On the scale of Hollywood fame, the Del Rubio Triplets can’t compare to Elvis.
Nor does evoking First Lady Edith Wilson’s name prompt the same range of reaction as does that of President Richard Nixon.
Pair the bleached-blonde trio with the officious matron, however, and there’s no meeting of Hollywood and Washington more radically inexplicable – not even Elvis and Nixon.
In fact, the Del Rubio Triplets and Edith Bolling Galt Wilson were related, their grandfather being her brother, making them her great-nieces. One was even named for her.
Edith Bolling Boyd, Elena Rolfe Boyd and Mildred Stuart Boyd were born in Ancón, Panama on August 23, 1921, five months after their great-aunt, the second wife of Woodrow Wilson, moved out of the White House. Raised in the country of their Panamanian-American father, lawyer Jorge Eduardo Boyd, their somewhat unusual accent a result of speaking English as a second language. They were also conversant in French, Italian and German.
Their mother Elizabeth had been a Washington, D.C. debutante, the daughter of Rolfe Bolling. Like his sister, the First Lady, he was among ten children born and raised in the upper-floor of a commercial building in the small, rural town of Wytheville, Virginia, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The home is now an historic site, saved by a local couple William and Farron Smith, who created a foundation to restore and open it to public tours in 2008 (http://edithbollingwilson.org/). While proud of their ancestral connection to famous elite families of Virginia , by the time of their post-Civil War childhood, they were a nearly-impoverished ex-Confederate family. Many of the siblings migrated to Washington, D.C. after one sister married into the Galt family, proprietors of the city’s oldest silversmith store. Edith married one too. When Norman Galt died in 1908 after twelve years of marriage, he left Edith a wealthy widow at age thirty-six. To her great credit, Edith helped support three of her brothers, one sister and their widowed mother. She also helped manage Galt’s and became the first woman in Washington to not just own but drive her own car. Despite the city’s old-money society condescending view of her as being of the “trade” class, her scant education and a perspective sometimes clouded by the widespread bigotry of her era, she determined to become a grand lady, purchasing couture fashions from the Paris designer Worth, dripping herself in jewelry and wrapping herself in expensive furs. She certainly looked like a potential First Lady when she met the widowed President Woodrow Wilson.
Married in her Washington, D.C. home in December of 1915, during his presidency, her possessiveness of not only his heart but his mind alarmed many of his Cabinet and staff. During World War I, Edith never left Woodrow’s side and he even taught her the secret telegraph code from the war front. Following his 1918 stroke, she famously seized control of the presidency, to maintain the façade that he was simply recuperating from exhaustion rather than severely and permanently impaired. Edith Wilson served as the sole conduit between the President and the world, and dubbed “the first woman President” for it.
When Wilson’s presidency ended, he and Edith retired to a mansion on S Street in Washington, where he died just three years later. Though married to him for only nine years, the former Edith Bolling made a professional career for the next thirty-seven years as “Mrs. Woodrow Wilson.” In her big hats, pearls, gloves and furs, assuming a regal bearing, making snappish remarks that gave her an imperiousness, she transformed herself into a formidable figure in official Washington. Evoking Wilson’s legacy as her sacred trust, her command for respect even slightly terrorized Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. At formal events, she was easy to identify, always adorned in her trademark of massive flower corsages, leaving social rival Alice Roosevelt Longworth to joke that Edith went home after dinner parties and ate them for dessert.
Her façade, however, may have masked a somewhat lonely reality. Although she never spoke about it, Edith Wilson lost the only child she gave birth to, a son by Galt, who died as an infant. Devotion to her stricken second husband, stemmed from her genuine concern for his protection, but proved so insufferably overbearing that it permanently alienated her from his three daughters and grandchildren. The lively tribe of her Bolling nephews and nieces, however, saved the day. Her biographies are replete with letter excerpts between her and various nieces and nephews which indicate her eager anticipation of their visits, shared vacations and spending holidays together. However formal she seemed, Edith Wilson couldn’t help becoming engaged in their youthful exploits. Which is where the Del Rubio triplets enter the picture.
Not long into her widowhood, Edith Wilson’s niece Elizabeth Boyd and her four daughters (there was an elder sister, Lola) moved to Washington, taking up residence in the prestigious residential Sheraton-Park Hotel. Along with other branches of the Bolling brood, Elena, Edie and Millie were frequently chatting and laughing it up beneath the solemn portrait of their great-uncle, the late President, to delight their aunt Edith. She, in turn, was devoted to them. In anticipation of sending her nieces to the oldest summer camp in Virginia, Camp Glenrochie in Abingdon, Mrs. Wilson sent pictures of them to Frank R. Reade, the director, who screened applications and decided which children to admit.
