in October, did you say?
Ms. LEVIN: Id--in October to March was the first...
LAMB: He was not seen by the American people?
Ms. LEVIN: No.
LAMB: Ever?
Ms. LEVIN: Uh-uh. No. So...
LAMB: W--in--in that time period, 1919, the war was over. What was the status of either the League of Nations or the Versailles Treaty?
Ms. LEVIN: Well, the League of Nations then was--that's what--that's why this was so important, because the votes were being taken in the--in the Senate, and Henry Cabot Lodge, who, at some point, you know, he's been--What?--he has been dismissed and so tarred and feathered as such the evil, it's a `but for him we would have joined the League of Nations,' and that really isn't true. He was a very, very bright, intelligent man. I read all of his correspondence at Massachusetts Historical Society, and he was in favor of a league at one point. He was in favor of some compromise. There's evidence of that.

But Wilson--I think, one thing--he didn't know how unlucky he would be with his thing. He could not get anyone to see that he--that--that he had to compromise, and I think Edith made one stab, and then he s--according to her, said, `Little girl, you, too,' as if she was betraying him. And so that was the end of it. And my feeling was, had he been married to Ellen Wilson, he might have--well, I don't think she would have allowed him to stay in office, being so ill. I don't think she could have been party to such a vast--What was it?--sort of a pantomime of some kind.
LAMB: Henry Cabot Lodge was a Republican from Massachusetts?
Ms. LEVIN: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: Is he the grandfather of the Henry Cabot Lodge that ran with Richard Nixon?
Ms. LEVIN: Yeah. Yeah. And he was the...
LAMB: Were the Republicans in charge in the C--in the Senate in those days?
Ms. LEVIN: Yes. Yeah.
LAMB: So you had Woodrow Wilson with a Republican Senate...
Ms. LEVIN: Yeah.
LAMB: ...and where--what was the status again of the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations? Were they--They weren't attached, were they?
Ms. LEVIN: Well, he wanted them attached, and that was a great, aggravating point in that--so that the whole--the Versailles Treaty--that the whole idea was held up because he insisted that the Fourteen Points be part of everything, and--and he would not give an inch on it, and when it came then to the--to--they had signed the Versailles Treaty, but when it came to the league, he just couldn't let go. And so when it came--the--the--the--the crucial point was when the Democrats asked him how to vote. If they voted for a compromise, would it--would he allow them to vote for a compromise? And he said no. And so that was after--after several attempts, that was the end of--of the league, and then I think he--then he thought he had to run for a third term. He would have to run for president again to champion his league, as sick as he was. So it's a very strange way to feel, and very sad. And...
LAMB: He lost the vote 53-38.
Ms. LEVIN: Yeah. Yeah. I think that--yeah.
LAMB: So--and when did the vote come? Was it when he was in--had the stroke--when...
Ms. LEVIN: Oh, well, they--they all came after. He--he had the stroke in October, and then all the voting took place the following months.
LAMB: But he was not out front when this happened.
Ms. LEVIN: And he was not out front. And he was--and there was a Gilbert Hitchcock, who was the Democrat, who seemed to be his representative, and there was all sorts of maneuvering and private meetings. And then poor Colonel House was writing to him to--and--and various people came by; Bernard Baruch and different people came by, or wrote, I should say, to ask him to please make the compromise with Lodge because it wouldn't matter. The small points could be ironed out and the big point was for us to have a league that he so wanted. And I don't think he was well enough to understand, although a corner of me feels that he had been so stubborn in the--in the Princeton era over where the graduate center would be, that he might have stuck to his guns on this point as well.
LAMB: You paint a picture of Senator Hitchcock and Senator Albert Fall...
Ms. LEVIN: Yeah.
LAMB: ...coming to visit him in his bedroom at the White House.
Ms. LEVIN: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Were they the first people to see him...
Ms. LEVIN: Yes. The first out...
LAMB: ...from outside?
Ms. LEVIN: Yes, the first outside people. Yeah.
LAMB: Do you remember what month that was?
Ms. LEVIN: I think it was December that they came.
LAMB: So he had his stroke in October and this was in December?
Ms. LEVIN: Yeah. Yeah.
LAMB: What was the scene?
Ms. LEVIN: Well, apparently, it was just brilliantly laid. I think that what they did, they covered--What did they do? They covered his arm so that...
