The Original Wilson Sisters

May 25, 2009 at 6:08 pm | Posted in First Family, Historical | Leave a comment
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Miss Jessie Wilson, standing, and Miss Eleanor R. Wilson, seated, reading.  c. 1912

Miss Jessie Wilson, standing, and Miss Eleanor R. Wilson, seated, reading. c. 1912

(Excerpt from Doug Wead’s All The President’s Children) Nellie [Eleanor Randolph Wilson, 16 October 1889 – 5 April 1967] first met William Gibbs McAdoo at the governor’s mansion in New Jersey. He had been a guest of the Wilson’s and was taking an early morning train home. Nellie was assigned to see him off. McAdoo was a leader in the Democratic Party who had greatly impressed Woodrow Wilson and, unknown to the governor, had prompted a bit of a reaction from his youngest daughter, as well. Nellie was so nervous at breakfast that morning that she spilled the cream and almost spilled his coffee.

By the time Wilson was president, William McAdoo was actively pursuing Nellie Wilson, not that anyone noticed. He was the new Secretary of the Treasury, a fifty-year-old grandfather, a widower with six children. She was twenty-three and secretly engaged to a mysterious young man she had met months before on a Mexican holiday. Nellie was often seen riding horses along the trails in the Rock Creek Park and staying out at dances till three in the morning. The press, which had missed discovering Francis Sayre, was now on high alert. They speculated continually about each of Nellie’s dancing partners, but understandably missed the significance of the treasury secretary’s comings and goings at the White House.

Wedding gift to Jessie Wilson from the House of Representatives

Wedding gift to Jessie Wilson from the House of Representatives

(Woodrow Wilson House) Jessie, (born August 28, 1887) the middle daughter of Woodrow and Ellen Wilson, had always been lauded for her unique beauty. However, she was more than just a pretty face. Always aware of injustices, Jessie (along with her sisters), insisted that her father favor women’s suffrage and she continued to remain active in women’s rights until her death. She was even approached to run for Senator of Massachusetts because of her reputation as politically aware and a champion of social issues. She became secretary of the Massachusetts Democratic State Committee instead. Highly educated for a women of her time, Jessie studied, like her sister Margaret, at Goucher College and at Princeton University, where she earned a Phi Beta Kappa key for her academic accomplishments

In August 1913, two weeks before the first performance of Sanctuary, A Bird Masque, Jessie was thrown from a horse and discovered unconscious in the road by a passing doctor.

Francis B. Sayre married Jessie Wilson at the White House on November 25, 1913.

Jessie and Francis’ oldest son, born in the White House January 17, 1915, was “the Very Rev. Francis B. Sayre Jr., who in his 27 years as dean of the National Cathedral in Washington raised his sonorous voice against McCarthyism, segregation, poverty and the Vietnam War while presiding over construction of the cathedral’s majestic Gloria in Excelsis Tower.” He died October 3, 2008.

Jessie Wilson Sayre died after an emergency appendectomy operation on January 15, 1933, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Margaret Wilson (16 April 1886, Gainesville, Georgia – 12 February 1944, Pondicherry, India), c. 1911

Margaret Wilson, c. 1911

Margaret, the first Wilson sister, never married. She attended Goucher College from 1903 to 1905 and studied voice and piano at the Peabody Conservatory of Music from 1905 to 1906. In 1915 came her professional debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Central New York Music Festival in Syracuse, New York. She traveled throughout the midwestern and southern United States on a concert tour for the American Red Cross in 1917 and sang in Allied army camps in France, Belgium, and England during 1918/1919. Entering the advertising business in 1928, Margaret became a consultant and writer for the Blow Agency in New York, New York in 1930. In 1938 she travelled to the ashram of Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry, India where she died from a kidney infection on February 14, 1944.

(Time, February 8, 1943)On southern India’s Coromandel Coast New York Times Correspondent Herbert L. Matthews last week stumbled on one of Woodrow Wilson’s daughters. The spit and image of her father, she lives in the French town of Pondicherry (now occupied by De Gaullists). She told Mr. Matthews that she was very happy after three years as a sadhak (follower) of an Indian religious teacher, Sri Aurobindo. Said she: “In fact, I never felt more at home anywhere.”

(Cross-posted at From Laurel Street)


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