Monday, November 24, 2008

Margaret Woodrow Wilson

Ellen Wilson died in August of 1914 from Bright's Disease. Even before her death, all three of her daughter's aided her in her duties as White House hostess. After her death, they continued to serve their father until his remarriage in December of 1915 to Edith Galt, but most of the duties fell to Margaret as Nellie and Jessie were now married:
When the First Lady died, Margaret Wilson, the only remaining daughter at the White House, stepped in as hostess, growing to hate the pressures as well as the role. In a note to her sister Jessie, she apologized for not writing sooner, saying she had to entertain houseguests and callers “every minute.”

Margaret Wilson (who was my guessing game from the end of last week) trained in voice and piano at the Peabody Institute of Music. She debuted with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1915. She did perforances to raise money for the Red Cross during the First World War:
Margaret’s tireless treks across the world for American service men were a constant worry to her father. She would travel twenty miles down artillery-blasted roads to sing for two or three wounded soldiers, often after much bigger performances. By the end of the war, her outdoor concerts had strained her voice beyond repair, and the sights and experiences of battlefield horror prompted a nervous breakdown. Recuperating some months after the war at Grove Oak Inn in North Carolina, General John J. Pershing and his staff asked her to sing. When she told them how she had lost her singing voice, General Pershing rose and lifted his glass. “To Miss Wilson,” he said, “just as much a victim of war service as were the soldiers who filled this country’s hospitals.”

In 1923, Margaret Wilson quit performing to work for an advertising agency, but her life was never well documented:
Margaret returned to New York. Her life there remains somewhat of a mystery. It is said that she worked with the Biow Agency, an advertising firm, as a consultant and to develop new clients for the firm. Later, she attempted some speculation in oil stocks that went sour. It is not known whether she actually sold the stock or just introduced people to brokers. However, a letter from Helen Bones, the cousin who had lived with the Wilson’s in the White House, indicated that she had received repayment from Margaret. Helen Bones said she had entered the venture knowing it was a risk, and that it was not Margaret’s fault. However, she kept the money, knowing also that it meant much to Margaret’s sense of pride and honor to pay back everyone of her friends.

She later turned to Indian mysticism:
Margaret’s life would be altered forever. It was as if she had found the missing piece for which she had been searching all her life. She continued her studies in the States. In the 1930’s, she and author Joseph Campbell edited Swami Nikhilananda’s translation of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. Joseph Campbell was even then famous for his work in comparative world mythologies, and would later fascinate the country by his public television series, The Power of Myth.

Margaret went to live at Pondicherry, India, where Aurobindo had his ashram, or spiritual community. There she spent her days in prayer and meditation, working at her assigned tasks in the flower garden, and helping to type and edit Sri Aurobindo’s religious writings.

Her father’s stipend went further there, and Margaret was able to contribute one hundred dollars a month to the ashram and still have a little money for fresh fruit, and for her favorite facial lotions sent by Eleanor from home. There were two servants to prepare her simple meals, although she reserved for herself what she perceived as the privilege of washing Aurobindo’s dishes. “I am not homesick,” she told a visiting reporter. “In fact, I never felt more at home anywhere any time in my life.”

Margaret died in this religious community in India of uremia in 1944. While her obituary called her a recluse, her letters to her sisters show a full and happy life:
Her obituary as printed in the New York Times, called her a “recluse,” as though she were some sad hermit, but such was not the case. Letters between Margaret and her sister, Eleanor, show a fully alive, happy soul, at peace with herself. “Do you remember those beautiful words in the Bible?” she wrote her sister. “And I shall keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed (or fixed) on me? That is what we must do,” she said, “learn to stay our minds on Him.” In the same letter Margaret told Eleanor of her new name, given by Aurobindo. It was “Nishtha,” she said, and it meant a “one-pointed fixed and steady concentration, devotion and faith in the single aim.” Her intense times of prayer and meditation moved Margaret deeply. “Sometimes I feel as if the Divine were whispering to my soul, and I, in order to catch the faintest word, am listening as I have never listened before,” she wrote to a friend in the States. “Sometimes it is as if the Beloved and I were telling each other secrets that none could share except in a wordless communion with ‘Us.’”

This link for Margaret is a recording of her singing the Star Spangled Banner from the Panama Pacific International Exposition with her 25 cent royalty going to the Red Cross. Enjoy!

1 comment:

leslie said...

Ms. Wilson was a woman of great depth and action. She contributed greatly to progressive movements and human rights. President Wilson acknowledged his daughter Margaret as one of only a handful of people who advanced his thinking on the suffrage movement. Ms. Wilson is a historic figure who should never be forgotten. She inspires and served her country, world, and God completely. A life well lived.