Love And Guilt: Woodrow Wilson And Mary Hulbert

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On the afternoon of September 18, 1915, Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States and a widower, wrote a brief note that he knew might change the rest of his life. The note, sent by messenger, was for Edith Boiling Galt, to whom he was secretly engaged. The President asked her to cancel her plans to have dinner that evening at the White House, and to allow him the unusual liberty of coming to her home to discuss a matter of grave importance. Wilson had decided he must tell her, at whatever cost to their relationship, about a love affair with another woman.

During the eight years that spanned his presidency of Princeton University, his governorship of New Jersey, and a part of his first term as President of the United States, Wilson had written more than two hundred intimate letters to this woman. During seven of those years he was a married man. Her name was Mary Allen Hulbert; she was beautiful, witty and engaging, and her replies to Wilson’s frequent outpourings were apparently so incriminating that most of them were destroyed or have otherwise disappeared. Who may have destroyed them continues to be a subject of speculation among Wilson scholars. Did Wilson himself dispose of them before his marriage to Edith Galt? Or did they disappear after the decidedly possessive Edith Wilson, sole executor of her husband’s estate, took charge of Wilson’s personal papers at his death in 1924? The few extant Hulbert-to-Wilson letters and most of his to her are now being published for the first time in The Papers of Woodrow Wilson .

In any case, Wilson began writing to Mary Hulbert in February, 1907, when he first met her at the end of a midwinter vacation that he spent without his wife in Bermuda. She was forty-four and he fifty years of age. In January, 1908, resting again alone for a month in Bermuda, Wilson found Mary Hulbert Peck (her legal name at that time) to be a constant and delightful companion. During the second Bermuda vacation he started a note to her, in shorthand, that begins, “My precious one, my beloved Mary.” If, indeed, Wilson completed that letter, it may have been among those of his that allegedly were destroyed.

After 1908, the friendship deepened, becoming most intense during the period of his bitter academic controversy at Princeton University. Wilson had served as an exceedingly popular college president from 1902 to 1906; the next, and last four, years as Princeton’s head were marked by continual acrimony that culminated in the submission of his resignation to the board of trustees in October, 1910. In that year his letters to Mary were particularly frequent and intimate; they often began, “Dearest Friend,” and closed “with infinite tenderness.”

Mary Hulbert came into Wilson’s life at a time not only of professional unrest but of personal anguish. His wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, entered a period of marked depression lasting from 1906 to about 1910. Ellen’s youngest brother, Edward Axson, who was close to being the son that she and Woodrow never had, was drowned with his wife and infant son in a freak carriage accident in 1905. Another brother, Stockton Axson, a professor of English at Princeton University, was incapacitated most of that academic year with a nervous breakdown, and in May, 1906, Woodrow Wilson suffered a severe stroke. As Ellen’s world collapsed around her, she encouraged her husband’s friendship with Mary Hulbert, a woman who was able to divert and entertain.

 

While Wilson’s life in the academic world was being uprooted, Mary Hulbert was experiencing traumas of her own. Late in 1909, with moral support and encouragement from Wilson, she separated from her second husband, an affluent New England woolen manufacturer, Thomas Dowse Peck, and moved from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to New York City. She shared an apartment with her mother and her son, Allen Schoolcraft Hulbert. Allen was the only child of Mary’s first marriage, a happy one that had ended when Mary’s husband, mining engineer Thomas Harbach Hulbert, died as a result of an accident. In December, 1890, perhaps overpersuaded by relatives, she had married Peck more as a matter of expediency than affection. Bermuda had been a winter haven for her since 1892.

Now that Mary Hulbert was in New York, Wilson saw and telephoned her frequently. He and Ellen sometimes joined Mary at some event, such as an Isadora Duncan recital they attended together. For reasons not apparent, but perhaps legal or financial, Mary was unable to go to Bermuda in the winter of 1910. Wilson went for a third time by himself in February to what he now regarded as his magic island. Aboard the S.S. Oceana after he had just seen Mary in New York, he wrote her that “Here I am—sad, lonely, homesick, friendsick.… God Bless You!”

Thus began a series of exchanges that are unique in that both sides of the correspondence have survived.