8 Things You Might Not Know About Woodrow Wilson

Tony Essex, Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Tony Essex, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In his lifetime, Woodrow Wilson (1856 to 1924) bore witness to some of the most tumultuous times in American history. The Civil War raged during his childhood; as the nation’s 28th president, he led America into a world war. Unfortunately, Wilson was often on the wrong side of history when it came to race relations. Check out some of the lesser-known facts about one of the more controversial occupants of higher office.

1. He was an eyewitness to the Civil War.

Born and raised in the south, Wilson was the son of a Presbyterian minister Joseph Wilson and his wife, Janet Wilson. His parents were Confederate supporters, and as a child, Woodrow watched Janet nurse wounded soldiers in his father’s church. Later, he witnessed Confederate president Jefferson Davis marched in chains through Augusta, Georgia.

2. He arrived at his inauguration in a horse drawn carriage.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Following a brief law career, Wilson made his way into academia, arriving at Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) in 1890 as a professor of jurisprudence and political economy. By 1902, he was the university’s president, a position he held until 1910. That year, he was elected governor of New Jersey and then set his sights on higher office. Owing to a Republican split over support between incumbent William Howard Taft and former president Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson captured the electoral vote for the 1912 election and was re-elected in 1916. With the advent of automobiles imminent, Wilson became the last American president to arrive to his inauguration while being transported by horse-drawn carriage.

3. He was against integration.

During Wilson’s term, many governmental departments began to segregate employees. Wilson allowed his cabinet to maintain white-only bathrooms and once threw civil rights activist William Monroe Trotter out of the White House for growing too confrontational over their conflicting views. A century later, students at Princeton staged a sit-in to protest Wilson's name being kept on various campus institutions, citing his frequent roadblocks in the work of civil rights activity. (While he was president of Princeton, the school did not admit any black students.) The university ultimately decided to let the dedications remain.

4. He advocated for a woman's right to vote.

Paul Thompson, Getty Images

While Wilson would find himself less progressive in other civil rights matters, he did manage to get one thing right. After initially feeling indifferent about allowing women the right to vote, his attitude changed as a result the women’s suffrage movement. Activists picketing outside the White House in 1917 were hauled away by police; Wilson was horrified to learn they were being force-fed following a hunger strike. In January 1918, Wilson advocated for men and women to have an equal voice in elections, and would later make written and verbal arguments to members of Congress. His lobbying undoubtedly helped states ratify the 19th Amendment in August 1920, finally granting women the right to cast their ballot.

5. He ushered in the White House screening room.

His poor taste in film aside (Wilson famously screened The Birth of a Nation in 1915), Wilson was the first president to routinely screen movies in the White House. Actor Douglas Fairbanks gifted him with a projector in 1918, allowing Wilson to enjoy movies with regularity. He sometimes watched up to five hours a day. While cruising the Atlantic following the Allied victory in World War I, Wilson set up the projector so troops could enjoy Charlie Chaplin films.

6. He kept a flock of sheep on the White House lawn.

Harris Ewing, Wikimedia Commons via the Library of Congress

While presidents have often had a curious history with animals—Thomas Jefferson famously harbored two bear cubs for a brief time on White House grounds—Wilson’s flock of sheep might be the most puzzling. The rationale behind it, however, made perfect sense. In 1918, with World War I raging, Wilson wanted to be a model for Americans in supporting troops. Allowing sheep to roam the grounds and eat grass cut down on the manpower needed to maintain the lawn, an example of rationing manpower; their wool was auctioned off and raised $52,823 for Red Cross relief efforts.

7. He got caught up in an unseemly love triangle.

Despite his cool exterior, Wilson could apparently soften around the right company. He had married Ellen Louise Axson in 1885 but sometimes took trips alone to Bermuda, where he fraternized and flirted with a woman named Mary Peck. Wilson and Peck continued a pen-pal dialogue through his first term, which would later prove troublesome. When Ellen died in 1914, Wilson turned his attention to the widowed Edith Galt. Fearing that remarrying so soon after his first wife’s death could harm his chances for re-election, Wilson’s handlers lied and said Peck planned on selling off his love letters. They hoped Wilson would be frightened of the ensuing scandal and call off the wedding. Instead, Wilson confessed his involvement with Peck to Edith. She married him anyway. Peck was said to be devastated that Wilson hadn’t married her instead.

