Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States, casts a long shadow on history. His leadership helped bring about a decisive end to World War I. He ultimately voiced support for a constitutional amendment that would give women the right to vote, even as he allowed racial segregation to spread unchecked. He leaves a complex legacy that politicians and historians continue to pore over 100 years later.
He was also, judging by his love letters, a smooth operator.
“He just piles on the compliments,” said Betsy Ely. “It’s just beautiful. Every woman would love to get a letter like one of his.”
The woman who received those letters, Edith Bolling Galt, was born in Wytheville. A wealthy widow who lived in Washington, D.C., her chance meeting with the president and grieving widower sparked a whirlwind courtship that ended in marriage nine months later.
Ely, a retired English teacher living in Rural Retreat, knows those letters well. The founder of the living history program at the Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum in Wytheville, she has portrayed the first lady in numerous public performances, often enough that she jokingly began a phone interview by saying, “Hello, this is Edith Bolling Wilson.” Ely noted that the first lady had dark hair and blue eyes, as does she.
Ely and fellow living historian Jim Gearhart, both volunteers at the museum, debuted “Virginia’s Greatest Love Story: The Love Letters of Woodrow and Edith Bolling Wilson” in February as a Valentine’s Day presentation. Gearhart portrayed the president, with the text of the play taken straight from the letters he and the future first lady wrote to each other in the months leading up to their marriage.
“Edith and Woodrow wrote this play,” Ely said.
Gearhart and Ely have been making appearances as the president and first lady since a 2015 fundraiser gala for the museum that marked Edith Wilson’s birthday and the 100th anniversary of the presidential couple’s engagement.
Tuesday, they will reprise “Virginia’s Greatest Love Story” at Wytheville’s Wohlfahrt Haus Dinner Theatre. (The accompanying food will be dessert rather than a full dinner, Ely said. “We’re having the candies that Edith’s grandmother was famous for making.”)
For this new performance, the play has been expanded. The recitals from the love letters comprise the second act. In the first act, 15-year-old Alyssa Irvin, a rising sophomore at Rural Retreat High School, will portray a young Edith Bolling, and Wytheville actress Holly Montgomery will portray Edith’s sister Bertha. They’ll tell the story of Edith Bolling’s life before she met Wilson, using passages Ely selected from the late first lady’s memoirs. Narrator Lon Tobin, minister at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Wytheville, completes the five-person cast.
Ely said the play is meant to dovetail with the 50th anniversary of the state’s “Virginia Is for Lovers” tourism slogan.
Wytheville business owner Farron Smith and her husband, Bill, founded the Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum in 2008 in an effort to better publicize the first lady’s remarkable story and her connection to Southwest Virginia. With family ancestry said to trace back to Pocahontas, Edith Wilson finished her time in the White House holding a level of power unique among first ladies, controlling all access to her husband after a stroke largely incapacitated him while he was still in office, a predicament that caused her to be labelled “The First Woman President.”
Located at 145 E. Main St. in Wytheville, the museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. General admission is $5, for children $3. For more information, call 276-223-3484 or email email@example.com.