History would come to regard Grover Cleveland as one of our most tight-lipped Presidents. The secrecy surrounding his nuptials would rank high on that list.
President Cleveland: Affianced for a Year
When Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) was inaugurated in 1885, he was a 49-year-old bachelor and looked the part: rotund (nearly three hundred pounds), scowly-faced, mustachioed, cigar smoking and obviously meaning business all the way. Naturally every Washington matron sought to introduce him to a potential bride, via their maiden aunts or widowed sisters or otherwise eligible ladies in their circles.
He did not rise to the bait. No one knew it at the time, but President Cleveland was already engaged to be married. The object of his affection was 21-year-old Frances Folsom, recently graduated from Wells College in Aurora, New York, and currently traveling in Europe with her widowed mother. For months there was no inkling that this marriage was in the offing, but shortly before the Folsom women were about to return, newspaper reporters in Washington began to suspect something was afoot.
It has never been completely documented as to what exactly tipped them off, but it may well have been the fact that Grover Cleveland, who had never owned a house before, had just closed on a large home in Georgetown. Real estate sales and purchases are public record. This was big news. Speculation was that the President was set to marry Emma Folsom, Frances’ mother, the long time widow of Cleveland’s former law partner and close friend. Nope.
By the time the Folsom women docked in New York, the cat was out of the bag. As the popular song from the hit Gilbert & Sullivan operetta The Mikado went, “He’s Going to Marry Yum-Yum.” Frances was not only young, but she was pretty, had a nice trim figure, a peaches-and-cream complexion – and dimples!
The Wedding Behind Closed Curtains
The White House wedding between the President and the young Miss Folsom took place a week after she arrived. The mother-of-the-bride had absolutely nothing to do with planning the wedding. Neither did the bride. Their only “assignment” was procuring the wedding gown. The President did everything else. He hand-wrote the invitations – less than fifty of them. He arranged for the minister and the honeymoon. His sister, Rose Elizabeth, who had been serving as his hostess for a year, planned the menu and the floral arrangements. John Philip Sousa and the Marine Band had been summoned.
It has been suggested that the reason Grover Cleveland wanted the wedding in the White House was that he could keep it completely under his control. If it had been elsewhere, it would be difficult to arrange the privacy he demanded. As it was, the press, which by the mid-1880s had become increasingly intrusive, was specifically barred from attending. The President refused all interviews, and insisted that Miss Folsom and her mother do the same. Ditto the White House staff.
To make sure that the President’s wedding would remain private, he blackened the windows and had all draperies closed so no one could even peek in. There were guards to keep spectators at a safe distance. The only small concession that was made, was sending a signal when the “I Do’s” had been said, so all the church bells in town could ring out the happy news.
Once the ceremony had been completed, the dinner served and the guests greeted and thanked, the President and the new Mrs. Cleveland changed into their traveling clothes, and slipped of the White House via a side entrance where a carriage was waiting to take them to their honeymoon train.
The Chase Begins
Reporters are usually credited with having a “nose for news.” A special sense-of-imminent-activity. The reporters in 1886 were no different than they are today. The smelled an “escape” plot and were hot on the trail.
The President had not only arranged for a head start, but had further arranged that their train would not be in the station, but would be waiting for them a mile down the tracks, giving the new couple an added advantage.
A bunch of intrepid reporters with the deep expense-account pockets of their publishers chartered a private train for a “follow that train!” pursuit. They proceeded to chase the Clevelands to the Deer Park Lodge in the Catoctin Mountains in Maryland, about an hour from Washington, where they had settled in for a five day honeymoon.
The Honeymoon Watch
The proprietors of the resort were naturally thrilled to be hosting the honeymoon of the President of the United States, and had agreed to whatever terms he had demanded regarding his “privacy.” His cottage was in a secluded area, away from the main building, and far from the main road where he and his bride could enjoy a few days alone-together. So he thought.
As promised, the “ghouls of the press,” as Cleveland would refer to them, were given no co-operation from the resort’s proprietor. That did not deter them in the slightest.
Some determined newsmen, armed with binoculars, shinnied up trees to get a better view of the comings and goings of the President and his bride. They bribed waiters carrying meals to the honeymoon cottage to lift the service covers so they could report “what was for dinner.”
When Cleveland took his new missus out for an afternoon in the nearby trout stream, banner headlines reported “Mrs. Cleveland Fishes.”
When it was reported that Mrs. Cleveland played the piano for the President, piano manufacturers around the country offered to “donate” a piano to the White House for the First Lady’s pleasure. All they wanted was the opportunity to publicize the “donation.” The President’s perpetual scowl was now etched.
The President was no longer a political figure. He was now becoming a celebrity and he did not like it one bit! But the new Mrs. Cleveland was as sweet as pie about it. Definitely yum-yum!
Boller, Paul Jr. – Presidential Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, 1981
Brodsky Alyn – Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character. NY, St. Martin’s Press, 2000
Carpenter, Frank G. – Carp’s Washington – McGraw Hill, 1960
Foster, Feather – The First Ladies, Sourcebooks 2011