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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 31

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Life of Woodrow Wilson

Josephus Daniels

in the
Greenwood Press edition,
New York, 1971

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 33
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p335  Chapter XXXII
Broken at the Wheel

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© Kadell & Herbert, N. Y.

The ex-President on his sixty-fifth birthday

This portrait, taken on December 28, 1920, was the first made after his serious breakdown in September, 1919

The great casualty of war returns to Washington, which he was never to leave again — Happy in the affection and comrade­ship of his devoted wife — His marriage to Mrs. Edith Bolling Galt, of Virginia, crowned his life with happiness — The beautiful friendship between Wilson and Dr. Grayson — The physician's tribute

"Shall the great sacrifice that we made in this war be in vain, or shall it not?" — Wilson

It was on the twenty-eighth day of September that President Wilson reached Washington. His sudden illness, which compelled an abandonment of his Western crusade for the League of Nations, made him a semi-invalid for life. He walked unassisted to his automobile at the depot where anxious friends awaited his coming. By his side was Mrs. Wilson, who had been with him every day of every month of the great days since they were married — every trip he had taken, every place he had visited, whether in the palaces of Europe or the quiet drives in their beloved Virginia hills. She was to be stay and comfort in the months of nursing and anxiety that the future held for the greatest casualty of the war, as she had been comrade and sharer in all that touched him, in days when he went from triumph to triumph. It was Saturday at 8:30 P.M., eighteenth day of December, 1915, when Mrs. Norman Galt, born Edith Bolling, became the wife of Woodrow Wilson.

 p336  Mrs. Wilson was born in Wytheville, Va., and was one of ten children, nine of whom lived to maturity. All except Rolfe, named for her ancestor who married Pocahontas, were born in Wytheville, where her father, the late W. H. Bolling, was Judge of the County Court for many years. As a member of the military company known as "The Wytheville Grays" Judge Bolling was one of the witnesses of the execution of John Brown at Harper's Ferry. It was an ideal marriage. The country had first surmised the new-found happiness in the late summer of 1915 when Mrs. Galt was a visitor at Cornish, where Mr. Wilson and his family found release for a few weeks from the heat of Washington. Even before then, the close friends, personal and official, knowing of the friendship between Mrs. Galt and Miss Helen Bones and the Misses Wilson, had noted the President's interest in the charming occasional visitor to the White House as the guest of his daughters. But the Cornish visit settled the pleasant reports in the mouths of the public, quick to note any event of interest to an occupant of the White House.

Mr. Wilson never seemed to understand why a President's home and family affairs had any more interest to the public than the private life of any other citizen. He declined to lose the home life which was so dear to him and the marriage in Mrs. Galt's modest home in Washington was as quiet and simple as if Mr. Wilson had still been the professor of political science in Bryn Mawr. The ceremony was performed jointly by Rev. Herbert S. Smith, rector of the Episcopal church of which the bride was a member, and by Rev. James H. Taylor, pastor of the Presbyterian church where Mr. Wilson worshipped. Only the nearest relatives were present.  p337 Following the marriage Mr. and Mrs. Wilson spent two weeks at Hot Springs, Va. Messages of good wishes came from rulers of nations in Europe, presidents of South and Central American countries, Governors of States, diplomats, leaders, and friends.

The wedding trip over, they returned to Washington. The people of the whole country realized that the first lady of the land fitted into her place as if she had been born in it. The President's friends and supporters soon learned how much in cheer and counsel she meant to Mr. Wilson, how wise and wholesome she was, with her charm and graciousness. She possessed tact and judgment, with wit and appreciation of the best things in art and letters, which made the marriage an ideal one. Whatever her interest in politics and public questions — and it was deep, revolving around her husband's participation — she was never quoted. She never failed to measure up to the high standards that American people have set for the mistress of the White House. She was called upon to be hostess to those who sat in the seats of the mighty from every land — statesmen, diplomats, warriors. She herself, when she accompanied President Wilson to Paris, was the guest of royalty. She was the same gracious Virginian as when she grew up in beauty and grace in her Virginia home.

