First Ladies: Ellen Axson Wilson

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Ellen Louise Axson Wilson was the first wife of President Woodrow Wilson and mother of his children. She served as his First Lady until her death in 1914.

Ellen Wilson and daughter, Jessie

Ellen Louise Axson was born on May 15, 1860 in Savannah, Georgia. She was the daughter of Rev. Samuel Edward and Margaret Jane Hoyt Axson. She became a woman of refined tastes with a fondness for art, music and literature.

In 1881, her mother died and she took over the running of her father’s household.

In April 1883, she was visiting Jesse Woodrow Wilson in Rome, Georgia on family business. While there, she met Woodrow Wilson. He is said to have thought of her “What splendid laughing eyes!

The couple were engaged five months later. They waited to marry until he finished his postgraduate work at Johns Hopkins University.

Her father died in 1884 and she went North to study at the Art Students League of New York. After graduation, she pursued portrait art and received a medal for one of her works from the Paris International Exposition.

Ellen married Woodrow Wilson on June 24, 1885 at her paternal grandparents’ home in Savannah, Georgia.

The couple had three daughters together: Margaret born in 1886, Jessie born in 1887 and Eleanor born in 1889. Her younger brother also lived with the couple.

Wilson’s career at Princeton University began in 1890, bringing Ellen new social responsibilities. She took refuge from such demands in her art.

Ellen and Woodrow Wilson

In 1912, her husband became president. They decided not to have an inaugural ball.

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.

She died on August 6, 1914 of Bright’s disease.

She murmured at the end, “…take good care of my husband.”

She was buried at Myrtle Hill Cemetery in Rome, Georgia. Her husband remarried the following year.



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