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The Courtship Of Woodrow Wilson
October 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 6
Baltimore, Oct. 9, 1883 My own darling, I did laugh at the idea of being your “ideal” (because I am such very gross stuff out of which to construct an ideal!) but my amusement was mixed with another feeling which was the predominant one—with keen delight at the assurance that your love for me is great enough to overlook my faults and weaknesses and enthrone me in your gentle heart … Do you know, dearest, that I am sometimes very much embarrassed when writing to you? I don’t mean that I am ever embarrassed in the ordinary sense, but that I am at a loss to know how to express myself. Here’s the difficulty: my inclination is to be “making love” in every sentence … No term of endearment could run beyond the reality of my feelings: but one can’t convey vocal tones to the written sheet , and I have as great an aversion from “sweet talk” as from set and formal expressions of affection. … There are no words which can express the sentiment of a kiss. A kiss is one of the gestures of that unspoken language which is often so much more eloquent of the deeper and subtler feelings than are any spoken words. …
Ellen’s next letter contained some playful but searching questions about the “unnamed lady” Wilson had mentioned.
East Rome, Oct. 6, 1883 … Your charming letter of the second full of dreams and other good omens was received yesterday. You dear, delightful boy! I don’t think I am dreadfully shocked at any of the revelations it contains and I faithfully promise to love you in your every humour. … Now, … I will play jealous and ply you with questions. So you will inform me, Sir, if you please, who the girl was and when and where and how and why and wherefore—the beginning and the end! Was the wound entirely healed before last summer and did it leave a very deep scar? Are you sure there isn’t the least little rankling pain remaining? …
A full account of Woodrow’s first love reached her promptly.
Baltimore, Md., Oct. 11th/83 … No young man lives a complete life who is not lifted out of himself by love for some woman who stands to him for a type of what is pure and lovely. … it was with that feeling that I met, at Auntie’s house, the girl [a first cousin] I came to think entitled to that store of affection. … I had about made up my mind beforehand to fall in love with her, and afterwards it seemed an easy enough thing to do. During the next winter (for she was then at home in Ohio) we corresponded regularly and quite voluminously, and, in the summer of 1881 … I went out to Ohio to make her a visit; and it was during that visit that I completed the little drama by proposing to her and being refused. … Before last summer came all traces of the wound she had given me were gone. No scar remained anywhere but on my pride , which winced a little at the memory of the huge mistake I had made with such wilful blindness. …
But Ellen was hurt by Woodrow’s story of his first love. She had not known that he had asked the girl to marry him, and she thought that he must have been blindly in love to propose to a first cousin. She wrote what must have been a rather stern letter, because, judging by his reply, it frightened Woodrow.
Baltimore, Oct. 18th, 1883 … My dear sensitive girl seems to have been a good deal shocked by some of the revelations drawn out by her questions. … Was it because she was not prepared to receive conclusive evidence that her “ideal” was, after all, a very weak, foolish fellow? Did you think that I had invited your questions as I did because it would be pleasant to answer them? Very far from it. I invited them because I wanted to have no secrets to keep from you. It would break my heart, my precious Ellie, to lose your love—I could not now live without it—but it would break it quite as surely to have you imagine me wiser and better than I am and afterwards discover that you had been mistaken. … It was weak and silly in me to do so “unfortunate” a thing. … But, happily, all that is now passed by, and as if it had never happened. I am not a boy any longer. It was left for you to teach me the vast, the immeasurable difference between a youth’s fancy and a man’s overmastering love. Why, my darling, I am sometimes absolutely frightened at the intensity of my love for you.
And so the difficulty was cleared up. Woodrow plunged harder into his work, although, as he told Ellen, he found it very distracting to be so much in love: “How can a fellow in Baltimore write a lecture on Adam Smith when he’s forever thinking of a girl in Georgia?”
Occasionally there were pleasanter alternatives than Adam Smith:
Balto., Md., Nov. 13th, 1883 … We had a very jolly time, and I am afraid that I was not as dignified as I might have been. The company consisted of the young lady aforesaid, her two sisters, a young damsel from Philadelphia, Miss Woods and two of her brothers, and one or two other men besides myself. We compounded the caramels in the dining-room, boiled them in the kitchen, and ate them in the parlour; but before these numerous stages had passed I had had numerous frolics with the young lady aforesaid and had been three times locked up in the pantry, each time gaining my freedom by making demonstrations toward demolishing the larder, and once having one of the young ladies as a fellow-prisoner. I don’t always misbehave so when I go out in company; but candy making is scarcely an occupation requiring much dignity. …