In This Episode
“Waging a war against half the globe has been really stressful for me.”
Sure World War I is over, but the brutal war inside the White House has only just begun. And the unelected traitor in the President’s midst might not be who you think it is.
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Edith, voice over: Have you heard this one? There’s these two widowed sisters and they live together in a mansion and they love each other and, uh, things are pretty good for a while until one of them dies. And then pretty soon after the other one dies and naturally they come back as ghosts. One day, the younger sister says to the older sister, “Do you know why ghosts are transparent?” And the older sister says, “no, why?” And the younger sister says, “Because we have nothing left to hide.” The older sister thinks and says, “Well, in that case, you should know that I slept with her husband.” And the younger sister says, “I knew that gonorrhea looked familiar. Shame it killed us both.” The point is, I’m already dead, so I have no reason to lie. Ignore the textbooks, ignore the historians, I’m going to tell you what really happened in the White House in the fall of 1919. My name is Edith Wilson, and I was not the first female president.
[loc. Ocean liner. Seagull sounds]
Woman: No! Don’t, don’t put it on the ground. I want it on the right side, starboard side, or whatever you all call it.
Porter Sorry to bother you, but would you mind moving your luggage out of the hallway? It’s blocking other first class guests from boarding their rooms. Ma’am, waiting to cross in our hallway right now is the first lady.
Woman: Yes. And my husband is an executive at Bethlehem Steel.
[background violin music plays]
Edith: Did you just say Bethlehem Steel? I know someone from Bethlehem Steel. What’s his name? He’s been to some White House parties. He’s, oh—got it. Charles Shwep!
Woman: Schwab? Mr. Charles Schwab? Is that—
Edith: That’s him. Not the bank one. The steel one.
Woman: OK, you know what? I’ll have time for this.
Edith: That Charles Schwab. At every party, it’s like he, [laughs] it’s like he clings to my every word, you know. Next time I should ask him if he knows your husband, Mr., uh, what’s his name?
Woman: Samuel Reginald Taylor.
Edith: Right. Mr. Samuel Reginald Taylor. This whole interaction would give us something to talk about. And like I said, Charles loves talking to me. He clings to my every word. Really listens.
Woman: I’ll move my bags right away.
Edith: Thank you. You’re a doll.
Porter Madam First Lady. That was incredible. Do you really know that man, Charles Schwab?
Edith: [laughs] No. Do you think I became first lady to spend time with people from Pennsylvania? God.
[loc: French palace guest room]
Edith: What do you think of Paris so far, Trudie?
Trudie: I love it, but when do you think they’ll be done with the Eiffel Tower?
Edith: Oh, they are done. That’s what it’s supposed to look like.
Trudie: Really? It’s just like scaffolding? Wow. That is so European. It’s true art. So bold. Looks like a drilling rig.
Edith, voice over: This is Trudie. She’s my best friend. She’s in her 20s. I’m in my 40s. She has an old soul, and I have a young everything.
Edith: Oh, I’m so glad you could finally make it. These were a boring few weeks without you. How was your trip?
Trudie: Good. You know, my fear of open waters, full of darkness, waiting to fill my lungs with watery death as the suction from the sinking ship drags me to the ocean floor, my flesh immediately torn apart by grab as my loved ones bury my coffin filled with nothing but their grief and pain and some rocks, barely flared up.
Edith, voice over: Trudy’s mother died when her boat sank crossing the Atlantic. Her father died a few years later, and now she’s an orphan. In fact, that was around the time we met. But if you’re reading into the psychology of our friendship, don’t.
Trudie: Oh, I saw Woodrow in the hallway. He was looking out a window whispering “Hello, new dawn.” Even though it was noon.
Edith: He’s been like that ever since the fighting stopped. It means he’s happy. You should have heard him last night. He was on a poetry bender.
[loc. moving car]
Woodrow: “Breathless with adoration, the broad sun is sinking down in its tranquility.” William Wordsworth.
