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Heroic and Heartbreaking: The Woodrow Wilson Story

By Ellen Gilbert

“If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”

His inauguration as the 28th President of the United States took place 101 years ago, but Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) is very much in the news these days. There is a hefty new biography, Wilson, published by Putnam, from Princeton University graduate A. Scott Berg (’71) that draws on previously inaccessible letters from Wilson’s daughter and his personal physician. Reviewers, for the most part, like the book. So, apparently, does actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who has optioned Wilson for a movie in which he plans to star.

Powerful historical characters are not new to DiCaprio, who gave us the machinations of FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover in J. Edgar and the eerie perfectionism of the young Howard Hughes in The Aviator. The first was directed by Clint Eastwood, the second by Martin Scorsese. One could point to an already existing Princeton connection since DiCaprio played Jay Gatsby in a film version of the book by former Princeton student F.Scott Fitzgerald.

The new movie will be produced by DiCaprio, Jennifer Davisson Killoran, and Berg. It should be interesting to see how much it hews to a book in which each chapter title draws on the New Testament, starting with “Ascension” and ending with “Resurrection.” It took Berg 13 years to detail a life that that he describes as “the most dramatic ever to unfold in the White House.” So far there is no indication of who will write and direct the new movie.

Berg had lots of additional material to draw on, of course. Princeton University Press has played a major role in preserving and understanding Wilson’s life, particularly with the publication, starting in 1966, of the Papers of Woodrow Wilson, edited by Arthur S. Link. “This was a man who wrote down everything he ever thought he felt,” Berg has observed, so it’s not surprising to learn that the entire set comprises 69 volumes.


Although there was an earlier Wilson biopic (1944), it is unlikely to provide much inspiration for the newer treatment. Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck and clocking in at 154 minutes, Wilson is now described as “perhaps, the only box office disaster in the history of Hollywood to have received so many Oscar nominations (10), to have won as many Oscars as it did (5), and to have received so much critical acclaim.” Canadian actor Alexander Knox keeps his chin up and his expression determined as he portrays Wilson as president of Princeton University; his swift rise to president of the United States; through his sad decline and eventual death in 1924. Knox was 37 when the movie was shot; his upper lip gets stiffer and his hair gets grayer with the passage of time. The make-up department at Warner Brothers will have their work cut out for them if DiCaprio, who is 39, honors Berg’s wish to humanize Wilson during his life, while also following him to his death at 69.


Conversations about the new biography occasionally evoke parallels between the Wilson era and our own. Vanity Fair went so far as to enthuse that “with the prescience that all truly great biographers possess, Berg discovered in Woodrow Wilson a figure who would understand Washington’s current state of affairs.”

Wilson and President Obama actually have quite a lot in common. Both have been described more than once as “aloof” and “scholarly.” A recent New York Times podcast refers to Wilson as “Professor-in-Chief” and David Remnick uses the same appellation for Obama in his latest New Yorker profile of the president. Both presidents are authors of books, and both have contended with recalcitrant (to say the least? Congresses.

The current president’s devotion to his wife and daughters is well known. Wilson was also a devoted father to his three daughters, and there are many passionate love letters documenting his feelings for both of his wives, Edith, his first wife who was married to him in 1885 and died in 1914, and Ellen, whom he courted at the White House and was married to from 1915 until his death in 1924. Ellen is well known for assuming responsibility as a presidential surrogate after Wilson was badly compromised by a stroke in 1919.


Princeton has hosted film crews in the past, and it’s a good bet that the Berg-DiCaprio project will alight here for at least a few days. The Zanuck movie did, and, if it is to be believed, Knox’s Wilson was serenaded by beautifully attired Princeton men singing in perfect harmony at every turn.

Wilson was still called “Tommy” (his first name was actually Thomas) when he entered Princeton as a member of the Class of 1879. He served as managing editor of the Daily Princetonian, organized a student club for discussion of public affairs, and was elected speaker of the American Whig Society, one of two principal campus groups at the time.

