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August 05, 2021
The First Female President

In This Episode

“One time I sat on a large dog, but neither of us were into that.”

Edith’s Presidency is finally slipping away, but that won’t stop her from making one last power grab, but can she still function without Trudie by her side?





[loc. Bookstore, older Edith reading from her memoir]


Edith: “What at first resembled the charging of an army, we probably discovered was in fact a retreat and that our position was much weaker than where we began. So that night I said to Woodrow, ‘for me, your wife, will you accept Lodge’s compromise, support the new League and let us move past this terrible skirmish?’ He turned his head, took my hand, his face incandescent as he spoke, ‘Little girl, don’t lose faith in me, for I shall surely break.’ And even through those difficult times our relationship showed no strain.


[loc. White House Oval Office]


Edith: Listen to me, it was your letter that took down the League.


Woodrow: Don’t blame me for your betrayal.


Edith: What did you want me to do?


Woodrow: I didn’t ask for this.


Edith: I just did what I thought you wanted. Did you know what it was like, for me?


Edith: [Bookstore, reading from memoir] “After I told him the fatal news of the Senate vote, he said: that is why I must mend quickly and allow this country to heal.”


Edith: Woodrow, look at me. Please!


Woodrow: Edith, leave.


[loc. Bookstore]


Edith: [reading] “And it was that day he acknowledged that his time in power had come to an end and it was time, for the both of us, to dim the lights and let the curtain fall.” Thank you. [applause]


Edith, voice over: In the decade following Woodrow’s death, I occupied my time working on my memoir—I’m sure you’ve read it, it was a bestseller, I’m assuming now taught in schools—and afterwards I occupied some more time by promoting it.


Pearl: Great reading, Madam First Lady. Thank you for signing my book.


Edith: No, thank you. What’s your name, dear?


Pearl: Pearl. Freshman at Wellesley, Class of 41. Oh, but please sign it for my mother, Marian. It’s a gift. She apparently loves you.


Edith: Wonderful. You must be a sweet daughter.


Pearl: Yeah, I guess I am. I mean, I hadn’t even heard of you before today, but here I am.


Edith: Yes. Here you are. Pearl, freshman at Wellesley College, Class 41.


Pearl: Thanks!


Edith: As you can see, I’ve grown a lot since Woodrow was president. I’ve learned some restraint.


Pearl: [reading] To Marian, what a lovely daughter. You must think you have. Only a freshman at Wellesley, but she’s already learned to be a total—hey!


Edith, voice over: Some restraint. Some.


[loc. Car]


Edith, voice over: By that point, it was 1938, 18 years since I last saw Trudie. Fifteen years since Woodrow’s passing and my memoir was already a book club darling.


Jeanie: Madam, First Lady.


Edith, voice over: This is Jennie, my assistant at the time. She’s a real charmer with a strong, engaging personality.


Jeanie: There was a letter that arrived for you, which I am now finding, and yes, now I have indeed found.


Edith: Just kidding. She’s a drip.


Jeanie: The invitation I now hold is from a Mrs. Alice Gertrude Gordon Grayson.


Edith: What, what?! Trudie. Trudie invited me to . . . what?


Jeanie: It appears her husband, Dr. Cary T. Grayson is dead and will be interred at Arlington national—


Edith: There must be a mistake. She hasn’t spoken to me since—no, no, I’m not going.


Jeanie: Yes, I ascertained that, as the invitation is now flying out the window. And it has flown away/.


[loc. White House hallway]


Edith, voice over: Old memories are like dollar-bin watercolors, a memory from 1938 so easily bleeds right into a memory from 1920.


Nel: Daddy, think of how it would look if you didn’t endorse William. He’s my husband.


Woodrow: I know Nel, Don’t worry. I’ll endorse.


Nel: Oh, Daddy. Thank you.


Edith: Nel, what a surprise. No one told me you were visiting.


Nel: Edith! So lovely to see you. I have to compliment your feet.


Edith: My feet?


Nel: Yes. Your footsteps just now: so feminine, so light, so quiet. How long were you standing there?


Edith: I just walked in.


