Or was Woodrow Wilson’s 1910 relationship with the socialite widow nothing more than friendship?

Throughout the late 19th century, whenever winter gripped the Eastern Seaboard, a small coterie of affluent Americans took refuge in Bermuda. By day they walked, bicycled and sailed, while by night they became much sought after additions to the life of the colony’s social elite.

On Wednesdays, there was croquet and tea on the Governor’s lawn to the music of a regimental band. Here, Harper’s magazine reported, ” the learned judge, the sedate parson, the doughty colonel, the jovial mariner, all mingle [and] listen to little bits of talk about India during the Rebellion.”

But what Americans coveted most was an invitation to Admiralty House, especially whenever the Royal Navy appeared off Ireland Island. Many a rich American maiden, it was alleged, had matrimonial designs on the fleet’s best and brightest.

The nights at Admiralty House were never gayer than after Vice-Admiral Sir John Fisher was put in command of the North Atlantic Squadron in 1896. A bumptious young officer with a tremendous zest for life, Fisher loved to dance. He packed the invitation list with “American roses,” later explaining in his memoirs that they were “without question…the very best dancers in the world.”

One such “rose” was a young grass widow, Mrs. Thomas Peck, who had been coming to Bermuda since 1892 as a tonic for the “melancholia” of an unhappy marriage. A Michigan girl, Mary Peck found that Bermuda revived her midwestern vitality. In her autobiography, she recalled that every autumn she fell into the habit of making a ritual visit to her Massachusetts doctor. “When I coughed for him, he said: ‘Ah, the Bermuda cough!” A week later she would arrive in Hamilton, her husband mercifully left behind to tend his textile mill.

“Widow Peck” took “almost pagan delight” in Bermuda. She collected its cedar furniture, danced at its cotillions and read of its history. Invited to Admiralty House, she danced with “Jackie” Fisher, later riding on his admiral’s barge and visiting his flagship, the Renown. Despite appearances to the contrary, Fisher and Mrs. Peck never became romantically involved. Fisher would become Lord Fisher, champion of the Dreadnought navy and First Lord of the Admiralty. Bermuda was but a happy waystation on his rise to naval fame. For Mary Peck, however, the Island was to have more lasting importance.

Well-heeled North Americans had been coming to Bermuda for rest and relaxation since the 1860s. They saw it as a kind of salubrious Arcadia moored off their coast, immune from the grime and bustle of the urbanisation and industrialism that was transforming America. And it possessed “a certain air of indescribable quaintness and simplicity,” the novelist Julia Dorr told the readers of Atlantic Monthly in 1883. Bermuda, she proclaimed, could “never be overrun by a noisy, promiscuous rabble.” When Thomas Cook & Son began advertising tours out of New York to Bermuda in 1879, they also played on this appeal: “Speaking our own language, having the same origin, with manners which in many ways illustrate those prevalent in New England 75 years ago, the people are bound to us by many natural ties.”

Others were drawn to Bermuda’s natural environment in a kind of early eco-tourism. They peered into the Devil’s Hole and crawled through the Walsingham Caves, cataloguing species of fish, birds and mollusks that defied their North American experience. By 1901, Yale zoologist Addison Verrill had amassed sufficient data to publish a complete natural history of the Island and to present evening lectures on Bermudian geology at the Lowell Institute in Boston. Other Americans sought out the unique in Bermuda society; folklorists reported Gombey dancing as “a festal rite of Bermudian Negroes.” Above all else, people came to Bermuda to reduce stress. It was, one Canadian noted, “so near to the hurly burly of nerve-straining Gotham and yet it is a very haven of rest for body and mind.” This attraction was given broad currency by a succession of prominent literary and political visitors. Mark Twain first stepped ashore in 1867 and returned habitually until the eve of his death in 1910. “Bermuda,” he wrote, “is better than four or five or six million doctors.”

When Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise wintered in Bermuda in 1883, the New York Times dispatched a reporter to cover the visit. The reclusive princess failed to provide enough copy, and the charms of the colony soon found themselves filling countless column inches in America’s most influential paper: “Birds sing, crickets chirp, and people wear straw hats and drink sherry cobblers.” The prolific American novelist William Dean Howells echoed the theme. Bermuda, he said, was Eden without the serpents.