Edith: That’s what I love about you, Woodrow. Other men would have just said “when’s dinner?”
Edith, voice over: That’s Woodrow Wilson, 20th president of the United States and maybe the best we’ve ever had, and surprisingly sensitive. He loved poetry, art, long walks on the beach. He was pretty racist, but it was the poetry that won my heart.
Woodrow: I’m in such a good mood, Edith. I don’t know if you can tell, but waging a war against half the globe was really stressful for me.
Edith: Oh, I noticed. I’ve also noticed your headaches have gotten better.
Woodrow: They have! It’s all finally over. I won a war. Me! A man who’s never been punched. And with the League of Nations, I’m going to end the next war before it even begins. Oh, sweet victory. Sweet victory, thy taste—
Edith: Put a pin in the poetry, we’re here.
[loc. French palace, dining room]
Edith, voice over: So we got to work on the League of Nations, which is basically the United Nations, but two decades earlier.
Robert Lansing: A prompt rejoinder would prove propitious if we want the Europeans to authorize without rollback or concession vis-a-vis the treaty.
Edith: This is Robert Lansing, Secretary of State. He’s boring. He’s dry. He’s a human golf clap.
Robert Lansing: You know what, Mr. President, the First lady explains it much better than I ever could. Please . . .
Edith, voice over: So, yeah, I like him.
Edith: Look, Woodrow, it may not be popular with the Europeans and the other allies—they’ve all been so moody since half their continent burned down—but if we tie up the League of Nations as much as possible into the peace treaty, it makes it that much harder for Republicans to oppose us. I mean, are they really going to take a stance to be anti-peace treaty? They instantly look crazy to any American simply scanning the newspapers, wrapping up the fish they bought at the market.
Edith, voice over: My God, I’m good at this.
Woodrow: That is a great point.
Robert Lansing: If we all had wives like yours, Mr. President, maybe Washington wouldn’t be such a goddamn mess. [laughter]
[loc, French palace guest room]
Trudie: Oh, my God. So funny, so true,
Edith: They’re actually going to do what I say! I mean, I won’t get credit for it and I won’t be allowed to assist with the more intricate negotiations. But—
Trudie: So what!? How many first ladies had any impact on foreign policy? I can only think of one. And her name is Edith Wilson.
Edith: Oh! That is so sweet. That’s like a compliment to me and an insult to like 27 other women.
Trudie: Oh, that reminds me. I’ve been going over the seating chart for the Belgian state dinner.
Edith: Oh, that.
Trudie: Should we see the ambassador with the royals or the fellow diplomats?
Edith: Does it matter? I mean, compared to, you know, all the big stuff?
Trudie: I think it’s exciting. With this seating chart, we can start new friendships, cement old bonds, inspire illicit extramarital affairs that end in tragedy.
Edith: Trudie, this is Washington. Would you want to have an affair with anyone here?
Trudie: No, no. No! No way. Definitely not Teddy Roosevelt. Why would you ask me about Teddy Roosevelt, a man whose biceps constantly glisten from the morning hunt? [laughs] Not my type.
Edith, voice over: Trudie’s husband is actually Woodrow’s doctor, Dr. Cary Grayson, who is also Woodrow’s best friend. That’s right. Woodrow’s best friend is literally his doctor. Which honestly, for a man who gets sick as often as Woodrow, it saves us a lot of money.
Edith: So, you actually like doing this?
Trudie: Yes, it’s like a puzzle. I love puzzles.
Edith: I wish I could find a part of this job that I love. I mean, God, I feel like I’m missing a puzzle piece that most first ladies have. That’s why I bring you everywhere, Trudie, because you’re that missing puzzle piece for me.
Trudie: Well, I am asymmetrical.
[loc Versailles Palace, announcements, crowds cheer]
[Announcement in French and English] The war is over. [champagne cork pops]
Trudie: [whispering] I saved you a seat.
Edith: [whispering] Thanks Trudie.
Trudie: I never thought I’d be among esteemed guests in the [in French accent] Hall of Mirrors. I can’t see.
