It is not blithely that I being by saying that it was in February, 1907, that I met Woodrow Wilson for the first time; yet no pangs not easily borne attend the memory.
The friendship which had its inception that evening at a dinner in the house of a mutual friend in Bermuda is the most sacred portion of my memory.
Woodrow Wilson went to his death unflinchingly, holding aloft his banner of great humanity.
I, who was honored by his friendship, who gloried and still glory in it, who was permitted to glimpse the clear, fine nobility his mind, paid a peculiar penalty which, if you please, was not wholly above those who were and are quickest to defend his name against the most far-fetched innuendo. What curious paradoxes do our prejudices bear!
And yet I am too proud to fight.
Fight? Against what, pray? against scandalous whispers which, so fine were that man's ears, he could not distinguish or, having distinguished, understand? No. I also am one of those thousands — perhaps millions — who today feel humble at the mention of his name, and growing army.
I did not fight when the Department of Justice sent men and women to — but I am not at all sure what they had in mind to do. Confiscate his letters to me, for one thing. Link the kaiser's system of espionage for another.
And I am not sure that my reactions were other than profound sorrow when, one day in 1916, a gntleman somewhat reluctantly describing himself as "the representative of the Rrpublican party" offered me two hundred and fifty thousand dollars — three hundred thousand — to enlist in a precious enterprise which had as its objective the impeachment of the President of the United States. Three hundred thousand? Pouf! Money, said he was not an object. And, if you please, he told me that my patriotism should convince me that to accept but lifting my voice in defense of my country.
Sorry for that man? Possibly, But unspeakably sorry for the noble spirit who was to mean so much to the world — the man they were so eager to ruin. And I find it almost amusing now to think that I could make no more vehement refusal of the remarkable offer than to say:
"I am sorry; I am not that sort of a woman."
Furtherr, one may not fight wraiths. As I look back over the years from 1907 to 1924, there seems to have been a considerable group of mythical characters bearing the name of Mary Allen Peck. Therfore let me say here that Mary Allen Pack ceased to be in 1912, when the courts gave her the legal right to resume her former name, Mary Allen Hulbert.
As this strange, distorted line of wraiths files past my mental eyes, there comes to me a Rip Van Winklish feeling — if I be I, any little dog will know me, but among these specters I do not see her to whom Woodrow Wilson gave his friendship.
Behold! In that line there is the scheming adventuress from whose wiles that good man had no chance to escape. How he would have laughed, after his first anger had passed, had he heard this, as I did, with my own ears.
There was the one who lived in Washington, drawing a huge salary in a government position created for her that she might be near him.
And there was the one who was bought off with huge sums of gold. Everything was in superlatives, I'd have you know.
There was "that awful creature, Mrs. Peck," who was hustled, no less, out of Washington on the eve of his marriage to Mrs. Galt, lest she make trouble.
And, last, the one the faithful Colonel House took to Europe to get safely out of the way.
A motley group, and tragic, in that the people who had honored the man with the greatest office within their gift for a moment, could have thought that he was the manner of man who could have such a hideously composite group created for him out of mud, slime, and the black fog of evil thought.
There was no man-woven design in our meeting. The commonest of coincidences attended it. But whereas he, of course, had neither heard nor dreamed of Mary Allen Peck prior to that idyllic Bermuda evening, I had silently appraised his mentality for as long before as the preceding summer.
I was at home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, not in the merriest of moods. What with this and that which can have no proper setting in this narrative, I was in mental and spiritual distress. I was armoring myself with literature, seeking strength in the old philosophers and sustenance in the newer. Weary of that, current fiction and magazines of opinion gave me recreation.
I can see now the rather enormous array of books and periodicals which disordered my rooms, and it is very clear how I picked up at random a copy of World's Work. I came upon a sympathetic article on Woodrow Wilson, the then new president of Princeton University, and from those pages something of his personality began to emerge. I thought idly that I'd like to know that man Wilson.
A negro cook once replied to my question as to whether she knew a certain plumber by saying:
"No, ma'am, I don't know him. I knows his name, but I never met his personality."
