Wilson's Wedding

The anniversary of an epic journalistic clash.

This illustration can only be used with the George Condon story that originally ran in the 11/21/2015 issue of National Journal magazine. 

On October 6, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson announced his engagement to a widow named Edith Bolling Galt. The news came as a surprise to the public, as well as to the Washington press corps, which, until that point, had been kept entirely in the dark about the relationship. Reporters had no idea who Galt was, how she and Wilson had met, or how the lovebirds had courted—and now editors, and readers, wanted to know everything about the president’s fiancée.

But Wilson had been determined to keep the relationship private, and he remained, from the perspective of those charged with covering him, maddeningly so. On November 1, it was announced that the wedding would be held not in the White House, but in Galt’s modest home off Dupont Circle. There would be no press allowed and no photographs permitted. On December 5, journalists learned that the nuptials would be held just 13 days later, on Saturday evening, December 18. No details about the honeymoon plans were provided.

For weeks, the White House press corps fought with the president’s secretary, Joseph Tumulty, to no avail. Three days before the wedding, the now-desperate journalists—represented by the fledgling White House Correspondents’ Association, which had been formed the previous year—tried a new tack: They sent a letter to Wilson pleading with him to grant them access. Next month marks the 100th anniversary of that missive—and of what became the WHCA’s first coverage showdown with the White House.

The letter—which I found in the Library of Congress while doing research for a book on the WHCA (I am past president and current historian of the group)—gives the association’s address as “Press Room, The White House.” It focuses more on the honeymoon than on the wedding itself, beginning with an acknowledgement “that you prefer that no newspapermen accompany you on the trip following your marriage.” But it goes on to argue that, “inasmuch as there are certain to be newspapermen of some description following you if you stay on land, it would be better if the White House correspondents, men who are anxious not to intrude, and who are familiar with White House customs, make the trip.”

The argument was essentially that the president would be wiser to grant access to the Washington reporters he knew—who had covered presidential vacations before and could be trusted to behave appropriately—rather than taking his chances with the local press. “We assure you that ... we desire to respect your wishes for privacy, and will do everything in our power to that end,” the letter says, warning that the locals would “send out all kinds of frivolous and personal stories, which we would not handle.” The letter promises, “The White House correspondents can be of real service in controlling this situation,” and it ends with a request “for a very few minutes” with Wilson “to discuss this matter.”

There is no evidence that Wilson took any minutes out of the 72 hours left before his wedding to talk to reporters. This was hardly surprising. He was friendly with President Grover Cleveland, who had publicly denounced the newspaper “ghouls” who denied him privacy at his own wedding and honeymoon in 1886. Wilson had also been upset by the press speculation about the health of his first wife before she died in August 1914, and about the dating habits of their three daughters. That anger is clear in the transcript of a press conference in March 1914: “I am a public character for the time being,” he said. “But the ladies of my household are not servants of the government and they are not public characters. I deeply resent the treatment they are receiving at the hands of the newspapers at this time.”

When the president’s wedding day arrived, 50 guests jammed into Galt’s brick town house, while reporters stood outside in what The Washington Post described as “a bitter cold wind.” After the ceremony, the correspondents were kept far from the car holding the happy couple as it sped away to points unknown, according to The Washington Times.

The reporters piled into 10 waiting cars and tried to follow, but the Secret Service made the task as difficult as possible, even taping black carbon paper over the presidential seals on the vehicle’s doors. “Our job was to see that the bride and the groom got out of town without meeting the newspapermen and photographers,” Col. Edward W. Starling, the agent who ran the show, wrote in his memoir, Starling of the White House.

Wilson’s driver took what was described by a newspaper report as “a zigzag pattern through the dark streets” at high speed. Chief White House Usher Ike Hoover was in the Secret Service car just behind Wilson’s vehicle. “For a while the pursuing cars managed to keep up in the face of the tremendous speed at which the president’s machine was traveling, but they dropped off one by one and gave up the chase,” Hoover wrote in his book Forty-Two Years in the White House. “After twelve or fifteen miles all the rest had been shaken off.”

Not even the crew of the train that was to meet the couple and their security detail in Alexandria had been told their destination. Once Wilson and his new wife arrived, the president “ordered the cars parked back in the shadows until the approach of the train from Washington,” recalls Hoover in his book. Only at the last moment was the engineer told to pull into a siding at the edge of the freight yards in Alexandria. Then the darkness was pierced three times by agent Starling’s flashlight: It was the signal for the president to board the train. It was also when Starling informed the engineer of the couple’s honeymoon destination—the Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia.

The Wilsons’ suite looked out on the historic resort’s golf course and the snow-capped Allegheny Mountains, and the honeymooners enjoyed solitude—until word of their arrival got out. Within a couple of days, 100 guests had checked in; within a week, it was 500, many of them reporters. The Secret Service continued to enforce its total ban on photographs, nabbing one particularly resourceful lensman “concealed under the floor of an old summer house busily turning the crank of his machine. They ejected him from his hiding place, however, before the presidential party had gotten close enough to appear in the film,” The Washington Post reported.

Journalists did their best to describe what the president and his bride were doing, but their stories reflect the Secret Service’s successful efforts to keep them at arm’s length. They offer few details about the couple’s activities, which reportedly included long walks, golf, mountain climbing, and the celebration of Wilson’s 59th birthday.

In the end, the WHCA and the correspondents it represented lost the fight; the writer who penned the most sensational story, and revealed the most thrilling details about the couple’s private time together, was Edith Bolling Galt herself. In her 1938 book, My Memoir, she describes a day trip she and Wilson took to White Sulphur Springs, a 40-mile drive over the mountains, on roads with hairpin curves, past 13 streams that had to be forded because there were no bridges.

At one point, they reached a stream “so swollen that the chauffeur said he was afraid the water would overflow the car,” Galt writes. Rather than turn back, they decided “to get out and let him try it, and if he could make it we would cross on a tree which had fallen across the stream. If he could not, we would return in the Secret Service car and send him help.” She continues: “We stood in the road and watched the big Pierce Arrow lunge and plunge in the current but finally emerge triumphantly on the other side. Then came our turn, for the old tree which was to form a bridge for us was slippery and wet, and very rotten in places.” The Wilsons were undeterred, Galt reports. “By forming a sort of human chain—the five Secret Service men, the two chauffeurs and ourselves—we steadied one another and with a real thrill of adventure reached safety.”

Even a century later, it is hard not to regret that the moment was not witnessed by any reporter, nor captured by a photographer—even a local one.