Nel: Wonderful. Wonderful. Well, I must be off. Daddy, what we talked about?


Woodrow: Yes, honey. I promise. Talk soon.


Edith: So, you’re endorsing William McAdoo.


Woodrow: That’s none of your concern.


Edith: I assume you secured a commitment if he wins the presidency to hold another vote on the League?


Woodrow: Edith, stop. I can’t force him.


Edith: At least get it on the platform of the convention. That was—


Woodrow: Edith! Enough. It is my job to worry about the convention, it is your job to worry about the seating chart for the unity dinner following the convention.


Edith: Yes, Woodrow, of course.


Edith, voice over: Oh, seating charts, it’s like if a little placard isn’t placed on a table, the anarchists can claim another victory.


Edith: [to herself] Well, we can put Hitchcock next to Wadsworth, but then McKenzie might get offended. Why do all these men have names like victims in a murder mystery novel? Oh, and then there’s Marshall. Hmm. Marshall. No Edith. Why do you need to call him for this? Just seat him anywhere. You don’t need anybody for this. You don’t need any help.


Marshall: [on phone] Yeah?


Edith: [on phone] Hello, Marshal, I’m arranging the chart for the unity dinner. Where’d you like to sit?


Marshall: Uh, in a chair usually? One time I sat on a large dog, but neither of us were into that.


Edith: [laughs] That’s funny.


Marshall: Hold on for a minute. Wait a minute, they got you doing seating charts?


Edith: Yes. It’s like trudging back to coach after getting used to first class. Or I assume. I haven’t traveled coach in 14 years.


Marshall: God, you must be bored out of your mind. Trudie’s not even there to—


Edith: No, I don’t need Trudie for this. And anyway, she—.


Marshall: In Brussels. I know.


Edith: Brussels? Oh. What do you mean?


Marshall: She sent me a nice letter asking me how I was doing. I wrote back I was doing great, looking forward to the Democratic Convention, catching some sleep on the train.


Edith, voice over: Don’t ask if she mentioned me. Don’t ask if she mentioned me.


Marshall: I thought it was weird she didn’t mention you. I just assumed she’d already written to you.


Edith: Yes! That is an assumption that one would easily make.


Marshall: I was proud of her. She seemed really happy. She spent three pages writing about a bird she saw. [laughs]


Edith: I, um.


Marshall: Yeah, like I said, I got to head to San Fran tomorrow. But if you’re bored and used to Trudie helping you with things, I can stop by today.


Edith: I do not need Trudie’s help. I can do it all on my own. You will be sitting by the restrooms. Goodbye.


Edith, voice over: That night, turning in bed, Woodrow had decided to preside in a separate bedroom. I couldn’t get Trudie out of my mind. I imagined her in Brussels, carefree, mingling with high society and artists and literati.


[imagines Trudie’s European home]


Emile: Trudie! Halo! Mein anhel.


Trudie: Emile! Huta avend. Welcome to my house warming party.


Edith, voice over: Meeting all kinds of interesting people.


Trudie: May I take your coat? Oh, my God. Did you paint this painting of me? It’s so beautiful.


Emile: Everyone is painting you Trudie. You’re the most interesting woman in Brussels.


Edith, voice over: She’s probably telling all kinds of stories about me.


Trudie: So I gave Senator Lodge the letter, that dummy never saw it coming.


Emile: [laughing] To Trudie! The most cunning, smartest, most beautiful American woman alive, who learn it all on her own.


Edith, voice over: I hated thinking this way, Trudie out there, writing her new story and me sitting at home living the sad end of mine. I couldn’t let this be it. I wouldn’t. And so I did what any reasonable person would do. I snuck out that morning and rushed off to snatch back what was rightfully mine.


[loc. Train].


Edith: Hello, Marshall. Tell me what’s good to eat in San Francisco?


Marshall: Edith?! What are you doing here?


Edith: In first class? Well, this is where I belong.


Marshall: No, here. Going to the convention.


Edith: Oh, did you hear? My time’s not quite up yet. Woodrow’s running for a third term and you’re going to help me win the nomination.


