An Historic Secret Takes Center Stage in The Second Mrs. Wilson

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

The idea for “The Second Mrs. Wilson,” now running at George Street Playhouse, came to Tony-winning playwright Joe DiPietro from a line in an article about female politicians.

“It said, ‘many people believe that Hillary Clinton will be our first female president,’ and then in parentheses it said: ‘Of course, many people believe Edith Wilson was already our first female president.’ And I was like, ‘I know some things about Woodrow Wilson and that’s sort of new to me,'” he said.

DiPietro’s research led him to the rarely-told story of President Woodrow Wilson and his second wife Edith. It centers on love, politics and fraud.

“They fell in love like that, and he wound up marrying her very quickly,” he said. “And when Woodrow had a major, major stroke while negotiating the Treaty of Versailles, Edith took over the country.”

This was 1919. The 19th amendment giving women the right to vote had just passed, and according to DiPietro, Edith Wilson was arguably running the country. She kept the president’s condition a secret with a handful of others in order to further his projects — mainly promoting development of The League of Nations following World War I.

“It’s the story of probably the biggest American coverup in D.C.,” DiPietro says. “It makes Watergate look like nothing. I mean, love or hate Edith Wilson, she did a remarkable job of keeping her husband in power.”

The period piece is also largely about something all too familiar to present-day audiences: partisan politics.

There are certainly parallels in politics today. “Oh my gosh, yeah,” said DiPietro. “I think if you’re writing an historical drama, you write it because there are echoes that have echoed over the years and are still true today. And certainly the idea that to compromise is to surrender is something that is very prevalent in today’s political climate.”

Of course the challenge in writing about behind-the-scenes political maneuvering nearly a century ago is that there isn’t a ton of source material. How do you walk that line between being true to their story and also being dramatically interesting?

“Well, everything in the show is based on fact — what we know. Sort of what happened. But I would say emotionally, everything had to make sense,” explains DiPietro. “For instance, there are a couple scenes where two people meet and argue, that they actually didn’t meet at that time, but they wrote letters to each other with those ideas in it. So I thought, ‘letters aren’t particularly dramatic onstage, but two people confronting each other is.'”

The artistic liberties are helpful in fleshing out this secretive moment in history — and the questions it presents.

“Should she have kept this man in power,” asks DiPietro, “or should she have taken him away to where he could have rest, which is probably what would’ve been best for her health [and] his health. And you have to decide if it would have been best for the country or not.”

Even with nearly a hundred years of hindsight, it’s a question that will leave audiences with fodder for debate long after the cast takes its bows.