Born Ellen Louise Axson in Savannah, Georgia, the daughter of the Reverend Samuel Edward Axson, a Presbyterian minister, and Margaret Jane (née Hoyt) Axson, Ellen was a lady of refined tastes with a fondness for art, music and literature.
Thomas Woodrow Wilson first saw her when he was about 3 and she was a baby. They met again in April 1883 when he was visiting his cousin Jesse Woodrow Wilson in Rome, Georgia, where she was keeping house for her widowed father. He thought “What splendid laughing eyes!” They were engaged 5 months later, but postponed the wedding while he did postgraduate work at Johns Hopkins University and she nursed her ailing father.
Wilson, who was 28 years of age, married Ellen, age 25, on June 24, 1885, at her paternal grandfather’s home in Savannah, Georgia. The wedding was performed jointly by his father, the Reverend Joseph R. Wilson, and her grandfather, the Reverend Isaac Stockton Keith Axson. They honeymooned at Waynesville, a mountain resort in western North Carolina. That same year, Bryn Mawr College offered Dr. Wilson a teaching position at an annual salary of $1,500. He and his bride lived near the campus, keeping her little brother with them.
Together, the Wilsons had three daughters:
Margaret Woodrow Wilson (1886–1944) – singer, businesswoman.
Jessie Woodrow Wilson Sayre (1887–1933) – Born in Gainesville, Georgia, she attended Goucher College in Baltimore and worked three years at a settlement house in Philadelphia before marrying Francis B. Sayre in a White House wedding on November 25, 1913. They eventually settled at Cambridge, Massachusetts, when Mr. Sayre joined the faculty of Harvard Law School. Jessie was active in the League of Women Voters, served on the national board of the YWCA, and at the time of her death following an appendix operation, was secretary of the Massachusetts Democratic Committee.
Eleanor Randolph Wilson McAdoo (1889–1967)
Humorously insisting that her children must not be born Yankees, Ellen went to stay with relatives in Georgia for Margaret’s birth in 1886 and Jessie’s in 1887—but Eleanor was born in Connecticut in 1889, while Wilson was teaching at Wesleyan University. Wilson’s distinguished career at Princeton University began in 1890, bringing Ellen new social responsibilities. As always, she took refuge from such demands in her art. She had studied briefly in New York, and the quality of her paintings compares favorably with professional art of the period. As First Lady, she drew sketches and painted in a studio set up on the third floor of the White House. She donated much of her work to charity. She arranged the White House weddings of two of her daughters.
The Wilsons had preferred to begin the administration without an inaugural ball, and the First Lady’s entertainments were simple, but her unaffected cordiality made her parties successful. In their first year, she convinced her scrupulous husband 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, he told a friend, “You see what a wise wife I have!” A descendant of slave owners, Wilson lent her prestige to the cause of improving housing in the capital’s largely black slums. She visited dilapidated alleys and brought them to the attention of debutantes and Congressmen. Her death spurred passage of a remedial bill she had worked for.
She died of Bright’s disease on August 6, 1914. The day before her death, she made her physician promise to tell Wilson “later” that she hoped he would marry again; she murmured at the end, “…take good care of my husband.” She was buried in Rome, Georgia among her family. In December 1915, the president married Edith Bolling Galt. Ellen Axson Wilson is buried at Myrtle Hill Cemetery.
- May, 15, 1860
- Savannah, Georgia
- August, 06, 1914
- Washington D.C.
- Myrtle Hill Cemetery
- Rome, Georgia