[loc. San Francisco hotel]


Edith: Woodrow, I understand you’re upset I came to the convention, but it makes sense. People love you and with another term, you would—


Woodrow: I’m sorry. I can’t do this again. I’m tired. I can’t fight anymore.


Edith: We’re not fighting. We’re talking.


Woodrow: No. Keep me out of it. You can do it alone.


Edith, voice over: Marshall and I arrived the night before the 1920 convention in San Francisco. I got to work and things just sort of clicked into place.


[loc. Party]


Edith: Senator Walsh, I want you to know no hard feelings about the League, which is why I hope you’re considering Woodrow—


Walsh: Stop right there. I heard the news. You can count on the votes of any delegates under my influence.


Emile: Mr. Baker!


Mr. Baker: Mrs. Wilson!


Edith: How is the water? How is your swim?


Mr. Baker: Forgive me for my lack of a shirt and for the pool water dripping around me. You got my vote.


Edith: That’s wonderful. Thank you.


Delegate 1: If my rooster wins, you’ve got my—OK, yeah, you got my vote!


Delegate 2: You got my vote!


Delegate 3: Woodrow’s got my vote.


Edith: Marshall, Marshall, pour me a glass of that.


Marshall: Oh, well, it must be good if Edith Wilson wants a drink.


Edith: Ugh! Wow. Sorry. I know it’s gross to spit it back in the glass, but, no, I hated it.


Marshall: Oh, hey look! Isn’t that Nel and her husband over there talking to one of your delegates?


Edith: Yes. It is.


Walsh: I didn’t love doing it, OK, but I told Edith what you wanted.


Nel: Thank you truly. I just spoke to Daddy and he said she’s going through so much, she’ll take the loss much better this way. And my husband still has your votes?


Walsh: Yes, I’m supporting McAdoo. I just hated lying to her. She seems so desperate and pitiful.


Nel: Oh, but all you would have done is make her feel worse at this nice party. Isn’t that right, honey? Honey?


McAdoo: Huh? Right. Right. Sorry. Completely forgot I was here, but yes, it is a nice party. Hey, look, Edith Marshall are walking over.


Walsh: I will be going away from here.


Edith: Oh, I didn’t mean to scare the senator off.


McAdoo: Huh? Oh, he’ll be back. Er, maybe he won’t. Or maybe he will. Although it’s possible he will.


Nel: Edith! How lovely it is to see your beautiful, sneaky little feet again. And Mr. Vice President, I absolutely love that tie.


Marshall: Oh! Yeah, thanks, Mr. McAdoo. I found it on the floor of a train station.


Nel: What a wonderful story. William, tell them what you were just saying about how worried you are about my Daddy’s candidacy.


McAdoo: Worried? No, no. These things generally work out for me. You know, one time I went bass fishing and accidentally placed third in a regatta.


Nel: Oh, William, isn’t he funny?


Edith: So funny. Just thinking about him being president, I lose it. [Edith and Nel laugh]


[loc. Edith’s home]


Edith, voice over: Like I said, when you lived an entire life, time runs together, but wherever you land, whether it’s 1920 or 1938, there’s a strong chance I’m lighting things on fire. I put it off for years, but the Library of Congress kept pestering me over it. I had to go through Woodrow’s presidential papers and see what was fit for public consumption.


Edith: All right, Jeanie, we’ll be separating all these old papers into two piles. The political goes to the Library of Congress and anything personal, we burn. Got it?


Jeanie: Yes. Like this one I’m holding now is addressed to Mr. Wilson from a Mrs. Mary Peck.


Edith: Burn pile. I’d be careful with that one. Her letters are liberally perfumed and highly flammable. [flame whoosh] Maybe use tongs next time.


Jeanie: And now this one is a letter from a Secretary Lansing to a President Woodrow Wilson about something—


Edith: Burn pile, highly personal.


Jeanie: Seems political. The letterhead says—


Edith: No, some things can be political and personal at the same time. Burn it.


Jeanie: Yes, ma’am. I’m lighting it on fire. It is burning. And is now reduced to ash as well as cinder. This one is titled What Would Woodrow Do about Dalmatian Coast?


