Love And Guilt: Woodrow Wilson And Mary Hulbert

PrintPrintEmailEmail

In 1935, two years after Mary Hulbert had published her own highly discreet memoirs, The Story of Mrs. Peck: An Autobiography , she wrote Baker that she would like to show him, if he cared to see them, “some excerpts from letters long since destroyed.” She was trying, she said, to “put my little house of this life in better order.” Baker was interested and planned to call on her in New York City within the next few days. No further reference to the excerpts appears in the Baker-Hulbert correspondence nor in Baker’s general correspondence. If Mary, herself, had destroyed some of Wilson’s letters—for obvious reasons—then she had dissembled with Baker earlier. In a warm but brief message written to Allen after Mary Hulbert’s death in December, 1939, Baker wrote that “I was always glad I knew your mother and in some degree to have had her confidence [emphasis added].”

The excerpts which Mary mentioned were left among her personal effects, and are probably one and the same as a manuscript (in Mary’s inimitable hand) given recently to the Papers of Woodrow Wilson by Rebecca Hulbert, Allen’s widow. The eleven undated pages contain a lavish and repetitive catalogue of the charms Wilson found in Mary. That she attributed the words to Wilson is not proof of their authenticity, but the style is highly suggestive: ”… My dear Mary, you are the dearest chum, the most rewarding companion and confidant, the frankest, dearest, most engaging playmate—the smartest woman compact of many charms. … Your delightful self-revelations [are] seasoned with so much delectable gayety, a queen who does not take herself too seriously, a queenly beauty and charm … so pervasive that no man or woman can fail to be captivated by it. You are the wonderful lady I knew the moment I looked into your beautiful eyes, and some of the best powers of my life I take from you [emphasis added]. I found in my friend… the loving power of a great woman, a fearless natural integrity-purity without prudery, rectitude and sincerity without convention, perfect wholesomeness and genuineness, as of a nature without morbidness; … a certain noble greatness that would prompt a man to trust her in every smallest point of honor as he would trust another man, and withal, a sweet, frank companionableness that made every moment of intercourse vital. … God bless and keep you and bring you peace, peace.”

What seems important historically is not that Wilson’s affair with Mary Hulbert took place, but that he had “some of the best powers of [his] life” restored by her when his need was crucial. Mary herself commented in the same compilation that she had “liberated powers in him he did not know himself that he possessed.… He was freed in a sense by my frank gaity and, to him, daring freedom of speech—and action.”

Had he not met Edith Galt, and had he been defeated for re-election in 1916, Wilson might conceivably have married Mary Hulbert. But for a presidential candidate to have acknowledged any serious intentions toward her, a divorcee and already a cause of gossip, would have been, by post-Victorian standards, social and political suicide.

Edith Wilson may never have read the letters her husband had written to Mary Hulbert. In her last years she told Wilson scholars Arthur S. Link and David W. Hirst that there probably wasn’t much of anything in them. For the rest of her life Edith was dedicated above all else to the preservation of her husband’s image of greatness. Yet she must have instinctively realized that Wilson’s secret romance had been restorative and life enhancing to him and that, she, too, owed a debt of gratitude to Mary Hulbert.