LAMB: Which arm was paralyzed?
Ms. LEVIN: It--Was it his right arm that was paralyzed? And--I think--you know, the cover is--is a deception as well. Because--well, that's another story. That was taken by The Times--that--that story--that was posed to show that Wilson was well enough to run for the third term, and the Pulit--and the man who...
LAMB: So he's home at--on the S--at the S Street home here in Washington at this point?
Ms. LEVIN: Yeah. Yeah.
LAMB: And he has got his left hand. Was he left-handed? Did he write left-handed?
Ms. LEVIN: Right. No, so--so that's what--that's what--his right hand was paralyzed, I think, and--and it must have been. I had forgot--forgotten. But that was the scene, and they both thought he was very bright. The lights were lowered. And Dr. Grayson stood in--in the room, and Mrs.--Mrs. Wilson was in the room, and everybody stood at attention. And Mrs. Wilson took notes there in the--in the library of so--because she didn't trust Fall in--at all to--to be honest. So she was worried about what they report--would report. And they--he apparently pulled it off, and the press gave Wilson high marks for it.
LAMB: And Fall, who was a Republican...
Ms. LEVIN: Yeah, exactly. So that--that--I think that, of course, the Congress was so suspicious that--it was on the pretext that `What to do about Mexico?' We were always in--having a problem in Mexico. But what should we do about Mexico? And in--and so--but the pretext was to send this little--as, I think it was called a fishing expedition.
LAMB: This is the same Albert Fall that went to jail eventually?
Ms. LEVIN: Yeah. I was sort of sympathetic with him, originally. I think he was quite a nice man. I think he was very pressed financially. And--and then Mrs. Wilson was very glad that he had gone to jail, and--it turned out. But it was the same Albert Fall. But he had been a reliable and good public servant until the point--up to a point.
LAMB: From what you could find out, how many strokes had Woodrow Wilson had before he had the big one?
Ms. LEVIN: Well, that--that, of course, is the important question. What was it? In 1906, he had--I--I th--he had some sort of a problem and he lost the sight in one eye.
LAMB: Permanently?
Ms. LEVIN: Yeah. And he never, never gained his sight again. And then certainly in Paris--I shouldn't say--the way I say, `Certainly'--but from all that I have read, there were two doctors who turned up and they both claimed that they were there on a social visit, a Dr. Thouless and another doctor, very resp--these are very good--these are good men with good credentials. But I think Dr. Grayson must have been worried and sent for them, and it came out that there, again, he'd had a form of a stroke.

And then in--Was it in July?--he was bundled onto the SS Washington, and it was thought to hide him because then again, he had suffered another episode, as we say. So he was sick. And of course, you--you have to realize that he was--when he was at college--he was at Davidson and he left. He felt the wear and tear made him so nervous. Then he went to Princeton, and then there were--he was at Johns Hopkins and--and the University of Virginia, and he never really seemed to--he always needed to finish his papers on his own time. So--strange.
LAMB: What--why would a man who was so s--according to your profiling, so sick and so feeble, and--and also, apparently, so out of touch with so many people, be so popular?
Ms. LEVIN: I--but, you know, this morning it came out, he kept the flame alive.
LAMB: What flame?
Ms. LEVIN: The flame of a united world. One of the things I do think is that Mrs. Wilson and President Wilson chose his biographer brilliantly.
LAMB: Baker?
Ms. LEVIN: And s--Baker. And I think that perpetuated his reputation, embellished it, and then, of course, you remember the film that was made. That was made word for word from her book. And she had total control over it, if you read the papers, of--of their correspondence between the producer, director and herself. And so they all showed her--you know, Geraldine Fitzgerald played her, and Alexander Knox was Mr. Wilson, and it was all just a beautiful story. And the only thing that was wrong was Henry Cabot Lodge.
LAMB: So go back to--over a couple things. The memoir that Mrs. Edith Wilson wrote came out when? They were out of the White House in '21.
Ms. LEVIN: In 1936, '7. 1936 to 1937.
LAMB: So it took her from '21 to '36-'37 to write the memoir?