Widow Peck was therefore not alone in her affection for Bermuda. The Times reported that 1,000 Americans had paid a winter visit to Bermuda in 1883. By the turn of the century, that number had trebled. Steamer service improved, abetted by Bermuda Government subsidies, as Bermudians began to redirect their energies from the onion patch to the hotel reception desk. For $50 return, the Quebec Steamship Company carried Americans across the choppy Gulf Stream to what a local poet, Bessie Gray, writing in Scribner’s magazine, called the “isles of bloom and balm.”

Mary Allen Peck and Woodrow Wilson on the porch of Shoreby, Paget

On January 12, 1907, the SS Bermudian delivered another seasick American to the Hamilton Hotel for a respite from the rigours of winter. The newcomer’s immediate reaction was predictable: “It is mid-June here, warm and soft and languid,” he wrote to his wife. “Nations and all big affairs of whatever kind seem here remote and theoretical.” Woodrow Wilson, the 50-year-old president of Princeton University in New Jersey, had come to Bermuda to escape the draining pressures of academic politics, to overcome a bout of neuritis and to write a series of lectures. Wilson had probably chosen Bermuda on the advice of his predecessor at Princeton, the Bermuda-born theologian Francis Landey Patton.

Wilson had gravitated into intellectual life after a brief stint as a lawyer in Georgia. If Georgia did not give him a career, it did provide a wife: Ellen Axson, a Southern belle who would not only bear him three daughters but would blossom in her own right as a painter, editor, linguist and women’s advocate. Wilson, too, sought to promote reform– in his case to an American society grown topsy-turvy with growth — and the young, formative minds on the Princeton campus seemed a promising starting point. There were those who disagreed and, when Wilson proposed to dismantle Princeton’s elite student eating Clubs, the forces of academic conservatism rose up. Stubborn and idealistic, Wilson refused surrender, but the siege took its toll. Early in 1907, he confided to friends that he was “condemned to go” to Bermuda by his doctor to restore his nerves. When his daughter Nell fell ill, Wilton sailed alone, leaving Ellen to oversee the family.

Wilson found Bermuda a “great garden set for pleasure.” He walked its “crooked little lane, sailed out to the reefs with Patton’s son Jack, dined with the Governor and even addressed Paget Presbyterian Church. His legal back- ground drew him into friendship with Henry Cowper Gollan, Bermuda’s Chief Justice. By morning, Wilson drafted his lectures and then “loafed and talked” away the rest of the day. “I can at times forget everything and everybody in Princeton,” he reported to Ellen, “except you.”

And then, just days before the Bermudian was to bear him back to New York, Wilson met Mary Peck. The serious-minded academic developed an instant affinity for the vivacious socialite. “It is not often,” he wrote to “my dear Mrs. Peck” on the day of his departure, “that I can have the privilege of meeting anyone whom I can so entirely admire and enjoy.” Mrs. Peck replied: “It is always a privilege to know a truly great man.”

Wilson remained in touch with Peck through 1907, sending her essays by the English constitutionalist Walter Bagehot. He made no secret of his esteem for her. When he returned to Bermuda in January 1908, he almost immediately wrote his wife that he had “seen Mrs. Peck twice.” Actually, an invitation to lunch at her grand rented home, Inwood, had awaited Wilson on his arrival. But he was by no means the only one drawn to her “most engaging household.” Officers of the garrison dropped by and, when the steamer again deposited Mark Twain in Bermuda, it was into Mrs. Peck’s orbit that he propelled himself.