Edith: It’s not much to see. Some old men are signing the treaty.
Trudie: Wow. And where’s Woodrow?
Edith: He, he’s approaching the table. He’s, he’s holding up the pen. He’s signing.
Trudie: Is he sweaty?
Edith: Yes. How do you know?
Trudie: I always get sweaty when signing my name.
Edith: You do?
Trudie: I’m like, how do I do it last time? What if I do it differently? What if the pen’s filled with blood? And what if a shark senses that blood?
Edith: I think Woodrow can handle signing his own name, Trudie. It’s, it’s like 75% of his job.
[loc. French palace guest room]
Woodrow: Edith, can you do me a favor?
Edith: What do you need?
Woodrow: Could you go to Lansing’s room and invite him up in a few minutes?
Edith: OK, but are you sure you still want him up here for a little celebration toast? You look a little . . .
Woodrow: It’s just a small headache. It’ll go away. I just, I just need a minute.
Edith: OK. Just rest a few minutes, I’ll go get Lansing.
[loc. Lansing’s study]
Edith, voice over: The thing about Lansing is he rose to one of the most powerful positions in government. He negotiated among the most complex international treaties in United States history.
Edith: Lansing? The front door was open and I . . .
Edith, voice over: So, you think someone as smart as Lansing would never be dumb enough to leave a letter like the one I just saw sitting there on his desk.
Robert Lansing: Edith?
Edith: Oh! My, God.
Robert Lansing: What are you doing here?
Edith: Oh. Lansing, you scared me. Woodrow wants to have a quick celebration toast.
Robert Lansing: Of course, I can’t wait to hear the beautiful poem Woodrow has chosen this time. I hope it rhymes. [Edith laughs]
Edith, voice over: But that’s the thing about smart people. They’re fucking idiots.
[loc. White House, President’s bedroom]
Edith: I couldn’t believe it. Right on the desk, in plain view, Lansing just left it there!. A letter addressed to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.
Trudie: Oh, my God. What!? That is insane. Who is that?
Edith: Senator Lodge? He’s like Woodrow’s greatest political enemy.
Edith, voice over: You’ll actually meet Henry Cabot Lodge later. But all you need to know about him is this:
[quotes from Lodge] What the president has done by tying this League of Nations to the peace treaty is to hold our great country hostage . . . With zero approval from Congress, the president has started the process to annex the Americas to the European systems . . . This may be a strange thing to say out loud, but I am Woodrow’s greatest political enemy.
Trudie: Oh, my God! So Lansing is evil and we have to destroy him.
Edith: Maybe. Maybe not. I mean, it’s possible that they’re just old friends.
Trudie: Or maybe their secret lovers?
Edith: Trudie, you literally think everyone is secret lovers?
Trudie: Yes, I’ve never been wrong.
Edith: Yes. You have. A lot.
Edith, voice over: Thanks to politicians like Lodge causing a fuss over nothing, Woodrow was forced to make speeches convincing the people that the League of Nations wasn’t terrifying. But here’s the thing about Woodrow, there’s one thing he truly loves: performing.
Woodrow: Any man with half a soul would see this through. And as an optimist, I believe the soul of Senator Lodge is still at least half full. Half full of what? Well, that depends which party you’re in.
Robert Lansing: Madam First Lady, you wrote that line, right? [laughs] Incredible jab.
Edith: Thank you Lansing. You can tell Lodge that one was mine.
Robert Lansing: I, uh, excuse me?
Edith: Joking, joking.
Robert Lansing: Oh, yes, yes, very good.
[Woodrow’s speech in the background] Nothing less . . . the United States of America.
Robert Lansing: Yes [laughs] yes, very good. I, uh . . . uh.
[Wilson leaves the stage]
Robert Lansing: A hell of a speech, Mr. President.
Edith: Thank you, Lansing.
Edith: That was amazing, my love. [kisses him]
Robert Lansing: Next stop, beautiful Indiana. Will you be paying the vice president a visit when we arrive?