Edith: What?! Let me see that. [laughs] Trudie wrote this one.


Jeanie: Oh, yes. The same woman who invited you to her husband’s funeral, which is occurring right now.


Edith: Look at what she wrote.


Jeanie: [reading] One. Admit it’s a spotty situation. Two. Paws and reflect.


Edith: Yes, Jeanie, the entire Dalmatia situation was pretty ruff.


Jeanie: Yes, must have been difficult.


Edith: Jeanie, you’re fired.


Jeanie: Excuse me, ma’am.


Edith: Sorry, I just felt a little nostalgic impulse to fire someone abruptly. I used to do it all the time.


Edith, voice over: I usually maintain control, but reading those dumb dog puns, it was like my body took over.


Edith: Taxi! Taxi!


Edith, voice over: Because it wasn’t me, it was my body that ran out into the street and frantically called a cab. And it wasn’t me, it was my body that got into the car and told the driver where to go.


Edith: Arlington National Cemetery. Don’t worry about the speed limit. I’m well connected and late.


Edith, voice over: And it wasn’t me, it was my body that arrived at Arlington with its thousands of identical gravestones spread out in rows and patterns, blurring over hillsides, to create an overwhelming sense of unity and sacrifice.


Edith: Where the hell are they burying him?


Edith, voice over: As I walk past all those dead important men, many of whom pursued politics, it made me think back to that first day of the convention.


[loc. Convention Floor]


Chairman: Delegates, clear the aisles! Stop the band! Clear the aisles!


Edith, voice over: Where any of these dead men there that day? DId they also pretend to enjoy the brass band’s patriotic loudness?


Chairman: OK. All right. We’re ready to announce the first vote for the 1920 Democratic National Convention.


Edith, voice over: And if they were, during that first round, did any of them vote for me?


Chairman: We have William McAdoo with 271 votes, James Cox with 182 votes, and Woodrow Wilson—


Edith, voice over: And then I remembered.


Chairman: —with zero votes, no clear winner. We vote again.


Edith, voice over: So the answer is no. None of these dead men voted for me, but at least now I didn’t have to feel as bad stepping over their graves.


Nel. Daddy, do not worry one little bit. Edith got you zero votes. She’s using Marshall to persuade delegates loyal to you, but—yes, I have a plan.


Edith, voice over: I wasn’t sure how at that moment, but it was clear that Nel had, well, Edith’d me.


Nel. Thank you, Daddy. I’m proud of you too. Kisses.


Edith, voice over: I had to pivot. Those vipers didn’t want some pitiable, vulnerable woman. They wanted something objectively dumber.


Marshall: Hey, Edith! I got this. I may be short and small, but I project the power of three very large men.


Edith: This is serious. Marshall, I need you, OK? Woodrow needs you. Please, go save this presidency.


Chairman: Delegates! Delegates! The vice president of the United States!


Marshall: Hello San Fran, I don’t know if it’s my eyes or if Sunny Jim’s refreshments are giving me visions. [laughter] Yeah, but out there in the crowd, among the suits and ties, I see a few dresses and skirts. [cheers] Now, now, now, boys, calm down. Calm down! Let’s make the female delegates joining us comfortable and remember, we all got wives! [men laugh]


Voice: Run Marshal Run!


Marshall: No. No. The last time I ran, the cops were busting up the Mayflower Club. [laughs] Yeah, but seriously, I appreciate the support, but I am here to tell you about my buddy Woodrow.


Voice: We want you!


Not me! No, no, no. Come on. I think we all know I’d be a terrible president.


Voice: So humble.


Woman: Better than what we got. Run, Marshall, run. Run, Marshal, run.


[crowd] Run, Marshall, run. Run, Marshall, fun! Run, Marshall, run!


Marshall: C’mon! Please. I don’t want to. I don’t. No! No. Run, Woodrow, run. No. No.


Edith, voice over: From there, things quickly spiraled.


Tennessee Delegate: Tennessee wishes to change its ballots and cast its 73 delegates to Vice President Thomas Marshall.


Marshall: No, No! No!


