April/May 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 3
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.
Mary wrote after getting his shipboard note: “Before I write another word, I want to tell you—best beloved—of a small habit you have, which may cause you to be misjudged. You will laugh when you hear it. Do not leave your spoon in your cup when you drink your tea. It’s a crime in the eyes of some, no less. You do not mind my telling you? I would not care if you lapped it up with your tongue. The king can do no wrong. … Write me—write me—I miss you and am your devoted friend.”
The letters flew back and forth every few days. “I did not know how unhappy the attacks upon me by the Princeton men had made me till I got off by myself,” he wrote on his arrival in Hamilton. “I am quite ashamed to find how much it has affected me. But I shall be all right before I write again—when I have got used to this friendless island and have ceased to be made unhappy by its haunting associations.… The place is infinitely bright and sweet and attractive … and at every turn I am reminded of things unspeakably sweet and reassuring. … It is a dear place! I shall love it all my life—as one of the places for me enchanted, filled with poetry and the eager pulses of life.…”
Wilson asked in a letter four days later, “Why have you taken such complete possession of Bermuda?” He said that he could not disassociate any part of it from her, that he met some memory of her at every turn, and that he was lonely wherever he went because she was not there. “You really must come down to relieve me,” he pleaded.
He made a sentimental journey to Shoreby (Mary’s home in Bermuda) and took tea with her friends the Parrishes, who were living in her house. Wilson sat, keeping a gay front, yet sad at heart. “Mrs. P. sat in your hammock,” he wrote. “I sat and thought one thing and said another. It was ghastly. I came away exhausted. …” He hoped he did not make Mary sad with his down-hearted letter, for it was really a way, a very deep, genuine way, of speaking his affection for an absent friend whose “beauty, charm, companionship, sympathy, quick comprehension and largesse of affection will always be the chief and most perfect thing that Bermuda stands for in my thought.… I am, with infinite tenderness.…”
On the same day Mary was thinking of him and writing:
“I know what it is to walk to the South Shore alone—but did you not know I was with you all the way? You see—I natter myself—and think you desired no other companion. Does the bougainvillia fling itself over the cottage as of old? Why, why can I not be there—to fling myself where I would!
“Of course , you feel the hurt of things said and done and you may have more to bear, but you have not that hardest thing—regret at having been untrue to yourself and to your ideals.… You are an adorable person—and I count it the greatest honor and happiness and privilege of my life that you call me friend.… I miss you horribly —woefully. And it’s even worse than I feared to have you so far away. Enjoy Bermuda for us both. Rest, and come back as soon as you can—to this hateful place. I hope you will meet and enjoy my friends there, but please, do not be too nice to the lady who dislikes me because of you. I’m jealous!”
Wilson wrote that he had found “the lady” (Mrs. Charles Massy Mathew) beautiful and charming, but what he enjoyed most was the part of their conversation about Mary.
A day later, the steamer was in and brought another letter from Mary for which Wilson blessed her. “Your affection seems in some way to restore my tone, to set the courses of my blood straight again, and give me a strange mastery of myself in the midst of distressing circumstances. God was very good to me to send me such a friend, so perfectly satisfying and delightful, so delectable .…” In return, he hoped she would accept “as much as you are willing to take from your devoted friend, Woodrow Wilson.”
He succeeded in making Mary terribly homesick for “the sweet airs, the blue sea, the bright skies, the life I love —and with you there.” She was glad he missed her, but more glad that he was amused and entertained so he could forget Princeton. She was entertaining frequently in New York, and evenings found her tired. “I give so much of myself to people who love me,” she reminded him. “I can never learn indifference or restraint.”
Wilson was saddened that he had made his “dearest, sweetest friend” homesick for the island. If he could only make her realize that there were people there who loved her. “Admiration does not satisfy or give happiness, but love does. … You are a great person, and whatever anyone feels about you they feel deeply and intensely,” he assured her. As for his missing her, he had a sense of loneliness from morning to night because she was not there.
