Woodrow Wilson: “Our Pious President”

By Margaret A. Brucia

Woodrow Wilson, Official White House Portrait, F. Graham Cootes

Woodrow Wilson, Official White House Portrait, F. Graham Cootes

On June 16, 1915, Julia Gardiner Gayley dined with her friend Elizabeth Lovett at Lucy Frelinghuysen’s summer house on Mt. Desert Island in Maine. Less than six weeks earlier, a German U-boat had torpedoed the Lusitania, a British luxury liner, off the southern coast of Ireland, killing nearly 1,200 people, including 128 Americans. President Woodrow Wilson, two years into his first term, clashed with his Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, over how America, clinging to neutrality, should deal with Germany in the aftermath of the disaster. Bryan, a pacifist, refused to back the strict demands Wilson imposed on the Germans. A week before Julie’s evening at Lucy’s, Bryan resigned from office in protest, weakening Wilson’s bargaining position during an international crisis. Bryan’s action not only fractured the Democratic Party, but sowed further doubts among pro-intervention Republicans, like Julie, about the Democrats’ ability to lead an America threatened by war.[1]

The next day, Julie began a letter to her daughter in Italy:

 

“Dear Mary —
I can’t have all this war. It is just too much. It is the death of the world as we have known it, and I’m sure it is but the beginning of a cycle of destructive wars… Was there ever such a spectacle as Bryan! In Germany he would be shot as a traitor. Freedom is a little ragged and disorderly but it is all that makes life worth while. Still one would like to see decorum preserved in high places.”[2]

These events surely dominated the dinner conversation that evening, among the three well-informed, politically engaged, articulate women.

Lucy Frelinghuysen, the unmarried daughter of former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State Frederick T. Frelinghuysen, was sixty-seven in 1915, seventeen years older than Julie. In her memoir, Mary described Lucy as “a formidable but very attractive woman. She had been a great deal in Washington in her youth and mixed in the great world; she spoke with an elaborate choice of words, but was a great character and full of ‘pep’.”[3]

Through Lucy, Julie met forty-four-year-old Elizabeth Storey Lovett, the youngest of the trio. Elizabeth was married to Dr. Robert W. Lovett, America’s foremost authority on poliomyelitis. (Lovett published his seminal book, The Treatment of Infantile Paralysis, in 1916, in the midst of the first American polio epidemic. In 1921, he diagnosed Franklin Delano Roosevelt with the disease.) Elizabeth’s father, Moorfield Storey, a celebrated pacifist, anti-imperialist, lawyer and champion of minorities, immigrants and the oppressed, served as the first president of the NAACP, a position he held from the organization’s foundation in 1910 until his death in 1929.[4]

Whether Julie, Lucy and Elizabeth supported the Republican Howard Taft or the Progressive Theodore Roosevelt, whose candidacy split the Republican Party in the election of 1912, is not clear, but they certainly were not pleased when Woodrow Wilson emerged victorious. In Julie’s opinion, he was “not only narrowly American but sectionally American.”[5] She meant that, as a native Virginian, his point of view was shaped by his southern roots. And that included his attitude toward race.

Given the presence of Elizabeth at Lucy’s house in June, the topic of D.W. Griffith’s new film, originally titled The Clansman, probably arose that evening. The masterfully produced epic extravaganza, more than three hours long, had premiered in Los Angeles on February 8, in New York on March 3 (by which time its title had been changed to the more palatable The Birth of a Nation), and in Boston on April 10, despite fierce public protests and legal appeals to the National Board of Censorship by the NAACP. The film was based on a novel and play, both titled The Clansman and published in 1905. The author, Thomas Dixon, Jr., was Wilson’s fellow southerner, friend and classmate at Johns Hopkins. Book, play and movie all presented a skewed view of the South during Reconstruction and were shockingly and disturbingly racist in their unremittingly anti-black and pro Ku Klux Klan stance.