Once again, Wilson was searching for superlatives to describe his Bermuda experience. He concluded that Bermuda was “the best place in the world in which to forget Princeton.” Meanwhile, The Royal Gazette was reporting that Wilson’s “tall active figure looks a picture of health,” and the phrase “my Bermuda humour” began to punctuate his correspondence to the mainland. The man who wanted to “modernise” Princeton preferred Bermuda to remain old-fashioned and tranquil. The colony had only one motor car and Wilson admitted to being “delighted” that it had broken down. Later, when Parliament debated whether cars should be permitted to roam the colony’s lanes, the tourist community rallied to support the “antis.” Wilson helped to draft a petition that vilified cars as serpents in paradise. They would loose “reckless tourists” on “one of the last refuges now left in the world to which one can come to escape such persons.” The pro-car lobby didn’t stand a chance.

Wilson had clearly fallen in love with Bermuda. A handwritten salutation on the back of his draft of the petition– “My precious one, my beloved Mary”–seemed to indicate his heart was tending in other directions as well.

In 1908, Wilson arrived in Bermuda not only with burdens of family and university governance, but also to ponder the prospect of a political career. His reform crusade at Princeton had caught the eye of Democrats eager to dislodge the Square Deal grasp of “Teddy” Roosevelt on the presidency, and Wilson found himself rumoured as a New Jersey gubernatorial candidate.

Peck lent him a sympathetic ear. From Shoreby, her new home in Paget, they walked the South Shore beaches. She was drawn to him because he seemed to “bring new ideals, like fresh air, into the world of academic life.” She liked the “coolness” of the university president: “He was such a little gentleman, more understanding than many human beings.” Meanwhile, Wilson found in her an “air…like the air of the open, a directness, a simplicity, a free movement that link you with the wild things that are yet meant to be taken into one’s confidence and loved.” She was, he later recalled, “a perfect chum.”

After the bruising administered by his Princeton foes, Wilson was wary of politics. “The life of the next Democratic president,” Mrs. Peck remembered Wilson saying, “will be hell-and it would probably kill me.” There was, however, no immediate decision facing Wilson: two years would elapse before he would forsake Princeton for the State House in Trenton. Nonetheless, such intimacies among the sand dunes bonded the two and reaffirmed Wilson’s ambitions.

However, when he next returned to Bermuda, in the winter of 1910, Mrs. Peck was away. Bermuda became a “friendless island” full of “haunting associations.” When he walked past Shoreby on the South Shore, he felt a “glow in my veins because [of] the influences of the familiar place.” Invited there to dinner, “I throbbed as I entered.” Shoreby, with its bougainvillea-covered piazza was a “real Bermuda house,” a sanctuary from “the faraway rest of the world.” Its association with Mary Peck was etched into his heart: “It was the past that was real, the present that was remote and unreal.”

So just what did happen on the South Shore in the winter of 1908? The Wilson Papers oblige one to look between the lines, but it seems most likely that Wilson was smitten by an intense infatuation with Mary Peck, incubated by the pressures of life on the mainland and hatched by a Bermuda holiday that reduced life, in his own words, “to its essential elements.’

Despite the unpresbyterian emotionality of Wilson’s letters to Peck, there is absolutely no evidence the relationship ever exceeded that. Wilson was guilty- if that is indeed the appropriate word- of an indiscretion, but probably not overt infidelity. (One is tempted to contrast Wilson’s dilemma with that of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt’s affair a few years later with his wife’s social secretary; Roosevelt chose to leave his mistress and save his marital and political future. Seventy years later, Jimmy Carter would harm his political credibility by publicly musing that to have sinned in one’s heart was to have actually sinned. President Bill Clinton’s torrid dalliance with Monica Lewinsky in the 1990s stands in stark moral contrast with the restraint of the Wilson-Peck infatuation.)

Ellen Wilson sensed her husband’s emotional turmoil and in July 1908 appears to have confronted him with her suspicions about his “emotional love” for Peck. Wilson, travelling in England, replied that this “cutting and cruel judgment” was “utterly false; but as natural as false.” He protested that his love was for Ellen, and there the matter seemed to have rested.

In the meantime, Wilson continued to correspond with Mrs. Peck while, in 1909, she and her husband separated officially. When they divorced in 1912, Wilson sympathised over her “ordeal” and urged her to think of Bermuda.