She responded, reiterating what a comfort he was and what a warm, beautiful glow the thought of him brought to her heart. She was glad that the lovely Mrs. M. could not crowd her out of his heart. But she did envy the lady two things—the sight of Wilson, and her youth. But she would not be willing to turn the clock back, she said, nor to give up the knowledge gained in her hard fight (for freedom). Without it, she might not have found Wilson. She was busy every moment, but nothing seemed to matter much because he was not there. At a Boston Symphony concert in Carnegie Hall, she had heard one thing so exquisite that it was hardly of this earth—Rachmaninoff’s The Isle of Death .… “It gives one thrills and a lump in the throat, then a wonderful calm and peace—like the stars at night,” she wrote. It was as if one were enfolded by strong tender arms—and lifted above all the petty fret and jangle of the day. She could hardly bear it that she was not there in Bermuda with him. She had not suspected how hard it would be, but the worst was now over.
Wilson wrote on February 28 that he was coming home on the next steamer. “Heaven send the good old Bermudian [to] get me in at such time as will enable me to see my dear, dear friend before I must start for Princeton. It would be heartbreaking to have to wait still longer, when my thought has been waiting, waiting, waiting for the happy moment when I should be in your presence again and have one of the hours with you that mean so much to me!”
Just the night before, he wrote, he had had dinner in the little cottage with the bougainvillia. … All his “pulses throbbed” as he entered and lingered. “It seemed to me a mere romance to be in it, after all the thoughts I had had of it, and the peculiar associations. If you could have been there it would have been perfect.…” In a sense he had been with her ever since he had set foot on “these delectable isles,” which to him “contain nothing, nobody but you. I am with you in imagination all the time, and it is beyond measure delightful: the real loneliness of it is sweet as well as sad. God bless you and keep you, and give you as much happiness as you have given me!”
He sailed on March 5, but the day before leaving he penned a few more lines, describing the “eagerness that fairly bounds within me to see my beloved Friend.”
Whether or not he satisfied his bounding eagerness to see Mary on his return is unknown, but many subsequent meetings are documented. Often he was in New York, but Mary also made several visits to Princeton, and later to Trenton and Sea Girt (the summer gubernatorial residence) during Wilson’s term as New Jersey governor. Shortly after one of her journeys to Princeton, Wilson wrote to her on her forty-eighth birthday:
“Princeton, New Jersey, 26 May, 1910
Many, many happy—very happy-returns of this day! May you be as glad that it happened as those are who have been privileged to know and love you. It is a very happy circumstance for them that you were born into this workaday world, with all your wit and charm and vivacious sense.… You brought a sort of vivid life with you that is of the rarest kind, because it is communicable: other people partake of it when they are with you, and feel the lack of it when you are away—and never lose the consciousness of you as a delightful fact—a force of which they are always conscious—in their lives. If you are not happy and grateful on your birth-day, they are: if you forget what luck and good fun it was that you should be born into the world, they do not. You are a person , and there are very few real persons in the world. … I imagine I must have felt in some way on the twenty-sixth of May in my sixth year that the day was a specially delightful one, when a youngster must be very gay, and that day, if no other, must have made those about me notice and love me—and ask ‘What makes the child so gay?’ Intimations, not of immortality, but of something immortal that was to come into my life some day in a soft southern isle! Thank you for coming and for looking me up in your forty-fifth year! I shall never cease to be your debtor and
Your devoted friend,
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)
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
Mary Allen Hulbert.”
She added a postscript: “This is rather a whine but it is the best I can do—now. God bless you!”