Ms. LEVIN: Well, I believe she started it because Mary Peck had published her memoir as a magazine serial, and Mrs. Wilson--it was suggested that Mrs.--Mrs. Wilson was so angry that--she claimed, that she wrote her memoir on--in the--on the train and everywhere, and a dus--so she did scraps and scraps of it. And she got very, very angry, and used very bad language in her diary and in--and in her initial volume of this letter. And then her--Bernard Baruch had a very renowned journalist named Marcus James come and look at it, and he did and he said, `This is yours and you must keep your spirit in it.' And--and so that was published. So I think she's been the great publicist for--for--for her husband…
LAMB: You mentioned Bernard Baruch a couple of times. Who was he?
Ms. LEVIN: He was a New York financier, and he had a very special affection for Woodrow Wilson, whom he admired very, very much. And Mrs. Wilson enjoyed him very much. He was affluent. He was extremely generous to her, provided wonderful weekends, a trip around the world, a fur piece. He was very protective of her, and also bought the property next to the S Street house to protect their privacy at one point, so...
LAMB: You say that in her--by the way, how long did she live?
Ms. LEVIN: Till '61.
LAMB: You say that she paid a lot of attention to the Stanton House in Stanton, Virginia, where he was born...
Ms. LEVIN: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: the National Cathedral where he's buried...
Ms. LEVIN: Yeah.
LAMB: the S Street house, and there's a picture here back when--the S--S Street house here in--in Washington.
Ms. LEVIN: And she shopped a good deal before she settled on that house, and they fixed it all over. I think the Stanton House--I think the people credit her with its existence, actually. And she got a lot of support from Bernard Baruch and a--a--a number of Princeton friends, and they give--and if you read her papers, she--there wasn't a detail--I don't think there was a fringe that went up on a curtain that she didn't supervise as a memorial to her husband.
LAMB: So you say her memoir and the film--which came out in what year?
Ms. LEVIN: '44, I think. Is that right? '44.
LAMB: And the Baker biography...
Ms. LEVIN: Yeah.
LAMB: ...which year did that come out?
Ms. LEVIN: That--well, now what would you say, '47, something like that? I'm not--I've--he began right away--he began to write it right away, and he wrote three other books that weren't biography. They were simply history. You know, he was their press officer in Paris...
LAMB: Ray Baker.
Ms. LEVIN: Ray--Ray Stannard Baker. Would you say about '47, '49, something like that? But he did it--you know, the eight volumes of them, so he did...
LAMB: And all this led up to, eventually, at the United Nations. So is he credited with the--the...
Ms. LEVIN: So then...
LAMB: ...original idea with--the League of Nations that led to the United Nations?
Ms. LEVIN: Well, I think that people then say his idea came that much later. The other thing, of course, is to think that--that if we had joined the League of Nations in the First World War, maybe we wouldn't have been into the Second World War so soon as we were. And maybe everything would have happened in a different way. Of course, that's second-guessing.
LAMB: Well, as you know, the--a lot of people have criticized the Versailles Treaty as being too tough on the Germans.
Ms. LEVIN: Oh, incredibly so.
LAMB: But what was Woodrow Wilson's position on that?
Ms. LEVIN: Oh, he did as well. He--he cap--he capitulated. At the beginning, I think, he--his dreams were all just perfect, and at the end, I think he--he--he gave in on a number of--of things, certainly on that issue. And that is--that is the crux of everybody's issue. And House was extremely worried by that arrangement, so...
LAMB: In the middle of his term, how often did he go to Paris, and how long did he stay there?
Ms. LEVIN: Oh, he--he went--he went on--when he--he went--he went in December, 1918. He came back in February for a Senate meeting, thinking he would sell his whole plan, Fourteen Points, and then he went back--he was just here a week and he turned around and went back again, and then he came back in June.
LAMB: You quote Mrs. Wilson, Mrs. Edith Wilson, as calling the suffragettes detestable and despicable.
Ms. LEVIN: Mm-hmm. I didn't make that up.
LAMB: Yeah. Well, here's a sign outside the White House.
Ms. LEVIN: Yeah.
LAMB: As active as she was and as--as strong as she was, why would she be against other women being in it?