Woodrow: I mean, I would, but . . .
Edith: He doesn’t know which whorehouse Marshall visits on Tuesdays.
Woodrow: I was going to put it nicer, but yes, pretty much that.
Robert Lansing: [laughs] I get it. Vice President Marshall is a useless drunk, but he’s good for a laugh, which is why I try and get a drink with that man whenever he is sober enough to get drunk.
Edith, voice over: That piece of information? That interested me. So I put on my Sunday worst and I went to see the Vice President.
Edith, voice over: You know how Democrats have a jackass for a mascot? Vice President Thomas Marshall is that jackass. He does have one very valuable skill. He’s good at getting people drunk and learning their secrets.
Trudie: Edith, should we even be here?
Edith: Definitely. I have to be certain about Lansing before telling Woodrow. Woodrow is sensitive. If I tell him, it’ll wreck his confidence, which will utterly kill his speaking abilities. He’s a performer. Trudie, he’s an artist.
Trudie: Yeah, I know—
Edith: Lansing is a lightweight. If he had even one beer with the Vice President, I’m sure he said way more than he should. I mean, everyone does.
Trudie: Yes, but—
Edith: I mean, unless you mean morally, in which case Trudie, this is politics. If we bind ourselves in the girdle of morality, we lose, Trudie, we lose.
Trudie: No. Yeah. I meant, are women even allowed in this pub?
Edith: We’re not women Trudie. Where the First Lady of the United States of America and . . . guest. Look, there he is. The small man getting up there on that table.
VP Marshall, singing: Oh, when I die, don’t bury me at all. Just pickle my balls in alcohol. Put the booze at my feet and up to my head. I don’t drink it up, if I don’t drink it up, if I don’t drink it all up, that’s when you’ll know that I’m dead. [laughs] [crowd claps]
Trudie: Holy crap, that’s him?
Edith: You surprised he’s a drunk?
Trudie: No, I’m surprised he has range.
Edith: Go fetch him a drink, and one for me too. A water, but put it in a dark glass so he can’t tell.
Edith: Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me. Watch it! Excuse me. Thomas!
Marshall: Wha? Madam First Lady?
Edith: Shhh. No one knows I’m here.
Marshall: [laughs] Welcome to Indiana! Home of no one caring who the fuck we are.
Trudie: Here are your drinks.
Edith: Thank you, sweetie.
Marshall: You got, you got me a drink Edith? Oh, thank you. [laughs] Here sweetie, little tip.
Trudie: Oh, thank you. But I’m not a waitress. I’m actually Trudie. I’m here with—
Voice: Waitress! Another round here.
Trudie: OK, right away sir.
Marshall: Edith. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you with a drink in your hand.
Edith: I have to be honest. I am here because I need something.
Marshall: Wow. You, you need something for me. Oh well [laughs] I’m flattered. And I never dreamt a lady as refined as you would ever require my assis—[coughs] Sorry. Choked on my own spit. What do you need?
Edith: Robert Lansing and Henry Cabot Lodge are communicating. They’re sending each other letters. Why? What are they up to?
Marshall: Hmm. Well, I can tell you, but only under one condition. You. Beat me. In a drinking competition. Yeah, if you can match me shot for shot, straight whiskey, and still ask me that question verbatim, I tell you everything. And if I win, you give me $500.
Edith: Wait. Really?
Marshall: No. I’m messing with you.
Edith: Oh, thank God.
Marshall: OK, Lansing is working with Lodge. Yeah. Those two are like Harvard’s admissions policy and anti-Semitism: inseparable. Lansing is telling everyone who listens that he thinks the League of Nations is a huge history-level mistake! You know how the League covenant is now tied with the peace treaty?
Edith: Yes, of course. It was my idea.
Marshall: Well, Landing thinks it’s the dumbest shit ever. And then you handed your enemies incredible leverage. If Woodrow doesn’t budge, they can trash the one piece of paper keeping us from global war. They got a royal flush.
