Love And Guilt: Woodrow Wilson And Mary Hulbert

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Through turmoil and travels, and despite unending personal and political demands, Wilson’s letters to Mary poured out. He shared with her long, subjective revelations of his reaction to people and political events; he wrote of family activities and of his own future aspirations, often worrying through various issues with her. Again and again he repeated how he missed her, how constantly he thought of her, and he pleaded for fuller and more frequent letters. When Wilson had moments of self-doubt, Mary’s reassurance helped to sustain him—and he did the same for her. She thanked God for making him “so fine—so brave—so true,” and if he did not win his various moral and political battles (in New Jersey) it was but “a way… to greater things.” And later she wrote Wilson, “You are more wonderful to me every day, so wonderful as to seem not quite human.” All of these aspects of the relationship were compelling; but none more so than the fact that with Mary, Wilson could always laugh and relax—”feel freed.”

Rumors linking Wilson with Mary circulated during the 1912 presidential campaign, and when Mary sued Thomas Peck for divorce late in 1911, the item was reported on the front page of the New York Times . Perhaps to calm the gossip, Ellen Wilson wrote Mary a charming note soon after the inauguration in March, 1913, inviting her to be one of their first White House guests. As Chief Executive, Wilson still managed to find time for almost weekly letters to his Dearest Friend even up until the time of Ellen Axson Wilson’s death (from Bright’s disease) on August 6, 1914. On that day he wrote Mary, “Of course you know what has happened to me; but I wanted you to know direct from me. God has stricken me beyond what I can bear.”

Mary’s note to him was already en route: “It seems incredible,” she wrote, “that this terrible thing has come to you now , when you need that sweet love to help you in this terrible time.”

The next few months were a period of deep despair in Wilson’s life: he virtually lost his will to live. Irrespective of his effusive relationship with Mary Hulbert, Ellen had always had first claim on his affections. He found some consolation in continued correspondence with Mary and in helping her prepare articles on domestic matters for the Ladies’ Home Journal . After rewriting one of her manuscripts, he offered to have it typed at the White House. (She declined.) In response to her then precarious financial situation, he lent her six hundred dollars which by his own choice he never collected. In early September, 1915, as a way of further help, he purchased mortgages on some Bronx property that she owned, sending her a check for seventy-five hundred dollars. Meanwhile, in July, 1915, Mary had gone to California to live with her son. Thereafter, while her letters went with regularity to the President, he fell silent, except for a brief message accompanying the check.

 
 

Mary Hulbert had no inkling, of course, that Wilson had met (probably March 20, 1915) and fallen head over heels in love with a well-bred Washington widow and former Virginian, Edith Boiling Galt, sixteen years Wilson’s junior. When a note from Wilson reached Mary early in October, 1915, telling her of his engagement “before the public announcement is made,” she had already read about it in the California papers. (That she was offended by the engagement for both Ellen’s sake and her own is suggested by a note she wrote on the envelope containing this letter: “How could he so soon?”) She summoned the courage to answer him:

(ca. Oct. 11, 1915)

“Dearest Friend,

I have kissed the cross. We are very glad you have found happiness and that you had time to think of us in the midst of it. I need not tell you again that you have been the greatest, most enobling [sic] influence in my life. You helped me to keep my soul alive and I am grateful. I hope you will have the happiness that I have missed. I can not wish you greater. We are well, and both working at the business that your friendly purchase of the mortgages made it possible for us to embark upon. … She is very beautiful and sometime perhaps I may meet her. I wish you had told me before, for your letter was only mailed the 4th and the newspapers had already published the fact. The cold peace of utter renunciation is about me, and the shell that is M.A.H. still functions. It is rather lonely, not even an acquaintanceship to make the air vibrate with the coming warmth, perhaps of friendship. God alone knows—and you—partly, the real woman Mary Hulbert, all her hopes and joys, and fears, and mistakes. I shall not write you again this intimately but must this once.… Write me sometime, the brotherly letters that will make my pathway a bit brighter. And believe me ever

Your friend,

Mary Allen Hulbert.”

She added a postscript: “This is rather a whine but it is the best I can do—now. God bless you!”