But Mrs. Wilson was even more esteemed by the country when the lights burned low in those anxious days in Washington as her husband's life seemed to hang by a thread, and all the days of her loving ministrations following the breakdown at Wichita. With a wife's intuition she had feared his strength might not be equal to the Western trip. But with a wife's devotion she shared his feeling that with the Cause at stake, he must  p338 make his appeal to his countrymen even if at the sacrifice of life. With the care that love knows she shielded him from overexertion in the days of speaking and the nights of travel across the continent. At Seattle he felt return of the hoarseness and weakness that came for his serious illness in Paris. He left that city nervous and tired. She gave him strength and resolution. And he had the courage to go on his nerve. It never weakened until the ties of earth were broken. And she is of like mettle. She kept in touch with all that would interest him and saved his strength. She was concerned for the fitness of the President of the United States, but it was her husband's health that summoned all her fortitude. When the break came, it was the touch and love of the wife that were both solace and recuperation.

Mr. Wilson was covered with perspiration and almost exhausted when he finished speaking at Wichita. Soon after midnight he complained of being ill. Dr. Grayson's examination revealed the right side of his face twitching, as it had often done before. However, he was alarmed to observe a drooling of saliva from the corner of the President's mouth and also a drooping of the facial muscles on the left side. He feared a stroke of paralysis was impending. He advised that future dates be cancelled and the President proceed to Washington. Urged to sleep, Mr. Wilson said, "I won't be able to sleep at all, Doctor, if you say I must cancel the trip. Even if giving my own life would accomplish this object, I gladly would give it."

After his arrival in Washington, he signed bills and resolutions of Congress, drove through Rock Creek Park, and seemed to be getting along well until October 1. He enjoyed a moving picture show that evening, and he played a game of billiards.

 p339  At 4 o'clock in the morning, October 4, Mrs. Wilson heard the President in the bathroom calling. Dr. Grayson was summoned. Mr. Wilson was prostrate on the floor in a semi-conscious condition. His left leg, on which he would never bear his weight afterwards, was crumpled under him. He had been paralyzed on his left side. Regaining consciousness, he exacted a promise from his wife and doctor that his condition, if serious, should not be made known. The country knows how true they were to the promises. He was never unconscious after the first night. His mind was always active. He grew a mustache and whiskers,​a for no one entered the sick chamber except his wife, doctors, and nurses.

Dr. Grayson summoned from Philadelphia Dr. Francis X. Dercum, a specialist, also Rear Admiral E. R. Stitt of the Naval Medical Cops and Dr. Sterling Ruffin of Washington, Mrs. Wilson's family physician.

A two-hour consultation developed the agreement that Mr. Wilson had suffered what is medically known as a cerebral thrombosis — a blood clot in one of the blood vessels in the right side of his brain. Its effect was to impair the motor nerves of the left side as well as the sensatoryº nerves.

The physicians concluded that there had been no lesion but that there was danger of one. If the clot were a hard one and should be swept along in the blood circulation to his heart and jam a valve the result probably would be death. If it were a soft clot there was hope for absorbing it. On that slender hope the battle for life began.

Mr. Wilson had suffered the retinal hemorrhage in his right eye years ago and Dr. Grayson wanted the oculist, Dr. George de Schweinitz, to examine it.

 p340  "I want to look at your pupils," said the oculist.

"You'll have a long job," shot back the sick President, "I've had many thousands of them."

He was thinking of college days, but the remark was an example of how he always joked his doctors, even when he was desperately ill. Be sick as he was, he chafed at confinement to bed and wanted to get up.

"Your temperature is exactly normal this morning," said Dr. Grayson on one occasion soon thereafter.

"My temper won't be normal if you keep me in this bed much longer," returned Mr. Wilson, saying he desired to try his legs.

Will-power, skilled treatment, tender nursing and quiet won over the danger of death. When he left the White House Dr. Dercum said he might live five minutes, five months, or five years. He lived nearly three years.

