"I am naturally the most unambitious of women and life in the White House has no attractions for me," Ellen Wilson wrote a retiring President Taft. Two years as first lady of New Jersey had given her valuable experience in the duties of a woman whose time belongs to the people. She always played a public role with dignity and grace, but never learned to enjoy it.
Ellen Louise Axson was born in 1860 and grew up in Rome, Georgia, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. Thomas Woodrow Wilson first saw her when he was six and she only a baby. In 1883, "Tommy" visited Rome and met "Miss Ellie Lou" again, now a beautiful girl. Despite their instant attraction, they did not marry until 1885, because she was unwilling to leave her recently bereaved father.
That same year, Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania offered Wilson a teaching position. He and Ellen lived near the campus, keeping her little brother with them. Humorously insisting that her own children must not be born Yankees, Ellen went to Georgia for the birth of Margaret in 1886 and Jessie in 1887. But Eleanor was born in Connecticut.
Her husband's career brought Ellen many social responsibilities. She took refuge in art. She had studied briefly in New York, and when Wilson took office in 1913, she had a studio with a skylight installed at the White House. She found time for painting despite the weddings of two daughters within six months and the duties of hostess for the nation.
The Wilson administration began without an inaugural ball, and while the first lady kept entertainments simple, her unaffected cordiality made her parties successful. In their first year she convinced the president that it would be perfectly proper to invite influential legislators to a private dinner, and when such an evening led to agreement on a tariff bill, Wilson told a friend, "You see what a wise wife I have!"
Descendant of slave owners, Ellen Wilson lent her prestige to the cause of improving housing in the capital's Negro slums. Visiting dilapidated alleys, she brought them to the attention of debutantes and congressmen. Her death spurred passage of a remedial bill for which she had worked. Her health failing slowly from Bright's disease, she died serenely on August 6, 1914. On the day before her death, she made her physician promise to tell Woodrow that she hoped he would marry again. She murmured at the end, "take good care of my husband." Struggling grimly to control his grief, Wilson took her to Rome for burial among her kin.
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