Whispers of the Peck dalliance occasionally surfaced, but could not halt Wilson’s political rise. In January 1911, he became Governor of New Jersey. In November 1912, he was elected President. In anticipation of his inauguration and the political pressures it would bring, Wilson turned habitually to Bermuda, where “some of the pleasantest days of my life have been passed.” There he would plan his cabinet and collect his thoughts. And for the first time, his wife and daughters would share its joys with him. Their hostess? Mrs. Peck-in absentia.

Finally divorced, Peck had rented Glencove (now Glencoe) in Paget and offered it as a getaway to the President-elect and his family while she decently made herself scarce. For almost a month Glencove afforded the Wilsons a delicious vacation. Once again, Wilson found Bermuda “a sort of lotus land, where one gets content with doing nothing.”

When an eager American reporter interrupted the reverie by trying to photograph him at Glencove, Wilson snapped: “You’re no gentleman and I’ll thrash you if you do that again.” But for Mrs. Peck he had kinder words: “We all unite in enthusiastic and affectionate thanks!” She would later claim that Wilson had given her a “definite commission” to buy Glencove.

Woodrow Wilson never returned to Bermuda, but he yearned for it. As President, he would sometimes instruct the presidential yacht to sail near its shores. He astounded wartime naval planners with his knowledge of its gun emplacements. His closest political confidant, Colonel House, noted that in times of stress Wilson would often muse aloud about his so-called lotus land: “He said if it belonged to the United States he would like to live there permanently.” Indeed, just before his death in 1924, he was still telling friends that his plans to return to Bermuda were “only postponed.” Ironically, though, it was Wilson’s Republican predecessor as president, William Howard Taft, who would popularise Bermuda for Americans in the 1920s. The colony, he wrote in the National Geographic, provided “lessons in the pursuit of happiness.

In 1914, Ellen Wilson died of Bright’s disease. As the President emerged from his grief, there was never a hint that his thoughts turned to his soulmate from the idyllic Shoreby days as a possible new consort. The American people would not have accepted a divorced woman in the White House. Instead, late in 1915, the President married Edith Bolling Galt, a wealthy Virginia widow 16 years his junior– but not before a whispering campaign about Mrs. Peck had put this new liaison in jeopardy.

Somehow–the President attributed it to a ‘”theft”-letters exchanged between himself Mary Peck threatened to come to Edith’s attention. Wilson’s advisors (who may have orchestrated the crisis to ward off remarriage) warned of a political scandal, especially if Mrs. Peck entered the fray. Fearful of losing Edith, Wilson decided to make a clean breast of it. In what his biographer Arthur Link describes as a “high state of agitation,” he dictated a shorthand “admission” and dispatched it to Edith. His infatuation with Mary Peck was, he conceded. “a passage of folly and gross impertinence” of which he was “deeply ashamed and repentant.” Nonetheless, Wilson protested that neither “in act nor even in thought was the purity or honour of the lady concerned touched or sullied. Neither was my utter allegiance to my incomparable wife in any way by the least jot abated.”

Edith sat through the night pondering Wilson’s dramatic revelation and, as dawn broke, wrote to the President: “I will stand by you.” There was no political scandal and, on December 18, Edith became the second Mrs. Wilson.

Mary Peck and Woodrow Wilson would meet once again, far from Bermuda. Upon his return from the Versailles peace talks in 1919, Wilson headed west on a gruelling round of speech-giving and they had lunch together in Los Angeles.

Like Wilson, Mary never again took up residence in Bermuda. Her remaining years were spent in New York. In 1927, she wrote what would today be called a celebrity cookbook. She discreetely told her side of the affair to Liberty in 1924 and again in her 1933 memoirs, published six years before her death.

In common with thousands of other visitors before and after them, Mary Peck and Woodrow Wilson had discovered something very special in Bermuda. In March 1910, Wilson gave a talk on Bermuda to the Princeton Baptist Church. The colony was a “holiday land,” he told them, where life was “reduced to its essentials” The first of these elements, he suggested, was “friendship”.

Reprinted from Short Bermudas: Essays on Island Life, by Sandra Campbell & Duncan McDowall.