Up First Sunday: Was Edith Wilson America's first female president? On October 2, 1919, then President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke that left him blind in one eye, partially paralyzed and barely able to write his own name. He was in the midst of his second term. For the remainder of his presidency, some 17 months, his wife managed his duties, serving as a kind of de facto president. Today, as we celebrate Women's History Month, Steve Inskeep joins us to share his interview with Rebecca Boggs Roberts, author of Untold Power: The Fascinating Rise and Complex Legacy of First Lady Edith Wilson.

The Sunday Story: America's first female president?

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The United States has never had a female president, at least not officially. Are you intrigued? Yes, you should be. Today, we have the story of a First Lady who, in some ways, filled that role. She had unprecedented power and responsibility in the White House. She also went out of her way to hide her contributions.


MARTIN: I'm Rachel Martin. And this is UP FIRST Sunday. And today, as we celebrate Women's History Month, Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep joins me to talk about Edith Wilson, the wife of the 28th president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. Hey, Steve.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Hi there, Rachel. I want to begin here with a little mood music, which also is music that pointed me to the way to try to tell this story. Can I just play this for you?



INSKEEP: Few things to tell you about this piano. First, the person playing it is my mom.


INSKEEP: Yes. And the second thing is, this piano is at the Woodrow Wilson House here in Washington, D.C. Wilson was the only president ever to remain in Washington after he left office up until Barack Obama, who's in the same neighborhood as the Wilson house. So there's this piano. And my mom went a few years ago as a tourist. And they let her play it.


MARTIN: First of all, your mom has some serious piano skills because that is a beautiful...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Is that "Clair De Lune"? Am I remembering this correctly?

INSKEEP: "Fur Elise," "Fur Elise."

MARTIN: Oh, "Fur Elise," "Fur Elise." That was just beautiful. Also, I mean, did she slip them a 20? How is it that she was allowed to sit down and play this old piano?

INSKEEP: (Laughter) It's amazing that they allow it, I guess because they had an ambition at one time to have performances there or something. So even though there are these do-not-touch signs everywhere else, you can play the piano. And that gave me an idea. When we decided to talk about Edith Wilson with a biographer, Rebecca Roberts, who wrote this book called "Untold Power," I thought, let's meet her at the Wilson house.

Hi there.

REBECCA ROBERTS: 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.

ROBERTS: What's amazing about this house - it's lovely, and it's historic and all of those things. But it's, really, kind of a time capsule of the early 1920s.

INSKEEP: 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. This was painted while he was sick. And she thought it made her look too young, too thin and too authoritative.

INSKEEP: That was the first thing that jumped out at me, is she looks like she's in charge. She looks commanding in that.

ROBERTS: She does. She's giving you this very frank look. She's sitting up straight. She's wearing this black dress that's draped almost like a, you know, Roman mantle. She's got sort of all of the trappings of authority. But she claimed to not like that about her.

INSKEEP: Even though she didn't like the painting, was it telling the truth?

ROBERTS: I think the authority part was absolutely telling the truth. The little younger, little thinner (laughter)?

INSKEEP: (Laughter).


INSKEEP: Rebecca Boggs Roberts knows something about women and power. Her grandmother, Lindy Boggs, was married to a lawmaker. And then after his death, she became a lawmaker herself. Rebecca's mom, Cokie Roberts, was a journalist and a longtime observer of lawmakers for 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?

BILL 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: And she really didn't want to be seen as a social climber, not a gold digger, because he had no money and she had plenty. But she didn't want people to think she was, as she said, interested in the office, not the man. And 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: The Secretary of state - wow, OK.

ROBERTS: From the beginning. And 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. But she - you know, at one point she says, as much as I love your letters, which any woman would be proud of, what I really like is when you tell me what you're working on.

INSKEEP: So at what point did she finally say, OK, I'm in, I'm in, this is OK?

ROBERTS: Summer of 1915, she said, I'll marry you if you lose reelection (laughter).


INSKEEP: When they finally married, the president sang this song, "You Great Big, Beautiful Doll" (ph). 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.


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. He was in and out of consciousness. Edith, when she writes about this in her memoir - and there - to be fair, there are parts of her memoir that are demonstrably untrue, so she's an unreliable narrator of her own life. But the way she characterized this is that the doctors came to her and said if he does everything he was elected to do, if he acts as the president, he'll die. If he resigns, he'll die because the only thing he's living for is to pass the League of Nations. If he dies, there will never be world peace. So your job is to keep him alive and keep him in office. And that's the only way this is all going to work.

INSKEEP: So, Rachel, that is the way that Edith Wilson described her dilemma in 1919.

MARTIN: Fascinating. OK, we're going to see how she tackled that dilemma. Stay with us. We'll be back with UP FIRST Sunday in just a few moments.


MARTIN: Hey, it's Rachel Martin. We are back with UP FIRST Sunday and my conversation with my friend and colleague, Steve Inskeep. Steve, we are talking about the legacy of Edith Wilson, the wife of former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

INSKEEP: Yeah. And you'll remember, he's collapsed from a stroke. It's 1919. It's after World War I. The United States has won but has not really won the peace. He really wants this League of Nations, but his left side is paralyzed. He can't move at all. And Edith Wilson, along with a few of the president's aides, decided to conceal this from everybody. They told the public the president 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. And in that time, Edith was the one who decided who saw him - very few. She - when people needed to get his opinion on something, they would write. She would write back. She said that she consulted him in what she wrote back. Who knows? Cabinet officers began to resign. She was the one who figured out who would replace them. And this went on for the better part of the fall of 1919 and spring of 1920.