Edith: Which they can play as long as they never want to win another election.
Marshall: Hey, hey. Those are his words, not mine. I don’t really follow politics
Edith: Heartbeat away from the presidency.
Marshall: But Lansing does. And he’s feeding the information to Lodge so Lodge can blow it up into a huge scandal. I mean, he’s going to beat you guys with it like a billy club.
Edith: Why? Why is Lansing doing this?
Marshall: Well, I’ll tell you on one condition. You. Beat me. At a drinking competition.
Edith: Just tell me.
Marshall: OK, fine. He’s trying to save Woodrow’s legacy. I mean, he had two beers, he spilled everything. He respects and loves your husband too much to watch him fuck up the world. Oh, every day I wake up and thank sweet Jesus that no one gives a shit about my legacy.
Edith: Oh, my God. Thank you, Marshall. You have no idea how good it was to see you.
Edith: Trudie, give me some change.
Trudie: Yeah. I got a ton in tips. Who you calling?
Edith: The New York World offices, if I can find them in my address book. Uh, oh, OK. OK, it’s New York, 30401.
Trudie: Wait. Are about to leak what we just found out about Lansing to a newspaper?
Trudie: Are you sure that’s OK?
Edith: Yes, Trudie. I love Woodrow, but he thinks the war is over. It is not. Trudie, this is the war. And if we don’t fight dirty, we lose.
Edith: Hello Operator?
[loc. White House]
Woodrow: [yawns] Tumulty, what’s so important, it couldn’t wait until sunrise?
Tumulty: Mr. President, I apologize, but the morning edition came in and, here, just read it.
Woodrow: Hmmm, is this a joke, Tumulty?
Tumulty: Um, no, sir, I don’t think newspapers do joke headlines.
Tumulty: Mr. President, are you OK?
Woodrow: Yes, Tumulty, I am OK. This is, excuse me. [door closes] Who, who would do this to me?
Edith: I know Woodrow! I know, I trusted Lansing too. I can’t believe he’d do this either.
Woodrow: No. What he did, it’s inexcusable, but that I can deal with. I can wrap him up in some scandal, fire him, humiliate him, whatever. But this is different.
Edith: What’s different? What, what are you talking about?
Woodrow: The leak. I mean, I don’t blame those Jews for writing this—
Edith, voice over: Just ignore that part. This is what I actually want you to see:
Woodrow: Who is close enough to me to know all these details, yet care so little about me, they’d embarrass me this way?
Edith: Embarrass you? Woodrow, this is way more embarrassing to Lansing.
Woodrow: No, not really. This makes him look like a bastard, yeah, but it makes me look weak. I just won a war, Edith. I had one chance, just one, to do something truly important, to cement my name in schoolbooks. And whoever put this out there, they just killed it.
Edith: I disagree. You just need to—
Woodrow: I don’t understand. Who, who would do this to me?
Edith: I, uh . . .
Edith, voice over: Have you ever looked at someone you love and told them something where afterwards they’d never look at you the same ever again? I slept with your parents. I killed your best friend. I slept with your parents after I killed your best friend. You know, one of those type of secrets. Painful but necessary to tell.
Edith: I, I, I don’t know, Woodrow. I have no idea who would do this to you.
Edith, voice over: Yeah, this was not one of those moments. I couldn’t fall asleep that entire night until about 3:00 a.m. when I finally closed my eyes and then:
Edith: Oh, Woodrow, what are you doing?
Woodrow: I wanted a sip of water, but my hand is shaking and I can’t quite lift my glass.
Edith: Your hand is shaking?
Woodrow: Yeah, maybe I just slept on it wrong.
Edith: Here, let me help you.
Woodrow: [drinks water] Thank you. Can you help me to the bathroom?
Edith: Do you want me to call Dr. Grayson?
Woodrow: No. I’m fine. And I’m sorry about losing it earlier today.
Edith: Please don’t apologize.
