I often speak about the First Ladies and one of the most common questions I receive is: “Do you have a favorite?” While it is impossible to pick just one, I often mention either the wonderful Harriet Lane or the fabulous Frances Cleveland.
Her name takes people by surprise. They expect the choice to be Dolly Madison or Jacqueline Kennedy or Eleanor Roosevelt. I’m often peppered with questions about Edith Wilson or Nancy Reagan or Hillary Clinton or Melania Trump as well. Each of these were remarkable women in their own right, but the unexpected story of Frances Cleveland is just so completely unique and utterly mesmerizing that I love to tell it.
Grover Cleveland was a hard drinking, food loving, flirt as a bachelor in Buffalo New York. His personal integrity and work ethic led to an ascent in politics that was almost surreal. As a young man he was extremely close with his law partner, Oscar Folsom. When Folsom died in a carriage accident at age 36, his will stipulated that his best friend, Grover Cleveland take control of his quarter million dollar estate and provide for Folsom’s wife, Emma, and his daughter, Frances, who had just turned nine.
It is important to note that Cleveland never adopted nor lived with nor served as a stepfather to the little girl. He was the advisor to her mother on matters of finance, investment, and education. A close bond developed among the three and Cleveland dutifully and tenderly made sure that his friend’s widow and her daughter were well taken care. He was particularly proud when Frances graduated with distinction from Wells College
Frances grew to be a tall, strikingly beautiful young woman. When Frances entered Wells College, Cleveland sought her mother’s permission to correspond with Frances. This was understood to be the beginning of a courtship. Her mother was displeased; she, after all, was an appropriate age to be courted by the middle-aged Cleveland. Nonetheless, she gave her consent and as soon as Frances graduated from college, Cleveland formally proposed. They were married in the only presidential White House wedding. She was 21 years old, making the new Frances Cleveland the youngest first lady of all time. By comparison, Jacqueline Kennedy was 31 years old when she entered the White House.
Our First Superstar First Lady
On the day Cleveland’s engagement was announced, many in the press thought a mistake had been made. They assumed that he was marrying Mrs. Folsom not Miss Folsom! Grover Cleveland was 27 years older than his bride. In fact, he been born in the exact same year as her father! The stunning announcement of the president’s engagement caused a whirlwind of reaction. Many people were gassed by the age difference and by the odd relationship between Cleveland and his bride. However, her stunning good looks and warm personality quickly engendered unbelievable media interest. Newspapers reported on every aspect of her wedding preparations.
Her style of dress was analyzed and critiqued; her every movement was shadowed by reporters anxious for a nugget of information.
Frances Cleveland became first lady at a time when the rapid dissemination of photographs had vastly increased the popularity of magazines, newspapers, and advertising. Without her knowledge or consent, her face appeared on the cover of almost every major magazine aimed at women. She became our first superstar first lady. She was the Jacqueline Kennedy of the 19th century. Advertisers slapped her name and likeness on ads for everything from liver pills to ashtrays to ceramic tiles.
As first lady, Frances Cleveland proved to be immensely popular. So great was her charm and poise, despite her youth, that a bitter political opponent of Cleveland was reported to have gotten a huge laugh when he said, “I detest him so much that I don’t even think his wife is beautiful.” In order to protect the privacy of his new bride, Cleveland actually bought them a secluded estate in what is now the Cleveland Park area of Washington. They only lived in the White House during the social season! Among her popular innovations was to offer Saturday morning receptions for working women to attend. More notably, she was a charitable and good person whose every action reflected empathy towards those less fortunate than herself. She particularly went out of her way to help young African-American women who were in trouble.
When her husband was defeated for reelection, she moved with him to New York where her grace, social style, and intelligence served him very well as he built a campaign to return himself to the White House. During that period of time, she gave birth to her first child, a beautiful daughter named Ruth. Pictures of the radiant mother and beautiful child were published everywhere. Later, the Curtiss Candy Company claimed that the Baby Ruth candy bar was named for her, although that explanation seems doubtful.
When Grover Cleveland was elected to his nonconsecutive second term, Frances Cleveland gave birth to their second child, the only child born in the physical White House. While his second term was marred by a huge recession, his wife continued to be an enormous asset to the gruff president. His image softened as the public enjoyed the stories of Cleveland frolicking with his young children. It was only years later that we found out that Frances Cleveland had covered up the biggest lie of her husband’s life. He had undergone secret cancer surgery that led to the removal of part of his jaw. Cleveland had decided not to tell the public in order not to further panic the stock markets.
Their happy marriage survived his illness and his retirement. Songs were written about his great love for Frances!
After the presidency, Frances Cleveland gave birth to two more children. One of her children, a boy named Francis, was born in 1903 and lived until 1995. it is amazing that the son of a president who served in the 1880s was still alive when Bill Clinton was president of the United States! One of Frances Cleveland’s granddaughters became an important philosopher. When her beloved Ruth died at the age of 12, Frances Cleveland sank into a deep depression, worsened by the death of her husband just four years later.
Her resilience and strength allowed her to bounce back and lead and amazingly productive life. She became the first presidential widow ever to remarry, once again predating Jacqueline Kennedy. She served on the board of trustees of her college, led a foundation to help relieve suffering during the depression and lived long enough to know Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. When doctors told her she was going blind, she learned braille. Later, when her vision was restored, she used her skills to help blind Navajo students. She and her husband, the president of Princeton University, had a happy marriage. She passed away In 1947 at the age of 83. She lived for 51 years after her time as first lady and did – the longest such period in history.
The story of Frances Cleveland is fascinating and illustrative of the changing roles of women and the amazing strength with which an extremely young woman galvanized the attention of the nation and then used her skills to improve the lives of others.
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