8. His wife helped run the country.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Toward the end of his second term, Wilson was overworked, traveling too often, and plagued by various illnesses including influenza. On October 2, 1919, he suffered a stroke, which impaired his mobility and left him partially paralyzed. Fearing the implications of having an infirm president and with the Constitution unclear as to whether vice-president Thomas Marshall should assume his duties, the Wilson regime went on as usual. Owing to his diminished state, however, his wife Edith began to take on a much more prominent role in his affairs. She curated matters for him to address personally and helped him prioritize his duties through the end of his presidency in March 1921. He died in 1924.

A New Ruth Bader Ginsburg Bobblehead Is Available for Pre-Order

The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum
The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum

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The late Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a devout champion for feminism and civil rights, and her influence stretched from the halls of the Supreme Court to the forefront of popular culture, where she affectionately became known as the Notorious RBG. Though there are plenty of public tributes planned for Ginsburg in the wake of her passing, the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum has a new RBG bobblehead ($25) available for pre-order so you can honor her in your own home.

There are two versions of the bobblehead available, one of Ginsburg smiling and another with a more serious expression. Not only do the bobbleheads feature her in her Supreme Court black robe, but eagle-eyed fans will see she is wearing one for her iconic coded collars and her classic earrings.

RBG is far from the only American icon bobblehead that the Hall of Fame store has produced in such minute detail. They also have bobbleheads of Abraham Lincoln ($30), Theodore Roosevelt ($30), Alexander Hamilton ($30), and dozens of others.

For more information on the RBG bobblehead, head here. Shipments will hopefully be sent out by December 2020 while supplies last.

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10 Surprising Facts About Richard Pryor

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Richard Pryor, who was born on December 1, 1940, is considered by many to be the greatest stand-up comedian of all time. Jerry Seinfeld referred to him as “the Picasso of our profession.” Chris Rock has called him comedy’s Rosa Parks. Yet the indelible mark Pryor made on the world of comedy only tells part of his story.

Like his career in the spotlight, Pryor’s world offstage was also highly compelling and full of shocking turns. He’s one of those people whose real life was so off-the-wall at times that it becomes tough to separate fact from fiction. Here are just a few stories about the brilliant and chaotic life of the great Richard Pryor.

1. Richard Pryor had a tragic childhood.

Richard Pryor had a tragic early life, experiencing things that no child should have to endure: Born to a prostitute named Gertrude on December 1, 1940 in Peoria, Illinois, Pryor’s father was a notoriously violent pimp named LeRoy Pryor. For much of his childhood, Pryor was raised in the actual brothel where his mother worked, which was owned by his own no-nonsense grandmother, Marie Carter. With his mother periodically dropping out of his life for long stretches, it was Marie who served as Pryor’s central guardian and caretaker.

In 2015, The New Yorker published an article to mark the 10th anniversary of Pryor’s passing, which offered further details on his turbulent early life, noting:

Pryor said that one of the reasons he adored movies as a boy was that you were never in doubt as to why the women in them were screaming. As for the sounds that Richard heard in the middle of the night in his room on the top floor of one of Marie’s businesses, he had no idea what was happening to those girls. A number of times, he saw his mother, Gertrude, one of the women in Marie’s employ, nearly beaten to death by his father. Gertrude left when Richard was five. He later registered no resentment over this. “At least Gertrude didn’t flush me down the toilet,” he said. (This was not a joke. As a child, Pryor opened a shoebox and found a dead baby inside.)

2. Richard Pryor walked away from a successful career.

Early in his career Pryor found success by modeling his comedy largely on the work on Bill Cosby, which led to many comparisons being drawn between the two—a fact that Cosby reportedly grew to dislike.

There are conflicting tales of just how Pryor made the 180-degree change in style that led to him becoming a comedic legend. One of the most well traveled tales, and one that Pryor himself confirmed on more than one occasion, states that Pryor was performing his clean-cut act in Las Vegas one night when he looked out into the audience and saw Dean Martin among the crowd. If you believe the story, seeing the legendarily cool Rat Packer’s face made Pryor question what exactly he was doing and caused him to abruptly leave the stage mid-performance. Around this time Pryor moved to the San Francisco Bay area, dropped out of the comedy limelight for several years, and later reemerged with the more pointed, in-your-face style that made him an icon.

3. Richard Pryor won an Emmy for writing.

Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, and Richard Pryor in Tomlin's 1973 TV special, Lily.CBS Television, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Though Pryor was better known for his work in front of the camera than behind it, the only Emmy he ever won was for writing. In 1974, Pryor won the Emmy for Best Writing in Comedy for Lily, a comedy special starring Lily Tomlin (in which he also appeared). He earned a total of four nominations throughout his career, two of them as an actor and the other two as a writer.