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Just two months earlier, on April 15, Moorfield Storey, in a strongly worded letter of protest to the editor of the Boston Herald, denounced The Birth of a Nation as “an effort to mislead the people of this country” and condemned it for exciting “a strong feeling against the colored people, already suffering everywhere from race prejudice.”[6] Julie had undoubtedly witnessed the enormous crowds thronging the Liberty Theatre near Times Square in New York, where the blockbuster played from March until the end of 1915 to nearly one million people, who paid $2.00 for a ticket when the standard price for admission to a silent film was 25 cents.[7]

Wilson himself, unable to attend a public viewing of the film because he was still in mourning after the death of his wife, showed The Clansman privately to his family and to his Cabinet at the White House on February 18. The wily and self-promoting Dixon, who had facilitated the arrangements, guessed correctly that word of a presidential viewing, absent an unlikely denouncement of the film by his friend, would pique public interest even further and add to the film’s cachet. Although Wilson is famously said to have given The Clansman an instantaneous and ringing endorsement — “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so true” — the attribution is erroneous. Wilson almost certainly did not utter those words. In fact, according to his biographer A. Scott Berg, Wilson’s only surviving comment appeared in a letter written three years after he saw the film: “I have always felt that this was a very unfortunate production and I wish most sincerely that its production might be avoided, particularly in communities where there are so many colored people.”[8] But, at the time, Wilson’s lack of a speedy condemnation of The Clansman was surely interpreted by the public as an endorsement.

Wilson was fair game for criticism, and the three women delved into rumors surrounding his personal affairs. Elizabeth disclosed, seemingly on the basis of inside information, the shocking news that Wilson had testified as co-respondent in a divorce trial. Lucy was skeptical, Julie non-committal. Nevertheless, Julie passed along Elizabeth’s hearsay — and her credentials — to her daughter.

“Last night I dined at Lucy’s with Mrs. Robert Lovett of Boston. She is a daughter of Morefield Story [sic]… and very au fait of everything. She said that our pious president was the co-respondent in a divorce suit brought by Mr Peck against Mrs Peck — about two years ago. Lucy doesn’t believe it, but everybody except the newspapers have been talking about the friendship. Don’t repeat the tale —”[9]

Mary Allen Hulbert Peck

Mary Allen Hulbert Peck

Lucy was correct to discredit the story. No record of Wilson testifying in the divorce proceedings of Mary Allen Hulbert Peck exists, and the newspapers were not “talking about the friendship” between Wilson and Mary because they didn’t need to. Wilson’s critics knew that gossip passed along in hushed tones was probably a more effective method of discrediting Wilson’s character — and would create less backlash — than salacious newspaper articles. The rumor mill had been pumping out “fake news” about Mary Peck since Wilson announced his bid for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in March of 1911. But the press was not entirely silent on the subject of Mary Peck.

Julie apparently did not recall the brief, matter-of-fact article, strategically placed on the front page of the New York Times on December 9, 1911, innocuously titled, “Wife Sues Thomas D. Peck.” Mrs. Peck, now living with her son in New York City, the article explained, had married the wealthy Mr. Peck, a woolen manufacturer, in 1890. The couple had been legally separated for four years, at which time Mr. Peck “made a settlement upon” his wife. Now she was seeking divorce. The notice probably escaped Julie’s attention because it was standard fare, and because she had never heard of Mary Peck, a relatively recent arrival in New York City. The last sentence, however, was fraught with meaning for those who were privy to the rumors: “Mrs. Peck is spending the Winter in Bermuda as is her custom.”[10]

“This is the greatest playground in the world,” Wilson enthusiastically exclaimed to reporters covering the president-elect in November 1912 in Hamilton, Bermuda, where he was recuperating following his grueling campaign.[11] And he spoke from personal experience. In the winter of 1907, fifty-year-old Wilson, then president of Princeton University and under tremendous pressure to please his colleagues and his depressive wife at home, took a solitary and restorative vacation in Bermuda. Towards the end of his getaway, he met forty-four-year-old Mary Peck, a lively, attractive and popular socialite living apart from her second husband. Upon Wilson’s return to Princeton, he sent Mary a book and a short note. Nothing more. But he returned alone to Bermuda the following winter.

