Can you believe it? Grouchy Grover Cleveland was a newlywed! But it is true. At age 49, long time bachelor President Grover Cleveland was married in the White House.
The Best Kept White House Secret
When he was elected in 1884, the heavy-set (300 pounds!) mustachioed, jowly-scowly-looking President was the target of every Washington matron. He was considered the most eligible man in the country, eminently suitable for their widowed or spinster sister/daughter/niece or other relative. Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) was not interested.
No one knew it, but he had been secretly engaged to Miss Frances Folsom (1864-1947), a twenty-one year old recent graduate of Wells College. The reasons for the clandestine plot were many. First and foremost, the President believed adamantly that his private life was nobody else’s business and furthermore, had absolutely nothing to do with his presidential duties. Secondly, he had had his fill of the “ghouls of the press” during his election campaign. They had discovered that several years earlier he had fathered an illegitimate child. He admitted the paternity, and documented his financial responsibility in the matter. The country forgave him. He, however, soured on reporters.
Perhaps most compelling was that he did not want himself or Frances to be scandalized. Not only was she young enough to be his daughter, an eyebrow raising tidbit of cradle-robbing by itself, but she had been his legal ward for several years. Her father, Oscar Folsom, had been Cleveland’s law partner and best friend. When Frances was born, “Uncle Cleve” provided the baby buggy. When Folsom was killed in a carriage accident some years later, Cleveland, as executor of the estate, assumed guardianship of the little girl and her mother. He managed their finances and was an integral part of their lives. He gave Frances her first bouquet, her first long gown and high-heeled slippers, and arranged for her college education. He was considered a quasi-relative. That was more than a raised eyebrow. The connotations could be just as scandalous as his illegitimate child.
The Secret is Out of the Bag
Almost immediately after Cleveland’s inauguration, Frances Folsom and her mother left for a European grand tour and an opportunity to purchase a trousseau. The secret held. Cleveland wasn’t talking. Frances did not even tell her closest friends. But about the time the Folsom women were due to return, the Washington newspaper reporters got wind of a big scoop. Exactly what triggered the speculation is still speculated. Perhaps it was the fact that the President had just purchased a large house in Georgetown, and was preparing to become a commuter. Bachelor Cleveland had never owned a house before.
Most of the conjecturing about a Cleveland marriage centered on Emma Folsom, Frances’ mother. It made sense. She and Cleveland were close in age. They had known each other for years. But when the truth came out that pretty, young Frances, with the dimples and the peaches-and-cream complexion was going to marry Grover Cleveland, well into middle age and nowhere near an Adonis, the country was actually delighted! The bands started playing the latest hit song from The Mikado: “He’s Going to Marry Yum-Yum”.
Cleveland, President first, bridegroom second, had made all the White House wedding arrangements himself. It might have been the social event of the year, but it was miniscule. Less than fifty invitations were issued, all handwritten by the President. He engaged the minister and even made amendments to the vows. He planned the honeymoon. His sister, who had been filling in as acting-First Lady for a year, ordered the supper, chose the flower arrangements and sent for the Marine Band. All Frances and her mother had to do was purchase their gowns and show up.
The press was banned from attendance, or even from interviewing the bride. The White House windows were blacked out so they could not even get a glimmer. The details of the wedding and honeymoon were so shrouded in secrecy that it became a major challenge for the reporters to learn anything.
The Press Descends on the Honeymoon
President Cleveland and his new bride slipped out of the White House undetected, whisked off in a hidden carriage to the railroad station for a waiting train to take them on their honeymoon in the Maryland mountains. Newspapermen were on hot their trail, and hired a private train to follow.
Reporters surrounded the President’s cottage, and even climbed trees to keep watch with binoculars. They described every possible detail they could glean from waiters and housekeepers. Their breakfast and dinner menus were posted on the front pages. When they reported that “Mrs. Cleveland Plays the Piano for the President,” every piano manufacturer in the country began volunteering one of their instruments to the White House for the new First Lady’s pleasure – in return for the privilege of saying so. Cleveland declined the offers.
Grover Cleveland would spend the rest of his Presidency grousing and grumbling in a futile fight against public intrusion. Frances, however, was the darling of the press. They adored her, and she never seemed to mind the glare of publicity, which was non-stop. After his term ended, the Clevelands retired in sort-of privacy for four years. Then he was elected again. By this time they were parents, with another baby on the way.
· Brodsky Alyn – Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character. NY, St. Martin’s Press, 2000
Foster, Feather – The First Ladies, Sourcebooks 2011
· Means, Marianne – The Woman In the White House, Random House, 1963