restricted access 5. Ellen Axson Wilson and Woodrow Wilson
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C H A P T E R F I V E Ellen Axson Wilson and Woodrow Wilson W WHEN THEY were living in Middletown , Connecticut, Mr. Wilson said to me one day as we were walking across a bridge that spanned a beautiful New England stream and paused to look at the water and the trees: "Ellen ought to be here. I have never known anybody in my life with such a passion for beauty as she has." This quality of Mrs. Wilson's was one which undoubtedly had a strong influence on Mr. Wilson himself. His father was the strongest educational influence on his life, and Dr. Wilson had a decided literary talent, but it was of the somewhat robust eighteenth-century type, which is to say, not primarily aesthetic in its appreciation. In fact, Dr. Wilson was more like Samuel Johnson than any man I have ever known in the flesh—a man of books, but also of intimate contact with life; an extraordinary power for conversation and a robust personality. From him unquestionably Woodrow Wilson derived by inheritance and training a very considerable portion of his great literary power. But Mrs. Wilson had just that refinement of literary appreciation which we call "aesthetic." Her artistic gifts were really very great, and she had fully made up her mind to be a professional portrait painter. Her opportunities for training in the little southern town in which she lived were, of course, very meager, but she worked extremely hard. And when she was perhaps twenty-two years of age she really contrived to earn a tidy sum of money each year by crayon portraits. Though the idea of crayon portraits suggests a horrible form of art, she was able in that unsympathetic medium to get some really very fine effects. Of course, she was not going to rest there, and so she purposed to go at least to New York, if possible later to Europe, and educate herself as an artist in oils. This was a career which she had fully determined upon when it was all changed by the destiny that ELLEN AXSON WILSON 91 brought Woodrow Wilson definitely into her life. Even after her engagement to him, she did go to New York for one year and studied at the Art Students League, making extraordinary progress as a portrait painter. But, of course, she regarded this now merely as an interlude in what she realized was to be her real life, namely, the wife of this man who she told me the night of her engagement was "the greatest man in the world." They were married after about a year's engagement; in fact, would have been married earlier had Mr. Wilson not been in the midst of his course at Johns Hopkins University. They were married in June 1885, and in the following autumn they went to Bryn Mawr College, which had just been founded, where a small faculty of young men were collected by, as she was then, Dean Thomas. As it turned out, this constituted one of the most remarkable faculties ever connected with an American college, because these men were all young, practically unknown, and practically every one of them became a distinguished man in his specialty. The first daughter was born a little less than a year after their marriage , and the other two children followed at brief intervals.1 In these circumstances, it was impossible for Mrs. Wilson to pursue her art. No woman ever gave herself up more completely to marriage and wifedom and motherhood than did Mrs. Wilson. I may remark that she was the amazement of her very practical uncle in Savannah2 (her father and mother were both dead), who was devoted to her, but never believed that she had any turn whatsoever for practicality. However, when she, as one of the first steps in her married life, attended Mrs. Rohrer's Cooking School in Philadelphia and learned to be a perfect queen of cooks, her uncle's astonishment knew no bounds. This is merely characteristic of this early married life—she gave herself up completely to practical things. She, who was a reader of poetry and a painter of pictures, now collected, as her most valuable library, books on cooking and the rearing of babies. Until the girls were well on into their teens, Mrs. Wilson scarcely touched a paint brush, with one notable exception. When there came to the recently established Princeton Art Museum Bouguereau 's...