Almost immediately upon his arrival in Hamilton in 1908, Wilson sought out Mary.[12] Their casual acquaintance of the year before blossomed into an abiding friendship. The two soul mates spoke freely and intimately to one another on all manner of subjects during their long walks together. Wilson became a fixture at Shoreby, the Bermuda home Mary shared with her mother and her son. He attended Mary’s parties and social gatherings, at which Mark Twain was also a frequent guest. Was it purely an innocent friendship? Wilson spoke often to Mary of his wife of twenty-two years, his beloved Ellen Axson, and Mary suggested that he place Ellen’s picture on her mantelpiece at Shoreby.[13]

Wilson in Bermuda with Mary Peck. University of Delaware Library.

Wilson in Bermuda with Mary Peck. University of Delaware Library.

So comfortable in each other’s company were Wilson and Mary that, once they had returned from Bermuda, he visited her on several occasions in New York at her apartment at 39 East 27th Street. And, though talk of Mary arose during Wilson’s first campaign in 1912, his friendship with her was generally dismissed as harmless, most famously by Wilson’s rival Teddy Roosevelt. When TR’s advisers suggested that he smear Wilson by intimating that he was involved in an extramarital affair, Teddy scoffed at the suggestion saying, “You can’t convince the American people that a man is a Romeo who looks so much like the apothecary’s clerk.”[14] Wilson defeated TR by 15 percent in the popular vote.

But the gossip intensified after the campaign, and the waggish epithet, “Peck’s bad boy,” attached itself to Wilson. Hennery Peck, the hero of the popular novel, Peck’s Bad Boy and his Pa, published in 1883 by the future Democratic Governor of Wisconsin George W. Peck, by Wilson’s time, had already became synonymous with anyone whose mischievous behavior caused embarrassment. Something besides his behavior, however, threatened to embarrass Wilson before his next campaign: his letters had been carefully preserved by Mary.

From 1908 until 1915 Wilson and Mary maintained a voluminous correspondence that was often emotionally intimate, but never sexually explicit — inappropriate, perhaps, but not incriminating. And besides, the letters were peppered with Wilson’s frequent expressions of his sincere love and devotion to his wife. Were Wilson and Mary in love? Was their affair sexual? As John Milton Cooper reminds us in his biography of Wilson, speculation is pointless. Only Wilson and Mary could answer those questions, and they never did.[15] But, because hardcopy was more difficult to ignore than hearsay, Wilson’s enemies wanted those letters as ammunition before the next presidential campaign.

Wilson’s wife Ellen died of Bright’s disease on August 6, 1914. Mary probably hoped that Ellen’s death would open a path for her to marry Wilson. But a few months after Ellen’s death, Wilson’s letters began tapering off.[16] And for a good reason. In March 1915, just seven months after Wilson buried Ellen, he met and fell passionately in love with Edith Bolling Galt, a Washington widow sixteen years his junior. Wilson did not reveal his newfound love to Mary, who, now in difficult financial straits, had left the east coast in July to live with her son in Hollywood, California.

Both Mary and Edith, each knowing nothing about the other, were caught off-guard in the fall of 1915. In September, Wilson bared his soul to an unsuspecting Edith about his friendship with Mary — and the possibility of his letters to her coming to light. In October, he wrote to Mary to tell her of his engagement to Edith (although Mary had already read the announcement in the newspapers).

Wilson’s hand had been forced by his advisors. With an eye on his re-election campaign, they worried that Wilson’s deepening involvement with Edith so soon after his wife’s death would not play well. A grieving widower was far more electable than an intemperate playboy. They concocted a story that Mary planned to release Wilson’s letters and begged him to wait until after the election to announce his engagement. Unwilling to delay his marriage, Wilson revealed the truth to both women. He married Edith on December 18, 1915, and the race for his letters began.

Wilson’s enemies besieged Mary, offering her money, fur coats, limousines and travel opportunities, but she held fast to the letters.[17] Wilson was re-elected in 1916 by a slim margin.