Although they first focused on dancing in unison, they were soon singing together, copying the standards by popular radio singers of the 30s. While nobody recorded when and where they specifically showed off their talents for Edith Wilson, they were always encouraged to do so by their mother. Their father was also encouraging, and bought guitars for the trio. They were soon itching to take their act public.
Graduating from high school in the midst of World War II, they made their way to Hollywood where they were promptly booked by Bob Hope and began touring with his USO variety shows staged for the U.S. military stationed in overseas posts. Theatrical careers still being considered a profession unsuitable for the elite classes, the triplets altered their appearance and identity, dying their brown hair blonde, renaming themselves “Del Rubio,” (the Spanish word “rubio” meaning blonde) and never disclosing their presidential connection.
After lunching with the trio, the famous Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper tried to help promote the sister act in a November 20, 1956 column. They frequented smaller nightclub venues, never becoming star headliners, but successful enough to tour Europe, Australia and Asia. All three vowed never to marry for fear such outside alliances would permanently destroy their joint dream of the big time. Their effort was cut short in 1965, however, when their mother was stricken with a stroke and they returned home to keep her cheered by singing to her in the hospital, where other patients also perked up with their presence. “Don’t let anyone persuade you to get out of this business,” was their dying mother’s last bit of advice to them.
The Del Rubio Triplets returned to Hollywood, living together on a small inheritance and small-time gigs. Not only were lounge acts dying, but the sound of their voices together was, to put it politely, an acquired taste not then a commodity. Their sunny, if perhaps naïve ambition kept them in the game. As Millie put in 1985, “Even though we didn’t have any talent, we knew we wanted to be in show business.”
What they lacked in talent was made up for by generating enjoyment for those with ironic or tone-deaf proclivities, performing free at hospitals and senior citizen centers and fundraisers held to help stem the cost of new AIDS research as the illness developed into a crisis. Living together in a triple-wide mobile home and dashing around southern California in their 1971 station wagon to an increasing number of gigs each week, their sincerity, warmth and ability to laugh at themselves made their joy infectious, if novel. They also relished exposing the senior set to contemporary hits, performing acoustic guitar renditions of Madonna’s Like a Virgin and Devo’s Whip It. No song more uniquely became their own, however, than the Neutron Dance, and they famously performed it on The David Letterman Show in 1985.
The song’s Grammy Award winning composer Allee Willis was so taken with what the triplets did to her song that she helped to finally deliver the late-blossoming global fame which had so long eluded the Del Rubios. Also renowned for her creative event-planning, Willis began featuring the triplets at various venues in Los Angeles where a considerably younger demographic responded enthusiastically to them. They were soon booked on popular Eighties sitcoms, including Married with Chidren, Full House, The Golden Girls, and Night Court. They even made a McDonald’s commercial. The appearance which forever embedded the Del Rubio Triplets in American Pop Culture, however, was their unforgettable rendition of Winter Wonderland on Pee Wee Herman’s 1988 Christmas special. Here is that noteworthy piece of Americana:
The last Del Rubio Triplet, Millie, died in July of 2011. After Edie’s 1996 death, her surviving sisters never again performed and Elena’s 2001 death left Millie in solitary grief. Allee Willis loyally continued to visit Millie and kept her spirits up. Her memories of the sisters are found on her website, http:www.alleewillis.com
Two years before her death, however, a sense of purpose returned to Millie Del Rubio with an effort to preserve the legacy of none other than Great Aunt Edith Wilson. Substantially contributing to the furnishing of the recently-restored Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum in Wytheville, Virginia, Millie Del Rubio donated family heirlooms. including the First Lady’s gold-framed mirror, letters exchanged between aunt and nieces, a china cabinet and other items once used there by their grandfather’s family. In turn, the birthplace museum foundation recently established a Millie Boyd Memorial Fund which accepts public donations http://edithbollingwilson.org/?page_id=38. In fact, Millie Del Rubio donated three different CDs made by the triplets, to be sent as gifts to those making contributions.
It is hard to wrap one’s head around the idea of Mrs. Woodrow Wilson making sense of The Neutron Dance or any of the other songs performed by her nieces on the CDs which are helping to restore her childhood home – let alone what a CD is.
In a few handwritten notes to close friends, however, Edith displayed not only a sharp wit and sense of the ridiculous, but a bit of ribald humor.
Somehow, one can’t help imagining that the very sight of the middle-aged Del Rubio Triplets dressed in hot pants and go-go boots while singing America the Beautiful behind half-naked bodybuilders in the movie Americathon (1979) would have left the proper First Lady speechless.
With secret delight.