Delegate 2: Hold him back. Come on, men, hold our future president back.


Marshall: Stop it! Stop! Get off me you bastards!


Delegate 2: His strength is so presidential.


Marshall: Edith. I’m begging you, on my soft hands and my weak knees, make this stop! Stop them from voting for me. Please, make it stop.


Edith: Christ, Marshall. Get up.


Edith, voice over: I kept asking myself, how? How could this happen? How could he be getting votes? Who could be making this happen?


Edith: [to self] Oh, my God. Nel. It’s Nel.


Edith, voice over: While we made our moves, Nel stalked the floor.


Nel: I’m so pleased my husband has the support of one of our party’s first female delegates, especially when his luminous as yourself.


Woman delegate: Oh, no, no, I’m not, luminous? No.


Nel: I’m just happy Vice President Marshall isn’t interested or else I assume to be voting for him.


Woman delegate: Vice President Marshall?


Nel: Oh yes. He was the real rock, the pillar of Daddy’s administration, but he’s not interested. . . . Of course, I want my husband to win, but Thomas Marshall is a great man . . .  his eyes! So bright, so blue. I’m so grateful . . . The Vice President is a man of true leadership . . . a man like Marshall could . . .


Edith, voice over: I never met Woodrow’s first wife Ellen. But if this is her daughter, I feel Woodrow might have a type.


Marshall: Nel? Nel? Why would she do this? The more I go out there, the more they they want me as president.


Edith: Yes, that is her plan. You’re my only ally and she turns you into a liability.


Marshall: Christ, aw God. I’m, I’m sorry, Edith. I’m out. I can’t help you anymore.


Edith: What? No. No! Wait a second, Marshall, we can figure this out.


Marshall: No. The sooner I leave, the sooner Nel flips those votes back to McAdoo.


Edith: Marshall, think about the country. Think about Woodrow, the League of—


Marshall: Edith! Stop! We both know you’re not doing any of this for any of that.


Edith: Oh, so why am I doing it, huh? If you’re so shrewd, tell me why.


Marshall: Edith, there were moments where I asked myself if you should have all the powers of the presidency? Now seeing this mess, I’m starting to wonder, should anyone? And with that, I bid you a-jew.


Edith: Do you mean adieu?


Marshall: Yeah. I’ll see you around, Edith.


Edith: It’s not over. It’s not. I won’t let it be. [grabs a delegate] Listen to me! You said you’d vote for Woodrow. Vote for him!


Delegate 1: What. No. I can’t. Mrs. Wilson, are you OK?


Edith: Yes. This is a woman at the height of her OK’ness. Hey! You!


Delegate 2: Mrs. Wilson, you’re hurting me.


Edith: You promised you’d vote for Woodrow.


Delegate 2: Let me go.


Edith: Come on, anyone! Vote! Please vote for Woodrow! You promised. You promised you’d vote for Woodrow. Please, don’t let this—


Nel: Edith.


Edith: New. You. You did this to me, you’re the reason I’m losing.


Nel: No. No, honey. You would have lost no matter what I did. Nobody wants this, least of all daddy. He was worried about you. He asked me to convince you to go home. That’s it.


Edith: You’re a liar. You did this because you’re desperate and ruthless and—


Nel: Edith! Would you like to borrow a mirror and finish that sentence? It’s over. You have no one left. You lost Daddy’s support. You lost Marshall. You even lost that sweet girl you relied on so much.


Edith: [chuckles] I didn’t rely on her. I, she didn’t even—no. No. No.


Edith, voice over: I don’t know if things would have been different if Trudie were there, but for the first time since Woodrow’s fall—stroke. Stroke. He had a stroke. For the first time since Woodrow’s stroke, I didn’t care.


Edith: OK.


Nel: OK. What do you mean, OK?


Edith: I’m done. I’ll go. You win.


[loc. Conference room]


Edith: [on the phone] Woodrow, I’m coming home.


Woodrow: [on phone] Good.


Edith: Are we going to be good?


Woman: Edith . . .I don’t know how to—sure. Just come home, and we’ll be good.