On March 4, 1917, the day before Wilson’s second inauguration, Julie, by then influenced by what Arthur S. Link, an early biographer of Wilson, dubbed “one of the dirtiest whispering campaigns in American history,” wrote to her daughter,[18] “I fear Mr Wilson is a doctrinal pacifist and there is no cure for that disease.... He flirts with ideas and emotions, for he is intensely emotional — I think it is the real key to him.”[19]

Julie never had anything positive to say about Woodrow Wilson. They remained on opposite sides of a political chasm. But I think even Julie, who relied heavily on her daughter Mary as her sounding board and confidante, would have found these words of Wilson difficult to refute: “At every crisis in one's life, it is absolute salvation to have some sympathetic friend to whom you can think aloud without restraint or misgiving.”[20]

* * *

What became of Wilson’s letters to Mary Peck?[21]

Woodrow Wilson died of a stroke on February 3, 1924. A year later, Wilson’s official biographer, Ray Stannard Baker, eager to acquire the letters, met with Mary. Still financially pressed, she had returned to New York and was residing with her son at 49 West 44th Street. She flatly refused. Baker, sensitive to Mary’s difficult circumstances, but lacking sufficient funds to make a fair offer, approached Bernard Baruch.

Bernard Mannes Baruch, born in South Carolina and educated at CCNY, made his fortune by speculating in the stock market. He became a trusted advisor to Wilson and served as chairman of the War Industries Board during World War I. Stressing the urgency of having the letters pass into friendly hands, Baker hoped to prevail upon Baruch to fund the transaction with Mary. Baruch hedged. Baker let the matter drop for several months and then renewed his plea to Baruch, who offered to pay the purchase price on the condition of secrecy. Finally, on June 5, 1928, Mary agreed to sell Wilson’s letters to Baker for $31,500. Baker used them for his research, as agreed, and turned them over to Baruch, their rightful owner, who gave them to the Library of Congress, their use restricted until after Edith Wilson’s death. Edith died on December 28, 1961.

And our story would end here, except for one tantalizing apercu in Julie’s letters. On April 22, 1921, less than a month into President Warren G. Harding’s presidency, Julie wrote to Mary from a train heading south:

 

“Dear Mary — We are on a train going to Baltimore for a day & night with some people named Wilbur Miller — business connections who invited me.
Now I must stop — Mr Baruch is coming to talk to us —”

Margaret A. Brucia has taught Latin in New York and Rome for many years and is a Fulbright scholar, the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome.

Notes

[1] John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 294.

[2] Julia Gardiner Gayley to Mary Gayley Senni, June 17, 1915, author’s collection.

[3] Mary Gayley Senni, unpublished memoir, 125, author’s collection.

[4] “NAACP: A Century in the Fight for Freedom, Founding and Early Years: Moorfield Storey,” https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/naacp/founding-and-early-years.html

[5] Julia Gardiner Gayley to Mary Gayley Senni, November 19, 1915, author’s collection.

[6] Moorfield Storey, Boston Herald, April 15, 1915.

[7] A. Scott Berg, Wilson, (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013) 350.

[8] Berg, 348-49.

[9] Julia Gardiner Gayley to Mary Gayley Senni, June 17, 1915, author’s collection.

[10] “Wife Sues Thomas D. Peck,” New York Times, December 9, 1911.

[11] “Article 15-No Title,” New York Times, November 26, 1912.

[12] For Wilson and Peck in Bermuda in 1908, see Berg, 168-69; Cooper, 99-101.

[13] Berg, 168.

[14] Berg, 6; Cooper, 100.

[15] Cooper, 100.

[16] Frances W. Saunders, “Love and Guilt: Woodrow Wilson and Mary Hulbert,” American Heritage, April/May1979, Volume 30, Issue 3, http://www.americanheritage.com/content/love-and-guilt-woodrow-wilson-and-mary-hulbert

[17] Saunders.

[18] Quoted by Saunders.

[19] Julia Gardiner Gayley to Mary Gayley Senni, March 4, 1917, author’s collection.

[20] Woodrow Wilson to Mary Hulbert Peck, August 1, 1909, in John M. Mulder, The Years of Preparation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 249.

[21] For details about the sale of Wilson’s letters to Mary Peck, see Saunders.

This is the latest in a series of posts based on the letters of the New York socialite, Julia Gardiner Gayley (1864-1937), to her eldest daughter, Mary Gayley Senni (1884-1971), a countess who lived on the outskirts of Rome. In 2010, the author purchased a trove of the letters in a Roman flea market. This mother-daughter correspondence spanned the years 1902-1936 and provides an intimate and unfiltered view of life in New York during the early twentieth century.