Mrs. Wilson stood between the President and every possible thing that might retard his improvement. In the early days after his return to Washington, as he grew stronger in the fall of 1919, official papers came to him for action through her and her intelligent presentation saved a tax upon his powers. In a few weeks he was able to write the characteristic "Woodrow Wilson" almost as well as ever. He was tenacious in the performance of duty and to the last was the President of the United States. When Senators, hearing that he was suffering from "disability," sent two of their members to "make a survey" they reported that he was fully able to transact the public business.​b The Congress having been organized by the opposition party, very little legislation was enacted, but, though knowing the most of his recommendations would not be carried out, Mr. Wilson failed in no particular in presenting policies deemed necessary  p341 for the reconstruction after war. When Cabinet meetings were resumed, Mrs. Wilson was never far away. Day and night in the four years when he could not walk unaided, it was this good wife who brought sunshine into his life, and whose presence comforted him as he passed into the silence and thence to the reward. The love the American people bore Mr. Wilson they shared with his wife and comrade, and it goes to her, now that he is gone, in full measure.

There are in history few friendships that are as intimate as that which existed so long between President Wilson and Admiral Grayson. Wilson knit his friends to him by hooks of steel. The presence of Princeton schoolmates when he was inaugurated, and his unbroken friendships with the choice spirits of those happy days were grateful to his soul. During the last years of his life, in the White House, in his perplexity in the Mexican and Neutrality periods; in the crucial days when the direction of the World War called for all that was in him; in Europe where, amid shoals and quicksands, he never lost the way to Peace; in the Western trip when the break to physical strength came; and in the long vigils of serious illness in the White House, with conscientious devotion to duty often overtaxing his strength, and during the quiet and often anxious days in the S Street home — always near him was his friend and physician, Dr. Cary Grayson. Their relation­ship began on the evening of the inauguration. The President's sister, Mrs. Howe, sustained a slight injury. "Where shall I find a doctor?" asked Mr. Wilson of his classmate and close friend, Dr. E. P. Davis, of Philadelphia, who was with him at the White House. Dr. Grayson, a navy surgeon, was on duty at Washington. "Knowing the high reputation of naval  p342 surgeons," said Dr. Davis, "I advised him to send for Dr. Grayson."

From that moment until his death Mr. Wilson and Admiral Grayson were closely associated. At first professional, it ripened into regard. It burgeoned into complete understanding and tender friendship. The older man loved youth, particularly young men of clear thinking and clean living. He had no son — perhaps that was a regret he never uttered. His paternal regard embraced the younger physician. They rode and walked and played and talked together. Dr. Grayson knew his constitution, knew how he must take care of himself and conserve his strength. But he knew his responsibilities and how he would meet them, sick or well. He was the skilled physician who studied to keep the President fit. He was the skilled physician who in Paris brought him through a serious illness. He was the skilled physician who was with him almost daily for more than eleven years. But he was much more than that: he was the true and trusted friend, the agreeable companion who brought him good stories and kept him advised about what went on in the world about him, who shielded him and was toward him all that a son might have been, if God had given the world a second Woodrow Wilson. He knew his moods, his ways, he knew his heart, and he possessed Mr. Wilson's affection without limit and his full confidence. Of the thousands of tributes paid Mr. Wilson the day the wires flashed his death, perhaps none gave truer appraisement than that of Admiral Grayson, who said:

"It was my privilege to be Woodrow Wilson's friend as well as his physician, and it would be difficult for me to put in words the affection for him which grew during  p343 nearly twelve years of close personal association and confidence.

"It will not be for me to express my estimate of his ideals and his character and leader­ship, nor for me to write his epitaph. Time alone will do that. But in sick days and in well, I have never known such single-minded devotion to duty as he saw it against all odds, such patience and forbearance with adversity, and finally such resignation to the inevitable.

"I once read an inscription in a southern country church yard. It said: 'He was unseduced by flattery, unawed by opinion, undismayed by disaster. He faced life with antique courage, and death with Christian hope.'

"Those words, better than any words of mine, describe Woodrow Wilson."

Love crowned his life.

Thayer's Notes:

a On p138, Daniels has a photograph of Wilson's third Cabinet. Although the caption doesn't point it out, the President is distinctly seen to be wearing a beard: a very rare photo.

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b Secretary Daniels is alluding, as little as he can, to the widespread rumor that in fact Wilson was completely incapacitated and that Mrs. Wilson and a small circle of White House officials ran the Presidency during the last years of Wilson's term. In her 1939 memoirs, Edith Wilson denies it; some modern historians go far in the other direction — stating for example that the gradual improvement of the President's signature was evidence not of his better health, but of a learning curve in forgery — and the truth is uncertain.

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