Edith, voice over: And as far as the convention went, well, I didn’t win, but neither did Nel. McAdoo was overtaken by Ohio Governor James Cox. He lost the presidential race, but he did manage to pick Mr. Franklin Delano Roosevelt as his running mate. I once heard someone call his wife, Eleanor, the first female president. I knew it wasn’t true because otherwise they wouldn’t have said it as a compliment.


[loc. Arlington National Cemetery]


Edith, voice over: And those memories, that feeling, is what rushed over me as I walked up that cemetery hill on that cold February day in 1938. When I arrived, the funeral was already over and all that was left to do was to read the headstone.


Edith: [reading] “Cary Travers Grayson, rear medical corps, United States Navy. Born in Culpeper County, Virginia, October 11th, 1878. Died in Washington, DC, February 15th, 1938.”


Edith: Trudie?


Trudie: I go by Alice now.


Edith: Right, right.


Trudie: So I read your novel.


Edith: Memoir. It’s my memoir.


Trudie: Oh yeah. Right memoir. No one’s ever lied in one of those.


Edith: Do you want to go for a walk?


Trudie: No, but I will.


Edith: Means a lot that you send an invitation.


Trudie: I didn’t send those. Cary’s family did. I just returned myself this morning.


Edith: Ah, Brussels still?


Trudie: No, I haven’t been there in years. Lived in Paris for a long time. But now I’m in London.


Edith: Oh, that’s nice. You always loved Europe. Oh!


Trudie: What? What’s wrong?


Edith: Nothing was just some foot pain. The cemetery with so much larger than I thought.


Trudie: Yeah, there are a lot of dead people. Like I thought there were a lot of alive people alive, but they’re actually so many more dead people, dead.


Edith: [laughs] I was worried you didn’t still say things like that.


Trudie: Yeah, I do. [laughs] You want to sit on the bench for a bit?


Edith: Oh, the bench would be nice. Did you know that Marshall once sat on a dog?


Trudie: Yeah. [laughs] He told me in a leather once.


Edith: [sighs]


Edith, voice over: Past a certain age, all conversations veer in the same direction as life: death. We talked about all the people we knew, past tense. Woodrow Wilson, dead February 3rd, 1924. Robert Lansing, dead October 30th, 1928. Henry Cabot Lodge, dead November 9th, 1924. Marshall—oh, God, Marshall, dead, June 1st, 1925. But Tumulty, that cockroach, somehow still alive.


Trudie: Oh, good! Maybe he’s out there somewhere calling us cockroaches.


Edith: I take that as a compliment. Any creature that filthy yet with the ability to occasionally fly must be on some level, commendable. Trudie—Alice, maybe if I were you, I might still harbor acrimony over a few possible betrayals of trust or errors in judgment committed along the way . . . and, well, if that were the case, I suppose there might be an occasion for an apology from me, to you, Alice.


Trudie: Edith, all these years and you’ve changed just enough to almost give an apology.


Edith: Baby steps, my dear. Baby steps. Oh, thanks for letting me rest my legs. They’re not as nimble as they once were. Are you going back to London?


Trudie: I’d like to. I don’t feel like I belong here, especially not this city. No one here seems satisfied whole. I mean, think about Woodrow. Sure, he won a war, but then you’re like he’s segregate what?! He allowed which disease to run rampant?! His favorite movie was Birth of a, what now!? And then we got that power, and what do we do? We didn’t change anything. We just held onto it so tight, it popped. It’s just like most Americans, not all of us, but literally the two of us, came from a restless, insatiable people who crossed an ocean feeling like there was something more somewhere else, that there was always more to take, to own, to hold on to tightly until it pops.


Edith: Wow. Europeans really are so pretentious.


Trudie: [laughs] I’m glad you didn’t change that much either. Cary left me his giant mansion, Virginia estate. So to answer your question, it looks like I have a big empty mansion for me to roam until I die.


Edith: Maybe we should move in together. Can you imagine?


Trudie: No, no, I cannot. But that does remind me of a joke. Have you heard this one? There’s these two widowed sisters and they live together in a mansion, and then one of them dies, then the other. Naturally, the both come back as ghosts—[fades]