Woodrow: Too late. I already did. And by the way, all this, whenever I’ve ever seen sick, it’s all just an excuse to lock arms with you in the middle of the night.
Edith: I’m going to wait for you right outside the bathroom, OK?
Woodrow: Please, don’t make a fuss. No doctors tonight. If you’re still worried, we can call one tomorrow. [bathroom door closes, loud thus]
Edith: Woodrow. Woodrow! Woodrow!
Edith, voice over: I open the door, and well, it wasn’t as bad as everyone says. I mean, it was scary, but it wasn’t as bad as everyone says. It just wasn’t. I don’t, I don’t know what to say. It wasn’t. It wasn’t.
[loc. White House, President’s bedroom]
Edith, voice over: There wasn’t that much blood. People exaggerate. But Dr. Grayson showed up with Trudie very quickly. It wasn’t, my husband was not, I mean, it wasn’t like it was . . . He had a fall.
Dr. Grayson: Christ. That’s a lot of blood. How did he get on the bed? Edith? Edith. Trudie, can she hear me?
Trudie: Edith, are you OK?
Edith: Please help him.
Dr. Grayson: Trudie, escort the first lady outside, please, and clean her off.
Edith: I want to say.
Dr. Grayson: I can’t help your husband if you’re sitting here like this.
Trudie: Come on, Edith. It’s for the best.
[Edith and Trudie leave].
Trudie: Woodrow will be OK. He’s strong.
Edith: Strong? This isn’t the first time this has happened. Never this bad, but he’s had falls before. Does that sound strong, Trudie?
Trudie: I’m sorry. I’m just trying to help.
Edith, voice over: And that’s when I saw him, a viper, walking down the hallway towards me.
Edith: Oh, Lansing.
Trudie: Edith, your hands are covered in blood.
Edith: Shh, shh, shh.
Trudie: Give them to me. Oh, there, there. You’re OK. You’re OK.
Edith: Yes. Yeah. Yeah.
Robert Lansing: Madam First Lady. I came as soon as I possibly could.
Edith: Thank you. He’s doing fine.
Robert Lansing: Oh dear God. What a relief. I was so—
Edith: It was a lot of fuss about nothing. He’s the President so everybody loses their minds.
Robert Lansing: Right. Right. May I say hello?
Edith: No! I, uh, no. He’s taking a little nap.
Robert Lansing: Edith, I’m Secretary of State. I have to go in.
Edith: Sorry. It’s a no.
Robert Lansing: I have a responsibility. A duty.
Edith: Listen to me. If you go in there even for a moment, Woodrow will be furious. Like I am telling you, fire, brimstone, daggers from the eyes furious.
Robert Lansing: What? Why?
Because I’d tell Woodrow that you were insubordinate, that you disobeyed me. And that’s the thing about Woodrow, he’s the one person in this whole world who clings to my every word. Really listens.
Robert Lansing: I don’t get what’s happening here.
Edith: It’s simple. If you want to keep your job, you’ll turn right around and you’ll get the fuck out of my house.
Robert Lansing: Right. Well, I imagine this has been a difficult night, so if you need anything, I’m here to serve.
Edith: Oh, that means the world to me. I’ve seen how well you’ve served Woodrow.
[Lansing walks away]
Edith: Fucking idiot.
Trudie: Where are you going?
Edith: Into my room, to be by my husband’s side.
Trudie: I thought we weren’t allowed.
Edith: Trudy, this is my home. And until Woodrow wakes up, I decide what is and isn’t allowed. You’re the only one I trust. Do you trust me no matter what?
Trudie: Yeah, of course I do.
Edith: Well, get some rest. The sun will be up soon. The president has work to do in the morning.
Edith, voice over: I was not the first female president. I did what any loving wife would have done in a crisis, I protected my husband. From the traitors who tried to undermine him, the vipers who tried to destroy the League of Nations, the treaty, everything we fought for. I was a patriot who helped the country stay together while the president . . . uh, while the president, uh . . . took a little nap.