White House Weddings: It was two for Woodrow Wilson and his daughters

Published 1:20 pm Tuesday, September 5, 2023

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By Betty Etchison West

For the Enterprise

Seven years after the wedding of Alice Roosevelt at the White House, there was another.  Actually, there were two within a two-year period – the weddings of the daughters of President Woodrow Wilson and his wife, Ellen Axon Wilson.

A lady named Blanche Nevin met the Wilsons when they were on vacation in Bermuda, and she decided that Jessie Wilson would be the perfect bride for her nephew, Frank Sayre. Frank’s aunt invited him to spend his spring break from law school at her home “Windsor Forges” in Churchtown, Pa. She also invited two of the Wilson girls, Jessie and Nell, to spend a weekend.  This lady meant business when it came to matchmaking.

As soon as the girls stepped off of the train, Frank Sayre, who had been sitting in the buggy waiting for the guests, only had eyes for Jessie.

One would definitely have to call that love at first sight

Frank described Jessie in the following manner according to Smith and Durbin in their book, “White House Brides”: “A rarely beautiful girl, gracious, and winning, of medium height, with radiant blue eyes, clusters of golden hair wound round her delicately shaped head, her countenance beaming with health and beauty.  Her face was strong-featured and firm, yet withal of ethereal loveliness”

Frank got a job in the office of the New York County District Attorney’s, and, from there, he could visit the Wilson home, which he did on a regular basis.

A few months later, Frank asked Jessie to marry him, but Jessie did not answer yes immediately because she wanted to think about it. She didn’t think long because the next Tuesday, when Frank again called at the Wilson home, Jessie said that important “yes.”

The other members of the Wilson family were happy about the engagement because they all loved Frank. President Wilson is even quoted as saying: “He’s almost good enough for Jessie.” That was an important statement because it is rare for a father to think that any male is good enough to marry his daughter.

Jessie and Frank did not want a big wedding, but that could not be avoided without hurting feelings, so they agreed to have the ceremony in the big East Room.

Ellen Wilson went with her daughter to New York to buy a wedding dress.  When the wedding day arrived, the Wilson girls and their mother spent time together helping Jessie dress.

“Her dress was a beautiful long satin gown trimmed with rare old point lace that fell in graceful lines reminiscent of a Grecian statue so Jessie looked half angel and half goddess. Mrs. Wilson pinned the long tulle veil on Jessie’s golden hair, which was dressed in a wide fillet around her head, and she smiled into the eyes of the first daughter to leave the family.” That description was also found the Smith and Durbin’s book.

The Marine Band began the wedding march, and Jessie entered the highly decorated East Room on the arm of her father, President Woodrow Wilson, who smiled gravely at his daughter. Rev. Sylvester Beach, who was the pastor of the Presbyterian church that the Wilsons attended when they lived in Princeton, performed the ceremony.

After the ceremony, the bridal party and the Wilson family had supper in the family dining room. After the cake was cut, Jessie slipped away and put on her going-away outfit. The newlyweds spent a few days in Baltimore, and, then, they sailed to Europe where they spent their honeymoon.

After they returned from Europe, the Sayers lived in Massachusetts where Frank was a professor at Williams College. Jessie returned to the White House to have her first baby, who grew up and finally became the Dean of the Washington Cathedral.  The Sayres had two more children.

This love story has a sad ending. Jessie Sayre died unexpectedly in 1933, just 20 years after her wedding on Nov. 25, 1913.

Less than a year after the Wilson/Sayre wedding, there was another at the White House. The youngest daughter of President and Mrs. Wilson, Eleanor, and an older widower, Secretary of the Treasury, William Gibbs McAdoo, got married in the Blue Room on May 7, 1914.  Only their family members, closest friends, and cabinet members and their wives were invited.

One reason that Eleanor wanted a smaller wedding was because her mother, Ellen Wilson, was quite ill by the date of Eleanor’s wedding. Ellen was not able to go with her daughter to buy a wedding dress or really help with the planning, but, when the wedding day arrived, the Blue Room was beautifully decorated with white lilies, white roses and white lilac and other parts of the White House was decorated with roses and dogwood branches.

“As the bride entered the Blue Room on the arm of her father, she wore a gown of heavy ivory satin, trimmed with real old point lace, and fashioned in a semi-medieval style.  In the chiffon lining of the long train were sewn little bunches of orange blossoms, and she borrowed a tiny brooch from her mother to pin a piece of blue ribbon inside her wedding dress.  A cap like bridal wreath of orange blossoms held her long draped tulle veil.  She carried a bouquet of white gardenias, and lilies of the valley.”  Eleanor and Frank were married by Rev. Beach, the same minister, who performed the ceremony at her sister’s wedding. The description of the bride’s dress is from Smith and Durbin’s book, .

After the wedding, the bride and groom received guests in the Red Room.  Then, a supper was served on small tables in the State Dining Room, and the couple used the sword of Admiral Cary T. Grayson, the groom’s best man and the White House physician, to cut the cake.  After the cake cutting.

Eleanor slipped away to change into her going-away outfit.  Eleanor and Mac, as he was called, had figured out an elaborate plan to avoid the reporters when they left on their honeymoon. Their plan worked, and they drove to the Wilson’s summer place in Harlakenden, N.H. It wasn’t long before the reporters found them so that was the end of their privacy.

When they returned to the White House, Eleanor was distraught at the condition of her mother, who had Bright’s disease. Her mother said, “I needed only to see your face as I did Jessie’s to know that you are happy.”

Ellen Axon Wilson died on Aug. 6, 1914, three months after the wedding of her youngest daughter.

Eleanor and Mac had two daughters, Ellen Wilson McAdoo and Mary Faith McAdoo, but the marriage evidently became an unhappy one because Eleanor and William McAdoo got a divorce in 1934, 20 years after their marriage.

Mr. McAdoo died in 1941. Eleanor lived 26 years after the death of her ex-husband. After her divorce, Ellen spent time writing. She wrote a biography about her father and acted as a consultant for the biopic “Wilson.” Eleanor had a cerebral hemorrhage in 1965 and died in 1967.  She is buried in a Cemetery in Santa Barbara, Calif.m, where she spent her last years.