Well, it seemed destined that I should meet Woodrow Wilson's "personality" in the following winter. As I have said, it was at dinner in the house of a mutual friend, and in spite of the fact that I knew he was to be the guest of honor, and for all my desire of the summer to know this new president of Princeton, I was, without design, the last of the guests to arrive.
I had been at a tea which had been too amusing to abandon easily, and I had only time to slip into a dinner gown and respond to the family jeer, "Come, Never-ready," and be rushed by the two youths of our household down the long, cedar-lined drive, through the gates, across the moonlit road and up the hill, fragrant with Freesias, to the dinner party.
Fairly flung through the door, laughing and breathless, I saw a tallish figure unlimber itself from a low chair at the end of the long, half-lighted room. He came toward me with that little, friendly, understanding smile that was the first thing I met in Woodrow Wilson's personality.
In due course of this series I shall set down in greater detail — at least in such detail as my memory supplies — those incidents and conversations which best tell the story. But let me be fair. You cannot hope for all that gossip suggests; it was not my gossip, you know. Perhaps you may prepare for dull moments — who may say? They were not dull for me, but I, poor soul, may be a lamentably poor judge of what will be sprightly in your ear and to your eye.
Do you know that, in all the years I knew Woodrow Wilson, the time we spent together, if consolidated, would surely not exceed ninety days? And in these ninety days I include ten which I spent in the White House with the Wilson family at the invitation — would you believe it? — of the adorable woman who was his first wife, Ellen Axson Wilson.
Such time would include, too, days I spent with the Wilsons in Princeton and days the Wilsons spent with me in my home in Pittsfield.
And there would be those hours which represented flying visits made by Ellen Axson Wilson and her husband to the home of my mother and me in East Twenty-seventh Street. New York City. In this place there was a wondrous view of the Metropolitan Tower, which, clothed in its night raiment of light, gave joy to the soul of Mrs. Wilson, who would sit in the window watching and rhapsodizing.
Tush! Enough of that feeble porridge! What they want is the meat on which this, our gossip, is fed. This dreadful creature, Mrs. Peck, cannot put us, the friends of Woodrow Wilson, off with that bosh. We know. We know.
But alas, I must proceed with my foundations of my narrative. I must, forsooth, assure you that of those relatively few days I was in Woodrow Wilson's presence, there were some spent at Sea Girt, which they chose to call the summer capital of New Jersey. And some in Trenton. Some on the beach in Bermuda. And one — ah, but an hour of one — in Los Angeles, where I beheld him for the last time.
William Allen White writes in Liberty that "in Los Angeles he (Woodrow Wilson) found a note from Mary Hulbert. He and Mrs. Wilson went to see her."
Mr. White will be the first to acknowledge his error. It was in response to a note delivered to me in Los Angeles, where I was then living, that I went to the Alexandria Hotel, where Mr. and Mrs. Wilson received me. And there is so little to tell of it. He had fared forth among his countrymen with his cry in the wilderness only to have it lose itself in uncomprehending ears.
Two days after my call at the Alexandria, while he was returning to the East, he collapsed. Yet on that day he seemed to my eyes a man in good health. So much so, in fact, that I said:
"You look so well."
"Oddly enough," he replied, with that same friendly smile I had met in Bermuda, "I do not feel well. I feel as if all those things which I have succeeded hitherto in escaping have fallen upon me."
No, for the most part, my relations with Woodrow Wilson were wider in our letters. Those letters, you must know, may not be published by me because the law has it that they are hot mine to publish. I may continue to hold them and read and reread them, but I may not, without the permission of the executors of his estate, spread them before you.
The only defense of his fair name I could think of was to publish them, give them to the world, that the great hungry public might see how little there was in them to cause the loose lip to drool and the psychopathic mind to inflame.
And would that ingratiating gentleman of 1916 offer staggering wealth for them now?
Woodrow Wilson is dead; he will not be impeached in the court wherein God presides.
But these are weak, piping times of peace. Gone are the days when the charming young woman came to me all aflutter and terribly solicitous for my future. She let it be known that her fiancÚ was an operative in the Department of Justice and, such being the case, she was, oh, so eager to be my friend!
"I have come to tell you," she said in guarded tones, "that the Department of Justice is after you."
"Why?" I asked.
"It is said that you have been showing letters and photographs of the President."