Edith Galt and Woodrow Wilson were married on December 18, 1915, at her Washington home. To an excited public and press and to Mary Hulbert as well the romance had all the appearance of an ideal and orderly development. Behind the scenes, however, Wilson’s friendship and correspondence with Mary Hulbert had given rise to a false story that almost caused Mrs. Galt to break the engagement. The story (that Mary was showing Wilson’s letters and “doing him much harm”) was concocted among his political allies who feared that an engagement, and most certainly a marriage, so soon after Ellen Wilson’s death, would undermine Wilson’s chances at re-election in 1916. When the story reached Wilson (through his son-in-law, William G. McAdoo) he still trusted Mary Hulbert, but he was worried about the gossipmongers. Rather than risk the possibility of insidious rumors reaching Edith Galt, he decided to tell her all about “Woodrow Wilson and Mary Hulbert.”
On Saturday afternoon, September 18, 1915, when Edith received Wilson’s note asking that he be allowed to come to her home to discuss an important matter, she was disturbed that any new problem should be weighing heavily on the President. Wanting only to listen and be helpful, she was prepared for almost anything except what Wilson told her: that he had something in his past which he now regarded as a brief period of madness, an episode of foolishness on his part that he had since despised and regretted. He confessed that he felt he was coming to her tarnished and unworthy.
That his confession was wrenchingly emotional we know because of the torrent of letters exchanged between them during the next week. But by Edith Wilson’s express stipulation-made many years later when she turned over her husband’s papers to the Library of Congress—these letters may not be quoted directly until they are published in The Papers of Woodrow Wilson in l980 or l981.
Edith long since had lost her heart to Wilson. She had seen him as almost godlike, feeling that the air around him was charged with a purity that made her a better person for having breathed it. His confession of September 18 abruptly shattered the idol.
As she listened that evening she was stunned and hurt, as she wrote him later. Nevertheless, she collected herself sufficiently to assure Wilson of her love before he returned to the White House at 11:00 P.M. Yet she still needed time to weigh her choices. She spent the rest of the night sitting by her window wrestling not only with her own future but with that of the President of the United States. At dawn she wrote a letter to him that probably was delivered while Wilson was attending worship at the Central Presbyterian Church. At 7:20 that same morning he had been at his desk writing to her of his night of turmoil.
Edith, a woman of strong emotions and strong mind, had tested the quality of her love for Woodrow Wilson and had found it equal to the blow. She wrote him that she would forget the idol and superman created by her blind adoration; that she could and would love trustingly, and with understanding, Wilson the tender human being. For the brief time that she had faltered, had even considered deserting him, Edith begged his forgiveness.
The President was unspeakably happy. Not only was Edith’s love invincible, but he explained in reply that he had unburdened himself of a secret that had caused him to be dominated by fear of discovery. Now he had been set free. The matter had also been resolved for Wilson the Calvinist: he had sinned, and there is evidence that he felt he had been punished by Ellen Wilson’s death. He had repented; he had implored forgiveness in like measure to his punishment; the gift of Edith was overwhelming proof of God’s forgiveness. Moreover, he told Edith that he had tried to make amends for this brief folly through disinterested service, pointing out to her that a far greater portion of his life had been spent dutifully. It is clear that Wilson regarded her acceptance of his love as redemption from everything in his past except the bitterness of having disappointed her.
Edith’s hurt continued to smolder for several days, but the overall effect of his confession was to seal their relationship against all else that might threaten it. The political scheming had served to hasten rather than to postpone their marriage.
Wilson was narrowly re-elected in November, 1916, but the rumormongers had a field day during the campaign. In fact, Wilson’s biographer, Arthur S. Link, states that “Republicans conducted against Woodrow Wilson in 1916 what must have been one of the dirtiest whispering campaigns in American history.” Gossips said that Ellen Axson Wilson had really died of a broken heart because of Wilson’s affair with Mary Hulbert; that Mrs. Hulbert had prepared to institute breach-of-promise proceedings against the President; and that Louis Brandeis, Wilson’s go-between, had purchased Mrs. Hulbert’s silence for seventy-five thousand dollars.
