Helen Woodrow Bones

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Photograph of Helen Woodrow Bones.
Photograph of Helen Woodrow Bones.
Photograph of (left to right) Helen Woodrow Bones, Cary T. Grayson, and Eleanor Wilson, later Eleanor Wilson McAdoo.
Photograph of (left to right) Helen Woodrow Bones, Cary T. Grayson, and Eleanor Wilson.

Helen Woodrow Bones (1874–1951)[1] was Woodrow Wilson's first cousin and also, from her childhood, a friend of Wilson's first wife Ellen. Bones moved to the White House as Ellen Wilson's private secretary after Wilson's 1912 election as US President. After Ellen Wilson's death in 1914, Bones served as a "surrogate first lady" in the Wilson White House until his second marriage sixteen months later.[2][3]

Early life[edit]

Helen Woodrow Bones was born October 31, 1874, in Rome, Georgia. Her father James was a Presbyterian minister, and her mother (b. Marion Woodrow) was the sister of Woodrow Wilson's mother Jessie. The parents of Helen Bones and Woodrow Wilson had a close relationship, so that "the young cousins were intimates of each other's households."[4]

Helen and her family were also close friends with the family of Ellen Axson (later Ellen Wilson), whose father was pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Rome, Georgia.[2][3] During an 1883 visit to his Bones cousins in Georgia, Woodrow Wilson first met Ellen Axson in the home of Helen's older sister Jessie Bones Brower. This first meeting was followed by an impromptu picnic; eight-year-old Helen rode along on the young couple's seven-mile wagon trip to the picnic site.[2]

Bones attended high school in Chicago, where her sister Jessie Brower lived. After graduation, she moved to Princeton, NJ, where she lived with Woodrow and Ellen Wilson and their family while attending college. According to one account of those years[2]:

When Helen Bones was nineteen years old, she enrolled at Evelyn College for Women, which was associated with Princeton University where Wilson was employed as a professor. She lived with the family, becoming something of a fourth sister to the three Wilson daughters...President Wilson especially liked to tease Helen Bones, and she felt free to “egg[ed] him on when he felt foolish, much to everyone’s delight.” Nell Wilson described her as a “lovely little creature with blue-black hair and gold-flecked eyes.”

After finishing college, Bones moved north to work in the publishing industry in New York and Chicago. She agreed to move to Washington, DC as Ellen Wilson's private secretary after Wilson's 1912 election as US President.[5]

White House years[edit]

Helen Woodrow Bones moved into the White House in 1913, where her first job as Ellen Wilson's private secretary was to organize tickets for inauguration events. According to Wilson's daughter Eleanor[2]:

We all breathed sighs of relief and pleasure when she arrived. She worked like a small steam engine plowing through stacks of letters and she still teased and laughed with father, as she had done in the old days…Helen Bones was the greatest possible help to mother. She took care of all her personal correspondence, managed the private account books, and relieved her of many worries and cares…Helen was very popular in every overlapping circle of Washington society, and I don’t know how any of us could have gotten along without her. She helped us all in a thousand ways, and fitted perfectly into the family group. Her room was always a sort of rendezvous; the door was open all day long, and we drifted in and out, sometimes ending the day with an impromptu tea around her fire…

Bones played multiple roles in the early Wilson White House: she was part of Ellen's secretarial staff but also her close personal friend and supporter. As such, she combined many social duties with administrative responsibilities.[3][6]

When Ellen Wilson's health began to deteriorate in early 1914, Bones took on additional hostess duties in the White House, which continued after Ellen’s death in August of that year.[7] Bones shared the role of "surrogate First Lady" with the Wilsons' daughter Margaret, with Bones's primary job being to support the grieving widower.[2][8] Within months, Bones's health began to deteriorate under the pressure of Wilson's grief and her own. For therapy, the President's doctor suggested that Bones take up walking, and recommended as her companion an elegant widowed socialite and businesswoman named Edith Galt.[2]

Bones and Galt soon became frequent walking companions. On March 18, 1915, Bones invited her new friend to tea at the White House, on a day when Wilson would be out playing golf. Wilson returned early, however, and decided to join the two friends having tea.[9] On December 18, 1915, not much more than a year after the death of his first wife, Wilson married Edith Galt.[10]

Bones remained part of the Wilson household during the 1916 campaign and the Wilsons' return to the White House. With Edith Wilson, she took an active role in volunteer work during World War I.

Later life[edit]

Although Bones remained on friendly terms with the Wilson family (and in 1924 was invited by Edith Wilson to take part with the family in private as well as public ceremonies for Woodrow Wilson's funeral,) she moved out of the White House in early 1919.[2]

Bones then resumed her previous career as a book publishing editor in New York City. After retiring, she moved back to her childhood home in Rome, Georgia, where she died on June 4, 1951.


  1. ^ Thomas Woodrow Wilson: family ties and southern perspectives, by Erick Montgomery, published 2006 by Historic Augusta, OCLC Number: 83747417, page 119.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h "First Lady Biography: Ellen Wilson". National First Ladies’ Library. Retrieved August 21, 2018. In the sixteen month period between the death of his first wife and his remarriage to his second wife, the efforts of the President’s cousin on his behalf were publicly more obscure than that of his daughter. This interim period nevertheless underlines the usually multiple roles assumed by a First Lady who is the president’s wife. Helen Bones assumed the more private roles of confidante and caretaker for her widowed cousin, while Margaret Wilson took on the public ones of hostess and civic leader. 
  3. ^ a b c Lewis L. Gould (4 February 2014). American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy. Taylor & Francis. pp. 234–. ISBN 978-1-135-31155-1. 
  4. ^ George, Juliette L.; George, Alexander L. (2006). "The Impact of Personality on Public Functioning: The Case of Woodrow Wilson". The Art of Political Leadership: Essays in Honor of Fred I. Greenstein. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 100. The Boneses and Tommy’s parents had a close relationship, and the young cousins were intimates of each other's households. Wilson, Helen Bones said, was “a shy and extremely sensitive boy.” 
  5. ^ "Pioneering Women of the Woodrow Wilson White House, 1913–1921 – White House Historical Association". Whitehousehistory.org. Retrieved 2018-08-15. Two other professional women were prominent in the Wilson White House, both entering as secretaries to the first lady. Helen Woodrow Bones most interested the media. Born in 1874 in Rome, Georgia, she was a first cousin of Woodrow Wilson’s. Although hailed as a tantalizing beauty when she entered Georgia society in the 1890s, she had remained unmarried and moved north to work in the publishing industry in Chicago and New York. She loved her work and agreed to serve as Ellen Wilson’s secretary with some reluctance. 
  6. ^ Bill Harris; Laura Ross (1 February 2013). First Ladies Fact Book – Revised and Updated: The Childhoods, Courtships, Marriages, Campaigns, Accomplishments, and Legacies of Every First Lady from Martha Washington to Michelle Obama. Running Press. pp. 934–. ISBN 978-1-60376-313-4. 
  7. ^ James S. McCallops (2003). Edith Bolling Galt Wilson: The Unintended President. Nova Publishers. pp. 11, 12–. ISBN 978-1-59033-556-7. 
  8. ^ Johnson, Jone. "When the President's Wife Is Not First Lady". Thoughtco.com. Retrieved 2018-08-15. 
  9. ^ Barry Hankins (26 May 2016). Woodrow Wilson: Ruling Elder, Spiritual President. OUP Oxford. pp. 166–. ISBN 978-0-19-102818-2. 
  10. ^ History. "Woodrow Wilson marries Edith Bolling Galt - Dec 18, 1915". HISTORY.com. Retrieved 2018-08-15.