A Symbol That Failed

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

Edith Wilson
Edith Wilson Wikimedia Commons

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.

The treaty, based on his Fourteen Points, required a League of Nations, and the United States, he believed, must surely join the League to add to its peacekeeping credibility. But he found that the League, which sounded so sensible in war-torn Europe, rubbed a lot of Americans the wrong way, especially Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Everyone wanted the treaty, all right, but ties with Europe made people leery about one day having to pull European chestnuts out of the fire--again.

The President's splendid oratory won him admiration and affection, as he toured the country, but did not produce the flood of pro-League telegrams to Washington that he sought. Political opponents claimed he had forgotten the workings of a democracy. He didn't ask for support, he demanded it in the name of national virtue. Even his French colleague, Georges Clemenceau, found himself bored with Wilson's Fourteen Points: "Why," he exclaimed, "God Almighty has only ten!" And H. L. Mencken, ever watching for an open shot at big game, declared that Wilson was waiting for "the first vacancy in the Trinity."

The President drove himself cruelly in a losing cause. In Kansas, he collapsed and was rushed home. He seemed to get a little better, then took a fall and suffered a stroke. Thereafter he was unable to handle the work of the Presidency, and the normal running of the country slowed to a crawl. With only two years of formal schooling but devoted to keeping tedious chores away from her husband, Edith Wilson checked every letter, every request for a decision, even every bill to sign. It was claimed she signed some of them for her husband, but most she shelved without an answer. Newly arrived ambassadors weren't received, candidates for empty Cabinet posts were left twisting in the wind. Vice President Thomas Marshall, famous mostly for remarking that "what this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar," slumped into a fit of depression when someone suggested that he might have to take over the reins. "Presidentess" Edith had firm hold of them.

Rumors flew that the President was mad--and indeed the meager communications from the White House often made little sense. Letters to the President from members of the Cabinet would be answered in "a large, school-girlish handwriting" that meandered all over the page. Mistrust of the highest office--almost unheard of in those innocent days--appeared and grew, and anger focused on the only people who had access to the President: his doctor, Cary Grayson, his long-trusted secretary, Joseph P. Tumulty, and finally the second Mrs. Wilson. The Baltimore Sun wrote of congressional suspicions that the idleness of the White House must be blamed on "the dark and mysterious Mr. Tumulty, or, more sinister still, must we look for the woman in the case?"

President Wilson never recovered. Congress adopted the treaty but rejected U.S. entry into the League of Nations. As the election of 1920 approached, the Democratic candidates for President and Vice President, James Cox of Ohio and a chap named Franklin Delano Roosevelt, called on the sick old man. Joining the League would be part of his platform, Cox promised. That finished him. The Republicans' "available man," Warren Harding, won handily; the League was forgotten for good. So, it seemed, was Wilson. Beaten and shattered, he clung to life till a bleak February morning in 1924. Then the country suddenly remembered, and crowds knelt in the street outside the house in Washington.

Edith Wilson lived on, dedicating herself to fiercely safeguarding the memory of her husband. No one knows what the League of Nations might have done if the United States had joined, but without us the League of Nations proved spectacularly fruitless in maintaining peace. After World War II mankind created its strange stepson, the United Nations. Edith Wilson lived to see it all.

In 1961, as a "little old lady" in her late 80s--and just a few months before her death--she sat beside President John F. Kennedy as he signed a bill authorizing a memorial to Woodrow Wilson. He gave her the pen. She took it gratefully. "I didn't dare ask for it," she smiled. They both knew that was a fib.

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