Rebecca Roberts' new book details the legacy of Edith Wilson NPR's Steve Inskeep speaks with Rebecca Roberts about her biography of First Lady Edith Wilson, Untold Power. After President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke, she made decisions for him.

Biography of first lady Edith Wilson examines the complexities of women and power

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With a recording of my mom.


JUDITH INSKEEP: (Playing piano).


Well, that's really nice, Steve. Where was she playing that?

INSKEEP: Oh, well, thank you very much on her behalf. She was at this historic site - the home of Woodrow Wilson, where he lived after his presidency.

MART├ŹNEZ: What? How did they allow her to touch the keys?

INSKEEP: It's amazing because there's these do-not-touch signs all over the place, but they let people play the piano, so Judith Inskeep did.


J INSKEEP: (Playing piano).

INSKEEP: And I recalled that when I saw a new biography of Wilson's wife. They met and married while he was president. And then when her husband suffered a stroke, Edith Wilson made presidential decisions for him. The book is called "Untold Power." And I thought, let's meet the author, Rebecca Roberts, at the Wilson House.

Hi, there.

REBECCA ROBERTS: Well, good morning.

INSKEEP: Good morning. It's good to see you.

ROBERTS: Likewise.

INSKEEP: And let's also invite over a musician who can play that piano, somebody who knows music from the early 20th century.


INSKEEP: Sadly, my mom had a schedule conflict. So we found Bill Edwards, who's an expert in songs of that time. He sat at that grand piano as biographer Rebecca Roberts showed me around. A portrait of Edith Wilson hangs over the dining room table.

How would you describe her expression as she looks at the painter here - looks at us?

ROBERTS: I think she looks very serene and in control. That's actually what she did not like about this painting.

INSKEEP: She felt she looked more authoritative than a woman should...

BILL EDWARDS: (Playing piano).

INSKEEP: ...One of the complexities of women and power, as Rebecca Boggs Roberts knows. Her grandmother, Lindy Boggs, was a lawmaker. Her mom, Cokie Roberts, was a journalist and longtime observer of lawmakers here on NPR. Rebecca is a writer and veteran broadcaster, as you can hear when she stops talking.

ROBERTS: And she was that person. She was...


INSKEEP: She knows to wait for the grandfather clock to finish ringing. Edith Wilson, whose clock it was, grew up in Virginia. She moved to Washington, D.C., married a wealthy man, then inherited his jewelry store.

ROBERTS: So she's got means, she's got status and she's a childless widow, so she's beholden to no one. She doesn't need a chaperone. She had a level of independence and control over her own money that women just didn't have in the early part of the 20th century. And she loved it.

INSKEEP: So before we go on - Bill, maybe you'll have something, maybe not. We're going to talk a little bit about the courtship here. Do you have anything that seems appropriate for courtship, a little courtship music?

EDWARDS: I most certainly do - a Ray Goetz song from about 1917 called "For Me And My Gal."

INSKEEP: So how does one date when one is president or considering dating a president?

ROBERTS: One writes a lot of letters.


INSKEEP: He wrote steamy letters, proposing within weeks. She said no.

ROBERTS: She had a lot to lose.

INSKEEP: Starting with her independence.

ROBERTS: She would say things like, yeah, yeah, yeah. You want to kiss my eyelids. That's lovely. Can we talk about William Jennings Bryan? Do you think he's going to quit the administration? Who do you think is going to take his place?

INSKEEP: (Laughter) The secretary of state. Wow. OK.

ROBERTS: From the beginning, she...

INSKEEP: She wants to talk about policy.

ROBERTS: And he finally caught on and started flirting by policy analysis and, you know, sent her plenty of documents so she could read up.

EDWARDS: (Playing piano).

INSKEEP: When they finally married, the president sang this song - you great big beautiful doll. And the new first lady became part of a consequential presidency. Her husband promoted progressive reforms and racial segregation. He did little to support women's voting rights. Yet in 1917, he brought the U.S. into World War I, saying the world must be made safe for democracy.

EDWARDS: (Playing piano).

INSKEEP: After the victory, he traveled with his wife to a peace conference in Europe. But when they returned, he wrecked his health in a failed campaign to build support for a new League of Nations to keep the peace.

ROBERTS: He collapsed completely - suffered a massive, massive stroke. His left side was paralyzed.

INSKEEP: Which Edith and the president's aides concealed. They said he was vigorous, alert, getting better all the time.

ROBERTS: She lied to the public, to the press, to the Congress, to the cabinet, to the vice president and to the president himself. He never knew how sick he was. When people needed to get his opinion on something they would write often directly to her. She would write back. She said that she consulted him in what she wrote back. Who knows? She drafted public statements. Cabinet officers began to resign. She was the one who figured out who would replace them.

INSKEEP: No one else is in the room. Does it feel definite to you that she was, in some cases, many cases, most cases, not consulting someone who was conscious and able to really make a decision?

ROBERTS: There is no question in my mind that there are times she could not or would not consult him. Now, did she decide something different than he would have decided? Probably not. She knew his priorities pretty well.

INSKEEP: When they left office, they moved from the White House to this house nearby in Washington, D.C. They installed an elevator for the ex-president who could still barely move. It was the start of Prohibition, which had taken effect over President Wilson's veto. Or maybe Edith Wilson's veto. They stocked the wine cellar anyway.

EDWARDS: (Singing) I've got the blues. I've got the blues. I've got the alcoholic blues.

INSKEEP: Her husband died in this house in 1924. Edith Wilson lived here 37 more years. She promoted his legacy and obscured her role as a kind of acting president.

ROBERTS: She was this independent, brainy, interested and interesting person, and she doesn't give herself credit for that. Or she masks it in this hyperfeminine I'm just standing by my man stuff because she thought maybe that that was the only way people would excuse what she did.

INSKEEP: Her reputation control was minimizing herself rather than inflating herself.

ROBERTS: Isn't that amazing? And so uniquely female.

INSKEEP: I think we just had at the end of the interview right there. I can't think of another thing I want to say. Rebecca Roberts, thanks so much. It's great to see you again.

ROBERTS: Thank you, Steve.

EDWARDS: (Playing piano).

INSKEEP: So we let pianist Bill Edwards have the last word with a song about a lost love called "What'll I Do?" The book by Rebecca Boggs Roberts about First Lady Edith Wilson is called "Untold Power."

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