Money was indeed dangled before Mary, but the overtures came from the President’s enemies, not from his friends. She was offered bribes by Wilson’s adversaries that ranged from fur coats and limousines to provisions for extensive travel if she would hand over Wilson’s letters. Her indignant refusals eventually led to an offer of half a million dollars for the correspondence, but her loyalty to Wilson was not for sale. Where Wilson’s political enemies failed, representatives from the Department of Justice, acting to protect his interests, tried diligently to succeed. Mary Hulbert was plagued by covert attempts to get possession of the letters, until her son requested—and received—an appointment with Wilson. Allen vowed to the President of the United States that if the Department of Justice did not let his mother alone he would kill the next man who came. Wilson moved with dispatch to ensure that the annoyance ceased.
Although Mary Hulbert was not the kind of woman who would betray an intimate friendship, she was unable to stay out of financial difficulty. By her own admission, she had “no money sense.” One possible source of funds was to try to publish carefully chosen excerpts from Wilson’s letters to her, an idea she sold to George H. Doran & Company. With a ten-thousand-dollar advance, Mary provided Doran with an exceedingly circumspect, chatty manuscript (now in the archives at Princeton University) making the whole correspondence sound like that of an affectionate brother writing to his favorite sister. During the eight years that Wilson had known Mary Hulbert, and called her “Dearest Friend,” he would have done almost anything for her, but this time, the necessary publication rights to Doran were understandably denied.
The letters remained in Mary Hulbert’s possession until after Wilson’s death in February, 1924. At the end of that year, she relied upon them to some extent to write for Liberty magazine ten equally circumspect articles that appeared from December 20, 1924, through February 21,1925. In the midst of this series, announcement was made in the press that Ray Stannard Baker had been chosen as Woodrow Wilson’s authorized biographer.
A Midwesterner of impeccable character, Baker had served in 1919 as director of the press bureau of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace at Paris. He had published in 1922 a three-volume study, Woodrow Wilson and World Settlement—A History of the Peace Conference , that had pleased the President. Edith Wilson admired Baker, not a trivial consideration in that she was to read and evaluate every sentence he composed for the eight-volume biography.
Edith offered her full cooperation to Baker, urging him “to see everybody—both friends and enemies; because only in this way can you get the whole picture before you.…” Assisted by her bachelor brother, Randolph Boiling, she sent sixty-seven cases of papers from the White House to Baker’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he was to do his research and writing. After describing the shipment, Edith noted that “there are still the personal letters in Mr. Wilson’s own desk that I have not been able to go over, and which I will send you if they seem of interest. …”
Were the Hulbert letters to Wilson among the “personal letters”? Whether or not Edith or Randolph disposed of many of these, Baker was determined to acquire, or gain access to, the other side of the correspondence. In early March, 1925, he wrote to Mary Hulbert, now residing with Allen at 49 West Forty-fourth Street in New York City, and asked for an interview. Baker explained that he sought “every possible source of knowledge upon Wilson’s career and without bias.” (He had written to a colleague that “I am going to print everything I have or can find out that I believe to be true regardless of whom it hits.”)
Mary courteously responded, giving Baker an appointment; but she would not part with the letters, allow him to use them, or, apparently, even let him read them. On hearing this, Edith Wilson was disturbed. The letters represented a sizable portion of her husband’s personal correspondence that was virtually out of her control. Mary Hulbert’s articles in Liberty magazine had not served to endear Wilson’s former confidante to Edith.
As the months went by, Baker began to devise a more realistic approach to acquiring the Wilson letters from Mary Hulbert. He knew that they had considerable value on the manuscript market, and that she hoped for and expected appropriate remuneration. When he had met Mary in 1925, Baker, somewhat to his surprise, had liked her very much. Whatever plan he proposed must be equitable. But how to obtain funds of this magnitude? Perhaps Bernard Baruch could help. Not only was he wealthy, but he was also a staunch and loyal admirer of both the President and Mrs. Wilson.
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.
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.