4. Richard Pryor made Lorne Michaels quit Saturday Night Live.

Back in 1975, Saturday Night Live was brand new, so at the time the show’s creator, Lorne Michaels, wasn’t yet a powerful TV icon. Therefore, when Michaels stuck his neck out and demanded the right to have Pryor on as a guest host, he was really risking a lot. It took Michaels handing in a fake resignation to convince NBC executives to allow the famously foulmouthed comic to appear. Michaels himself had to implement a secret five-second delay for that night’s episode to be sure that any off-the-cuff, unscripted choice language didn’t make its way out over the airwaves. The delay was kept from Pryor who, upon later finding out, confirmed that he would have refused to do the show had he known about it

The episode, the seventh one of SNL’s premiere season, contained one of the most memorable and edgy sketches ever to appear on the show: (the NSFW) Word Association. Chevy Chase and Pryor’s personal writer, Paul Mooney, have each claimed to have written the sketch.

5. Richard Pryor lost the starring role in Blazing Saddles.

Pryor and Gene Wilder made four films together (Silver Streak; Stir Crazy; See No Evil, Hear No Evil; and Another You), but there could have been at least one more. Pryor was one of the credited writers on Mel Brooks’s classic Blazing Saddles and the plan for a time was that he would also co-star in the film, playing Sheriff Bart alongside Wilder as the Waco Kid. In the clip above, Wilder explained how Pryor’s infamous drug use caused him to end up in a remote city and subsequently lose the starring role to Cleavon Little.

6. It wasn’t a drug mishap that caused Richard Pryor to set himself on fire.

One of the most retold stories about Pryor centers around the incident on June 9, 1980 where he set himself on fire and took off running down a Los Angeles street fully engulfed in flames. Though he wasn’t expected to survive the episode, he eventually pulled through and spent the next six weeks recuperating in the hospital. At the time it was often reported that the cause of the accident was Pryor freebasing cocaine. Pryor later admitted that in a drug-fueled psychosis he had actually attempted to kill himself by dousing his body in 151-proof rum and setting himself ablaze. A friend of Pryor’s at the time has gone on record as saying that the idea for the act likely came about that evening after the two of them watched footage of Thích Quảng Đức, the Vietnamese monk who famously burned himself to death in 1963 as an act of protest.

7. Richard Pryor was married seven times.

Pryor was married seven times—to five different women. In the 2013 documentary Omit the Logic, a friend of Pryor’s—who served as the best man at one of his weddings—recounts how Pryor showed up at his hotel room door just a few hours after marrying Jennifer Lee, insisting that he already wanted a divorce. Pryor would get divorced from Lee the next year, only to remarry her 19 years later; the two were still together when Pryor passed away in 2005.

8. Richard Pryor had a soft spot for animals.

In 1986 Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a central nervous system disease that ultimately left him confined to a wheelchair. Pryor was such an avid supporter of animal rights, however, that he actively spoke out against animal testing of any kind—even when that testing meant getting closer to a cure for his own condition. The biography on RichardPryor.com provides more insight into this part of his private life:

He's been honored by PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for saving baby elephants in Botswana targeted for circuses. In 2000, as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was preparing to open at Madison Square Garden, Pryor gave the Big Top's first African-American ringmaster, Jonathan Lee Iverson, something to think about when he wrote him a letter in which he stated: “While I am hardly one to complain about a young African American making an honest living, I urge you to ask yourself just how honorable it is to preside over the abuse and suffering of animals."

9. Richard Pryor won the first Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Beginning in 1998, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts began awarding its annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which "recognizes individuals who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th-century novelist and essayist Samuel Clemens, best known as Mark Twain." Pryor was chosen as their very first recipient. In the more than 20 years since, he has been joined by an illustrious group of comedy legends, including Carl Reiner, Bob Newhart, George Carlin, Steve Martin, Carol Burnett, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Dave Chappelle.

10. Despite his deteriorating health, Richard Pryor never stopped performing.

Even while MS continued to rob him of his mobility, Pryor’s comedic mind continued cranking. Throughout the early 1990s Pryor would often show up at Los Angeles’s famous standup club The Comedy Store to take to the stage in his wheelchair. In the above clip from The Joe Rogan Experience, a few comics discuss what it was like to watch the all-time great perform in his diminished state.

This story has been updated for 2020.