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.

INSKEEP: She just decided.

ROBERTS: Now, did she decide something different than he would have decided? Probably not. She knew his priorities pretty well. So I don't think that she, you know, seized power for her own priorities, and I don't think she necessarily changed the way things would have gone. That what-if game is a little hard to play.

INSKEEP: Though Rebecca Roberts does see one way that Edith Wilson changed history. By keeping her husband isolated, she and his aides influenced what he knew and also what he did not.

ROBERTS: They didn't even tell him about all the other stuff that was going on in the country. There was a huge red scare. There was massive anti-immigration and anti-foreigner sentiment and xenophobia. And all he was talking about was the League of Nations still. And the last time he was out in public, he was talking to adoring crowds from the back of a train platform. And he thought they were still out there waiting to adore him. He was so cocooned that he even talked about running for a third term in 1920.

INSKEEP: In his condition.

ROBERTS: Preposterous. There's no way he could have sustained a campaign, let alone won one. But he dragged his feet so long on saying that he wouldn't run that no heir apparent was able to come to the fore.

INSKEEP: And his party lost the next election.

ROBERTS: In a landslide.

INSKEEP: Should we think of her as an acting president, a temporary president, that she did the job, really, for some short period of time?

ROBERTS: As long as you use that word, acting. Yes. Every so often you got this, she was the first female president. Let's be clear.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

ROBERTS: No one elected Edith Wilson to anything. The first female president will be someone we vote for. And I don't want to take anything away from her accomplishment. Edith - yes, she ran the executive branch. She performed the duties we elect a president to do.

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: (Playing piano and 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: Who she actually was and who she tried to tell the world are two different things, which is what makes her so fascinating, which is why I couldn't not write this book. She presented herself as the most dutiful wife imaginable, that everything she did, she did in service to him. All of the lying to Congress, all of the stepping in as executive was all to make sure that he had what he needed. Her own memoir ends the day he dies.

INSKEEP: As if her life had ended.

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 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.

INSKEEP: So we let pianist Bill Edwards have the last word with a song about a lost love called "What'll I Do?"

EDWARDS: (Playing piano).

MARTIN: Such a lovely conversation - so great to hear you and Rebecca talking about this seminal character, Edith Wilson. I have to admit, I did not know this story. I did not know that Edith Wilson was basically a de facto president while her husband was so ill. But what really struck me, Steve, is hearing about how Woodrow Wilson himself was not someone who supported women's rights. And there he is, married to this woman who is so clearly capable beyond what society allows her to be capable of.


MARTIN: And she's living out this leadership behind closed doors. She can't even take credit for what she's accomplished.

INSKEEP: She wasn't a big supporter of women's rights either, even though she had this independent life that she was quite fortunate to have. And it's remarkable to hear you say you hadn't heard this story, Rachel. I'm sure that a lot of people hadn't. And part of the reason would be Edith Wilson herself, the way that Rebecca Roberts describes her obscuring this story. I'd come across it, but always thought of it as a kind of a rumor, like something that was unproven. But of course, Rebecca Roberts looks into this and finds much more.

EDWARDS: (Playing piano).

MARTIN: And just out of curiosity, Steve, now that you have broadcast an entire story about how basically anyone can walk into the Woodrow Wilson house and play that piano, I mean, has the museum called you...


MARTIN: ...To read you the riot act?

INSKEEP: ...I am waiting for that call, but I hope that people do show up and play. One of my regrets is I didn't play it because there was a pro at the keyboard. I should have played it, so I got to go back.

MARTIN: I think that's a good idea. I'll tag along.

INSKEEP: Great. Do you play?

MARTIN: Do I play the piano?


MARTIN: I mean, I do.

INSKEEP: Let's make a date. We'll go.

MARTIN: I mean, not well - it's really - I mean - OK.

INSKEEP: You can play well enough.

MARTIN: I don't want to show you up.

INSKEEP: You can play - oh (laughter).

MARTIN: I mean, this is your story. I don't want to make you look bad.

INSKEEP: We'll go do that later. We'll do that off the air.

MARTIN: NPR's Steve Inskeep - we've been listening to his conversation with author Rebecca Roberts. Her book, "Untold Power," is about the legacy of Edith Wilson, the wife of former U.S. president Woodrow Wilson. Thanks so much, Steve.

INSKEEP: Oh, glad to do it.

MARTIN: This episode was produced by Barry Gordemer with help from Audrey Nguyen. Olivia Hampton edited Steve Inskeep's piece. The editor of UP FIRST SUNDAY is Jenny Schmidt. It is produced by Justine Yan. Our supervising producer is Liana Simstrom, and Irene Noguchi is our executive producer. I'm Rachel Martin. UP FIRST is back tomorrow with all the news you need to start your week. Until then, have a great rest of your weekend.

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