What It's Like To Be Related To A President

Nov 20, 2013

President Woodrow Wilson and his great-great-granddaughter, reporter Wilson Sayre.
Credit Wilson Sayre

  I don’t remember being told Woodrow Wilson was my great-great-grandfather. It was a fact I grew up with. A picture of my newborn grandfather, the last child ever born in the White House, being gazed at by mighty Woodrow, hung in the staircase of my parents’ home.

Beside it was a Wilson campaign poster from which he looked through his iconic pince-nez glasses and over his long, angular nose at me. But the person I was named after was, in many ways, a mystery.

I have never been very open about my ancestry, not because of Wilson's political or social beliefs — I certainly take no credit for his successes, nor assume his shortcomings — but because of what he represents in my family: a figure of success, guided by strict morals and fervent convictions.

Wilson’s policies and ideas were some of the most progressive and wide-sweeping in our history. Of them, his "Fourteen Points," which created the League of Nations, was perhaps his most recognized legacy. It was the seed of the United Nations.

Three generations of Sayre's family: The baby is her grandfather, Francis B. Sayre, the last child ever born in the White House.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

How do you live up to that? How could I get a handle on Wilson’s face, glaring at me every time I walked upstairs, demanding: "So, what have you done with your life?"

When my mom found a trunk full of letters packed by the then-president’s son-in-law, she sent them off to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library in Staunton, Va., so they could be properly preserved.

I wanted to unpack them -- the stacks of letters and the meaning inside.

I spent the summer before my senior year of high school sitting in that tiny Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library in Staunton, Va. On the second floor of the building where Wilson was born more than a century ago, I brushed the dust off envelopes, deciphering what seemed like archaic forms of cursive, and explored the characters between the words.

I then read each and every scrawled list, lament and love letter.

They were correspondences between Wilson’s daughter and her husband. Woodrow was only tangentially involved in many of those daily goings-on.

One day the director of the library came by and I asked him, a bit abruptly: “Who cares about this? It’s all just fluffy old stuff. Historic, but not historically important.”

He turned that into a learning moment by putting me in touch with someone who built his career knowing what was "historically important": A. Scott Berg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Lindbergh," a biography of the famous pilot.

He responded ever so patiently and earnestly to what I thought was a rhetorical question:

"The reason we read (and some of us write) history and biography is to examine how we (mankind) lived ... to learn something about not just who we were but who we are. Presumably, one writes a biography of somebody because the subject lived an interesting -- indeed, unique -- life; but at least as important is to use that life as a lens through which the reader can get a panorama of life in the subject's time and place. …

People often ask me to tell them something surprising that I've discovered about Woodrow Wilson. 'Well,' I say, 'you'd probably be shocked to know that Woodrow Wilson wrote some of the most passionate love letters ever written.' So there -- for example -- what most historians might consider the least 'important' of Wilson's archives reveal so much of the man ... who would then proceed to make the 'more important' history. In short, almost everything constitutes ‘valuable historical evidence.’"

Growing up, I lacked that panorama of life for Wilson. Who he was, I came to realize, is so much about when he lived, the family and people he surrounded himself with, and the ease with which he could be brought to tears. 

Woodrow Wilson's daughter, Jessie Wilson Sayre, and her great-granddaughter, Wilson Sayre.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

  He came from a line of Protestant ministers. Those Protestant teachings formed a framework on which my great-great-grandfather hung his own brand of moral and ethical code.

It was this highly moral, severe Wilson that looked down at me from his campaign poster. Stern, unforgiving and hard to live up to.

But his daughter, Jessie, wrote in her letters not about fear of her father, but of his lovingness.

“I came down early and had breakfast with Father. It was so nice. He talked about many things and was so affectionate that I am resolving to do it every morning,” she wrote in May of 1914.

One of Wilson Sayre's family letters, from Woodrow Wilson's time.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

I read dozens of letters with short lines like this. And slowly, Wilson became family.

He had his flaws: He was stubborn and had a bit of a temper, but who doesn’t? After seeing him as a human, I came to notice similarities between him and the family that followed.

From history, we learn something about who we are, indeed. By translating letters, seeing artifacts and places, and reading about Wilson (Berg’s biography came out this September), I’ve stopped avoiding the eyes in that campaign poster in my parents’ stairs.

The man who looks down at me from that staircase whenever I go home has a story now. The formerly black-and-white Wilson has color on his cheeks.

A. Scott Berg will be at the Miami Book Fair International at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 23.