A Symbol That Failed

In 1918, a hopeful France gave Mrs. Wilson a peace brooch, but peace eluded her husband and the world

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It's big for a brooch, about six inches across and maybe two and a half high. But because it's partly transparent, and cleverly hinged to fit the curves of a lady's body, it does not seem clunky. Tiny diamonds etch its design--olive branches with leaves--and, perched symmetrically upon them, eight doves. Altogether, it's fairly typical of the work of the famed French jewelry and glass designer, René Lalique.

Ordinarily you find this brooch at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. But lately it has been at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, in New York, in an exhibition of Lalique's fin de siècle jewelry, glass designs and drawings.

Lalique created the olive branch brooch around 1906, and back then the birds were described as pigeons. Its story grows dim for a decade, in fact until December 1918, a month after the original Armistice Day ending the Great War. The "pigeons" suddenly turned into doves of peace, the olive branches took on full significance and the design became the perfect symbolic gift from the citizens of Paris to Edith Bolling Wilson, wife of President Woodrow Wilson.

 Catastrophic World War I was declared a "war to end wars." America had intervened to end the fighting. Now here Wilson was in Europe, conducting talks everyone hoped would prevent the outbreak of another. The impact of the President's visit is hard to imagine today. World War I, the Great War of 1914-1918, has faded into history, and Wilson's high-minded hopes for permanent peace now seem simpleminded or ironic.

In the France of December 1918, the savage destruction of four years still lay heavy on the land and in the hearts of Europeans. Villages lay in rubble, forests had been hewed by storms of shrapnel, hills leveled and meadows cratered by high explosives.

Politicians hadn't been able to stop the insanity. Generals could only suggest sending more troops slithering through the mud to die in further attacks. It was only when, at last, Woodrow Wilson poured in American troops and later offered his idealistic Fourteen Points for restructuring Europe that Germany, starving and rebellious, surrendered.

Four weeks after the armistice, the Wilsons arrived in Brest aboard an impounded prewar German liner named George Washington (to make American tourists feel comfortable). France went wild. Guns roared in salute; bands crashed out "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "La Marseillaise," great crowds jammed the streets of Paris, shouting "Vive Veelson!" The lanky, professorial pince-nez-wearing President was all but sainted as a war-ender and forger of a new and better world. And everyone loved pretty, dark-haired Edith Wilson, his new wife, tall, and what is best described as "shapely," with a ready smile and easy charm.

Edith Bolling Galt Wilson--undeniably "F.F.V." (First Families of Virginia) with roots going back to John Rolfe and the Indian princess Pocahontas--met and married the President in 1915. He was a lonely widower and she a widow. She gave him the companionship and loving support that he craved. Their voyage to France at the end of the war would have seemed like a second honeymoon except for the pressure Wilson felt to negotiate a just peace with all those tricky and vengeful European leaders. On December 16 at the Hotel de Ville (City Hall), the President was given a gold medal. Edith Wilson noted in her journal that "... to my surprise, the master of ceremonies then turned to me and presented a beautiful Lalique box containing a most unusual pin composed of six doves of peace...."

Well, she counted wrong, but the entry indicates gratitude for this "pretty conceit." She went to Paris again in 1919, for the signing of the peace treaty. "I wore an unusual gown by Worth," she tells us, and "the great pin with the diamonds and doves of peace...."

The Lalique brooch shows up in a portrait of her, done in 1920 by Seymour Stone. A dispute arose and the portrait never hung at the White House. Perhaps it also reminded her of a tragic time in her life and the life of the President. Wilson had collapsed during his 1919 "peace" tour of the nation, a demanding trip around the United States, undertaken, despite ill-health, to rouse public support for the peace treaty that he'd played such a large role in constructing, and especially for the League of Nations.


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