He returned to Princeton as professor of jurisprudence in 1890, creating a strong pre-law curriculum. His supportive style endeared him to students who voted him most popular teacher, and his idealism informed everything he did. In his “Princeton in the Nation’s Service,” speech delivered in 1896 during the University’s 150th anniversary, he told students and alumni, “You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement.” He reiterated this sentiment at his inauguration as the University’s president in 1902. It was in this same spirit that the University created the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 1930. In the 1990s, the motto was expanded by then-President Harold T. Shapiro to read “Princeton in the Nation’s Service and in the Service of All Nations.”

Although it was 25 times greater than the school’s annual budget, trustees immediately approved Wilson’s request for $12.5 million to beef up the University when he became president. Academic programs were created or recreated, and the school’s administrative structure revamped. Wilson’s energy and political independence captured the imagination of voters in New Jersey who elected him governor in 1910. The presidency of the United States followed in short order and, as Berg notes, “he came to the White House with a short resume: president of Princeton and two years as governor of New Jersey.”

The University marked the 100th anniversary of Wilson’s election to the White House with an exhibition in the Firestone Library that included material drawn from the University Archives and the Public Policy Collection along with rare Wilson memorabilia loaned by Anthony W. Atkiss, a member of Princeton’s class of 1961.


“Since his death, no president has had a reputation with more ups and downs than his,” another Wilson biographer, John Milton Cooper, Jr., has observed. There are differences of opinion over his reluctance to enter World War I, and uncertainties about whether or not it was the right thing to do when he finally did it in 1917. A list of his domestic achievements, like the creation of the Federal Reserve, the income tax, and passage of anti-trust legislation is particularly impressive. He was the first president to name a Jew (Louis Brandeis) to the Supreme Court, but his administration’s race relations, as Cooper notes, were “sorry,” and included an attempt to segregate Federal offices. Berg concurs. “He was more of an idealist than I thought, but also more of a Southern racist, and more suppressive of dissent, going after [Socialist presidential candidate and pacifist Eugene V.] Debs the way he did.”

Surely Wilson’s most profound series of ups and downs occurred in the years immediately following World War I. In his January 1918 Fourteen Points address, Wilson described a kind of humane “peace without victory” that appealed to both Americans and Europeans. He was the first president to go abroad, and his arrival in Paris was greeted by throngs of wildly appreciative citizens. (Cue the extras; this scene has Oscar written all over it and is a sure bet for DiCaprio’s Wilson.) Disappointed by having to compromise with British, French, and Italian allies, Wilson’s plan for a League of Nations didn’t fare well with Congress when he returned home. A planned nationwide railroad campaign to take his proposals to the people had to be aborted when Wilson fell ill. The final blow was a stroke that occurred within days of his return to Washington.


“The pathos of his life was more intense than I had imagined,” reports Berg. “Late in his administration, after his stroke, he sits in the East Room watching the documentary footage of his [triumphal 1919] arrival in Paris, and then he gets up and limps out of the room. It was just months earlier, and here was the ‘savior of the world’ now just this completely broken man, physically, mentally, emotionally. “When I started the book, I thought he was charmingly uncompromising,” recalls Berg. Later, Berg was struck by Wilson’s “incredible obstinacy,” a byproduct of staunch religious and moral values. “In the end I realized he shot himself in the foot, or worse, he stabbed himself in the heart.”

The 63-year old author, whose previous books include a National Book Award winning biography of editor Max Perkins; a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about Charles Lindbergh; and a bestseller about Katherine Hepburn, continued to be inspired by Wilson, however. The resulting book has elicited some rave reviews, like one from The Washington News: “[it] succeeds magnificently in elucidating Woodrow Wilson the man. Quietly, methodically, intuitively, the author examines almost every aspect of his subject’s life, from the religious to the sexual and almost everything in between.” Los Angeles Times described Berg as a “a one-man band of research and writing.”

“I don’t think of Wilson as messianic, but he was definitely a martyr,” concludes Berg. “He truly did feel he owed it to those who gave their lives. I’m inclined to think Wilson is the most passionate man who ever inhabited the White House.”

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