Ms. LEVIN: I can't--that is part--partially my problem with her. You would think she was the first--she owned one of the early--she was one of the first women to own an automobile. She was somewhat of an Edith Wharton character in that she went--a Henry James character. She went abroad. She traveled abroad quite a lot as a widow, bought her dresses where the--Edith Wharton brought--bought hers and so on. So--and y--and she ran a business. She claimed she had little to do with her husband's business, but she kept a fine eye on Galt Jewelers, and that's where her money came from. And that's what supported her whole family. But she loathed the suffragettes, and in her own handwriting, that's in her diary. And that's the one thing my love that she--you know, she really brought it--the issue up several times. She really couldn't stand them. So...
LAMB: You also have a picture of Alice Longworth, the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt.
Ms. LEVIN: Oh, yeah.
LAMB: Alice Longworth--Roosevelt Longworth. You--you paint a picture of her not--not caring a whole lot for Woodrow Wilson.
Ms. LEVIN: No. She--and that's in print, I didn't...
LAMB: She was at the train station when he came back from Europe?
Ms. LEVIN: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
LAMB: Standing there and kept telling everybody...
Ms. LEVIN: Standing--very sensa--yeah. Very sinister--Isn't it?--that--and praying that, you know--I think she didn't mean--I think she was a very mischif--mischievous lady, anyway, but I think she--she--in her biography, `I'm gonna rain on him. I'm gonna rain on him,' because her father didn't understand us not going to war right away. And Theodore Roosevelt didn't approve of--of watchful waiting of--policy of Mr. Wilson, and--and she was very antagonized by Edith Wilson's orchids and her whole fluffy look. So...
LAMB: Well, one question I want to ask you is about the--the relatives. You--you talked to relatives of some of the principals in here in your research. Wasn't there--didn't Colonel House have a--one of the...
Ms. LEVIN: Oh, indeed. Indeed. And--well, his papers are so explicit, you know. They're at--at--his--his diary is at Yale, and it's finally on microfilm. It wasn't when I was there. But it was kept meticulously day by day by day, and his papers, and I've talked to his grandson, and...
LAMB: Edward House Auchincloss?
Ms. LEVIN: Yes. Yeah.
LAMB: Where did you find him?
Ms. LEVIN: He's right in New York City on East End Avenue. See, occasionally, things are very accessible. The person who was enormously helpful was a woman named Judy Schiff--Judith Schiff, and she's chief archivist at Yale, s--and she is the one who pointed me in the direction of a historian named Arthur Wallworth, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his Wilson biography in the 1950s, and I got in touch with him, and I saw--his papers were at Yale. Those were a total surprise to me, and he had done the most recent interviews he--with Helen Balms, with a stenographer, with all kinds of people who were on the spot and had left--some of them had left records, but none as clear as these. And so those--those were most helpful to me, and then--then I just went on from there, and one person sent me to another one.
LAMB: Did your--what are some of your conclusions after going through this, about either history or the Wilson presidency?
Ms. LEVIN: I have thought a lot about it, how...
LAMB: I should say, historians.
Ms. LEVIN: ...I--I should--Pardon me?
LAMB: I should say historians instead of history. I mean, you're...
Ms. LEVIN: Well, you--how little we know about what really happens at the seat of power, still, I think; how little we are privy to, how vulnerable people--leaders are. I used to, when I was very small and not so small, think that they had maybe some charisma, some knowledge, some intellect that was so profound that they would lead us through anything. And now I--you know, they're just regular folk who happen to have more ambition or energy and land in the same--in the seat of enormous power. And one hopes they have enough humility and enough intelligence to seek lots of opinions, because we keep repeating ourselves. And--and I was astonished to find that--in this setup to prove that Wilson was able to run again for the third term, that a Times photographer and a Times--or a Times reporter, would write it, win a Pulitzer Prize. So you have to examine everything you...
LAMB: For--for what? The story?
Ms. LEVIN: For--for--for the story, that--how strong he was and how well he was.
LAMB: Won a Pulitzer Prize for that?
Ms. LEVIN: Yeah.
LAMB: When he had been kind of busy still at the White House?
Ms. LEVIN: And it was all a setup. And it was a setup, the whole thing.
LAMB: And a New York Times reporter and photographer did this?
Ms. LEVIN: Yeah. I don't--I can't remember if--the photographer, but the--but the reporter--and his name escapes me, but he did win a--win a Pulitzer Prize because he had the first access to an interview at the White House. So I think that I've become--I don't think I'm a skeptic. I think I'm an optimist. But on the other hand, I read everything, and then I wonder.
LAMB: What do you think now of Arthur Link?
