Love And Guilt: Woodrow Wilson And Mary Hulbert

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Baker’s idea most probably was broached by Edith to Baruch, who agreed at least to consider the matter. Baruch’s initial response to Baker was tentative. Meanwhile, Edith suggested to Baker that he consult former Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, who had written in 1924 a brief, laudatory Wilson biography. Purportedly, Daniels had read all of the letters, which he had circumspectly described to Edith Wilson as “only those of one warm friend to another.” Rather than use the actual letters, Edith suggested to Baker, he could merely quote what Daniels had said about them.

Baker was too exacting a biographer to settle for twice-removed quotations, but he did write to Daniels asking for a frank opinion of the letters. Daniels dodged, replying that he hardly knew how to write down his impressions, and he would rather talk with Baker sometime. When Edith Wilson learned of this, she was manifestly unhappy with Daniels.

Three years now had passed since Baker had first talked with Mary Hulbert. Despite Edith’s view that it would be a fruitless quest, he decided that he must make another appeal to both Mary and Baruch. The first volume of the Wilson biography already had been published, and if he were to use the correpondence as resource material, he must see it soon.

Baker wrote at length to Baruch, explaining: ”… I think you know how vitally interested I am in this matter and how much it means to my work. It will add immensely to the completeness of the biography. I know that the sum involved is large, but I have wondered whether you would be willing to go further with it? It is a collection wholly unique and ought not to be broken up and especially bartered about the country. I should hate dreadfully to see that happen. Won’t you kindly let me hear from you?”

This time, knowing that it would please Edith Wilson, Baruch replied affirmatively, adding that he would rather have the letters in friendly hands than unfriendly ones. He urged the utmost discretion about his being identified as part of the transaction.

Having a firm commitment for funding now in hand, Baker went to Mary Hulbert. Their conversation was frank and not without some distress to both of them. He asked her why she had written the Liberty articles, and she confessed in a subsequent letter that “it was the tone of your kind voice reflecting your decent attitude of mind that makes me tell you again how terrible it was to me—all the suffering of the martyrs. The only comfort afterwards is that the money gave us roof and food while my son was so ill—and that the articles contained the truth.”

Negotiations for the letters now proceeded through Mary’s agent/appraiser and her son in New York. When his opening bid was rejected, Baker chafed. He was determined on this occasion that the collection would not slip through his fingers. Shooting off another appeal to Baruch, he explained once more why the material was so valuable. “It is undoubtedly true,” he wrote, “that Mr. Hulbert [Allen], if he put up the material at auction, could get considerably more than we offered.” Baruch recognized that the decisive moment was approaching, but this did not blur his sense of prudence. The agent had offered by way of compromise a fresh appraisal and somewhat decreased estimate based on an inventory showing how many of Wilson’s letters had been handwritten, how many typed. Baruch informed Baker that when such a report was forthcoming, he would be glad to renew the negotiations, but he saw no way of increasing his bid until he knew what the agent had in mind. Although he would be glad to get the material, Baruch wrote a little petulantly, “I don’t know what disposition I should finally make of them.”

On June 5, 1928, a contract of sale was signed stating a purchase price of $31,500, paid by Ray Stannard Baker to Mary Allen Hulbert. Baruch accepted his clandestine ownership somewhat uneasily. Morally, he felt, the letters were Edith Wilson’s, but he regarded it as his gentlemanly duty to protect her. He specified to Baker that all of the originals and, of course, all of the copies be sent to him, stating that “in no instance are any of them to be kept.” Baker complied in sending the originals, assuring Baruch that as soon as he had finished his studies of the period to which the letters referred, he would send all the copies. This he eventually did. (Baruch later sent the letters to the Library of Congress, their use restricted until after Edith Wilson’s death.)

Several months after she had parted with the Wilson letters, Mary Hulbert wrote Baker (with whom she corresponded intermittently for the next decade): “You understand that the loss of those documents leaves me bereaved. I hated selling them. I wanted to give them. I am satisfied however that they have found their safe and right honors. … I am grateful for your beautiful and delicate handling of the friendship.”

Edith Wilson was also gratified by Baker’s treatment of the Wilson-Hulbert relationship. Baker had achieved a miracle.