"Hardly that. I have, however, shown this letter to a number of publishers who, unhappily, however, fail to view it with the enthusiasm I yearn for."
And I handed her the letter.
Please let me explain the doleful circumstance. I was without funds and, although I had been thus lamentably situated for some time, I had not acquired a disregard for the condition. Moreover, my son had lost that vigorous health which had been his, and was unable to engage in hard or prolonged labor.
It was my delusion that I might compile and have published a book of food recipes, and I had written of my inspiration to Mr. Wilson and he had replied. Too bad I may not reproduce here that painless little epistle. But he seemed to rejoice in my ambition. He included praises of my ability with the skillet and saucepan. Good gracious! He was almost as enthusiastic as was Serjeant Buzfuz when addressing the court about Mrs. Bardell's chops and tomato sauce, so largely devoured by Mr. Pickwick.
"That is the letter I have been showing," I told the young woman.
"Bah!" she cried in great disgust. "Just something dashed off by a stenographer."
"Precisely," I agreed. "And now please be honest with me. Just whom or what do you represent?"
"The Department of Justice," she said.
How absurd it all was — and how pathetic! One by one, few by few, group by group, my erstwhile friends had deserted me. Guilty or innocent, I was that dreadful Peck woman, and those who cared for their own social standing could not afford to remain.
A few did, to be sure, but, dear, loyal souls, they, too, will raise their eyes to Heaven as I pass, now that I have set my story on paper.
"Mary Hulbert," said one who, I know, is too fine to leave me in any event, "Mary Hulbert, if you write these articles you will lose what shred of reputation you have left."
But how I roam! I had in mind to tell the story chronologically, and see what I have done! But I make amends, and, at the risk of grievously disappointing, I make a fresh start to tell what I said to Woodrow Wilson and what Woodrow Wilson said to me on the first night of our meeting.
It was in Bermuda, you know, and the stupid truth is, for the most part, that that first conversation was rather general and had to do with such matters as lilies, and onions, and potatoes, and the grasping, cruel commission merchants handling these things in New York. Of tennis in Happy Valley. Of yacht races. Of the new regiment just out from some end the earth.
One was prepared to find Woodrow Wilson interesting and believe him clever and learned, but it was not these things that charmed. It was his readiness to be pleased with and interested in what others had to say, and the fun of playing with him at the perfect game of light-hearted talk, of which we had learned the secret.
Of course, one manages to conceal for a part of the time at least that one has no other line of talk.
I do recall that he and I fell to the subject of freedom as the thing most to be desired. Upon my rather flippant objection to his illustration of the perfect freedom of a piston moving in its ordered groove as sounding too much like a rut to be appealing, he offered a more alluring picture, saying:
"Very well, then, a ship, sails set, moving proudly over the surface of the water, yet obeying each least touch upon the rudder."
"Ah, but that means two," I replied. "I want to be the whole free independent thing — ship, sails, rudder, and guiding hand."
I rather enjoyed expounding my views with great freedom and at length, and he chose to let it amuse him. Apropos such fulminations from me he said on one occasion:
"Yes, yes; I know what you mean. But it isn't in the least what you say."
I saw Woodrow Wilson but once again that first winter. After that dinner friends drove him from Paget to Hamilton, where he was stopping, and I rode with him, being dropped at my own house on the return from Paget.
Before he and I had said good-night I asked him to come for tea on Sunday. He declined, explaining that he would then be at sea, en route for New York. Then we arranged that he should take dinner with my mother and me on the following night.
We were living at Inwood, Paget East, our home for several happy winters. It is an enchanting old place, set in ample grounds and retaining the quaint charm of the early days of the island. Its walls of coral were thick; its mantel, beams, doors, and windows of the cedars of Bermuda, toned by age to a golden brown, a delight to the eye and satin smooth to the touch.
In the drawing room, old Dutch tiles lined the chimney, over which hung the portrait of a young man in the Seventeenth Century ruffles and gay brocaded coat. On either side of the fireplace the powder rooms, fanlights over the half doors. It was delightful to entertain there; to set the stage and assemble the players and be alone in the quiet moments just before the guests arrived.
Publication Date: December 20, 1924