Ms. LEVIN: I think I wish that some of the fine print had been in bigger print. I wish that the letters that he didn't write were, let's say, authored--let's say `Woodrow Wilson to so-and-so,' and then in parentheses, `Joe Tumulty' in the top, because I think then it would--it was really dissembling.
LAMB: Meaning that Joe Tumulty had written it?
Ms. LEVIN: Yeah. Or that Edith Wilson had conspired to write with a group of people. I wish that--that that had been more in the forefront and was in the forefront of those because it's--if you're a student, if you're running through trying to think it, you take it absolutely at its face value, and I think one must always examine...
LAMB: Are you the first person to do a critical book on--like this?
Ms. LEVIN: Well, no. I gather that a Mr. Bullit and Mr. Freud did a job on him. But I didn't--I don't mean that kind of a thing. But I think I'm probably the first person to document what I saw. I think l--I think a number of people have suspected that things weren't going well. But I think I've tried with all my heart to not make up one--well, I didn't make up any quotes at all and...
LAMB: Here's a picture from Paris in 1919 that says `Viva La Wilson.'
Ms. LEVIN: Oh, he was never so popular. He was--that was what was so dismaying when he went, and the English family treated him as royalty. And when he went to Italy, they just were--they were just on--absolutely on top of the world. But he was no--you know, the--he had none of the seasoning of a Clemenceau. He was...
LAMB: Who was Clemenceau?
Ms. LEVIN: He was the premier of France. And then you had--he just didn't understand the trauma that they'd been to and how much they'd been put upon over so many centuries, and--and he could not--he had no gift for compromising of any kind, of listening to people at all. So when you say he kept the flame, the flame might have burned stronger earlier to--you know, to--and to more--greater fulfillment.
LAMB: Woodrow Wilson usually appears in the top 10 or so of American presidents out of--out of--in history, out of 42, or wherever. Where would you put him?
Ms. LEVIN: Oh, dear. I think it's a special category. I don't--I--I feel so badly to say--but I can't put him there because I--just because you espouse an idea, I just don't think it's good enough. I really--I n--I--I come down on the side of Keenes and of Lodge. It's just not good enough to have an idea when you can't fulfill it, and you might have been able to with a different disposition.
LAMB: Do you give him any credit for winning World War I?
Ms. LEVIN: Yes, certainly. I--I give him credit for--for caring and for--for--for being brave enough to go over there and think that he could do something. That was--but the fact that he had no way to get along with these people and no background in understanding, I think, was too bad. And if you realize he didn't see a Secretary of State, he didn't consult with his secretary of State. He didn't consult with anyone when he was over there, anyone to speak of. And so how could you know what's going on? He sat home in the evenings and--with Mrs. Wilson and Ray Stannard Baker and Miss Benum--Miss--who became Admiral Helms' wife. And...
LAMB: Secretary--secretary to Edith Wilson?
Ms. LEVIN: Yeah. Exactly.
LAMB: Yeah.
Ms. LEVIN: And so--you know, which was rather narrow circumstances for--to represent the world and take care of the world, you know.
LAMB: Given the criticism of your book, why would the folks over at S Street here in town, the Woodrow Wilson House, invite you in?
Ms. LEVIN: Oh, they were--they were darling. I didn't know--I thought it would be canceled once they read the book. I didn't--I don't mean it funny--I don't mean this as humor, because it was--it's very hard to write a negative--you know, to deal with people on a negative way, and I didn't mean to. And at the end, I had so many adjectives, `horrendous' and this and that, and the four people--each critic said, `You have got to get rid of them,' and that--`Let your research stand on its own.' But I was horrified by what had been perpetrated, frankly, because so much was at stake.
LAMB: How many years did you work on the book?
Ms. LEVIN: Well, on and off for 10--10 whole years. You know, so it's a lot. And I kept burrowing in and finding things, and the original papers just alarmed me beyond belief. And courting a lady and sending her State Department documents wasn't--I just wasn't on. If you realize today what was going on, I'd--you'd be quite alarmed, I think. One would be, anyway.
LAMB: "First Documented Account of the Woman who was President" is the subtitle of this book, written by our guest, and it's "Edith And Woodrow." Thank you very much, Phyllis Lee Levin.
Ms. LEVIN: Oh, thank you for having me. Appreciate it very much.
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