Frances Cleveland, Secret White House Bride
Frances Folsom, at twenty-one, married grouchy, grumpy Grover Cleveland, age 49, in the White House! – It Was The Best Kept White House Secret.
When Grover Cleveland was elected President in 1884, the heavy-set (300 pounds!) mustachioed scowly-looking man was the target of every Washington matron. He was the most eligible bachelor in the country, eminently suitable for their widowed or spinster sister/daughter/niece or other relatives. He was not interested.
No one knew it at the time he was sworn in, but Cleveland was secretly engaged to Miss Frances Folsom, a twenty-one-year-old recent graduate of Wells College. There were many reasons for secrecy. First and foremost, the President believed adamantly that his personal life was his own business and 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 years earlier he had fathered an illegitimate child and it was headlined for weeks throughout the country. He admitted the paternity and documented his financial responsibility. The country forgave him, but he had permanently soured on reporters.
Perhaps most importantly, he did not want Frances to be scandalized. Not only was she young enough to be his daughter, an eyebrow-raising tidbit of cradle-robbing in itself, but she had been his legal ward for several years. Oscar Folsom had been Cleveland’s law partner and best friend. When Frances was born, “Uncle Cleve” provided the baby buggy. Less than ten years later, Folsom was killed in a carriage accident. Cleveland, as executor of the estate, assumed guardianship of the little girl and her mother. He managed their inheritance, provided for them 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, all things considered, a quasi-relative. That relationship was enough to raise the other eyebrow. The connotations could be just as scandalous as his illegitimate child.
The Cat Is Out of the Bag
A few days after Cleveland’s inauguration, Frances and her mother went to Europe for the grand tour and an opportunity to purchase a trousseau. The secretly held firm. Cleveland wasn’t talking. Frances wasn’t talking. But about the time the Folsom women were ready to return, the newspaper reporters got wind of a big scoop. Exactly what triggered the speculation is still speculated, but the fact that the President had just closed on a large house in Georgetown, was definitely news.
Why would long-term bachelor Cleveland, who had never owned a house before, buy a house? Most of the speculation that Cleveland was about to marry centered on Emma Folsom, Frances’ mother. She and Cleveland were close in age. They had known each other for years. It made perfect sense. But when the truth was discovered that young and pretty Frances, with the peaches-and-cream complexion and slim figure, was going to marry Grover Cleveland, well into middle age and nowhere near an Adonis, the country was delighted! The bands started playing the latest hit song from The Mikado: “He’s Going to Marry Yum-Yum”. The secret was out.
Cleveland, the bridegroom, made all the arrangements himself. It might have been the social event of the year, but it was minuscule. Less than fifty invitations were issued. He handwrote those invitations himself, engaged the minister and even planned the honeymoon. His sister, who had been filling in as acting-First Lady for a year, ordered the wedding 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. They took the train from New York on the morning of the wedding.
The press was banned from attending. Because the President felt bound to give them some kind of story, he allowed a description of Frances’ gown to be circulated – but no photographs. Reporters and newspaper artists created her gown from the description and printed it in their papers. Both gowns were different. Neither were like the real thing.
For the ceremony, Cleveland had the White House windows curtained with heavy black cloth so the reporters and curiosity hounds could not even get a glimmer. The details of the wedding and honeymoon were so shrouded in secrecy that it became a major major challenge for anyone to learn anything.
The Press Covers the Honeymoon
Frances and the President slipped out of the White House undetected and were whisked off to the railroad station for their honeymoon train to the Maryland mountains. Newspapermen were on hot the bridal couple’sr trail. They hired a private train to follow. Reporters surrounded the President’s cottage, climbed trees and kept watch with binoculars. They cornered the waiters and housekeepers for details. Their breakfast and dinner menus were posted on the front pages. “Mrs. Cleveland Fishes” was another of their newsworthy headlines.
Frances Cleveland became the darling of the press. They adored her, and she never seemed to mind the glare of publicity, which was non-stop. Grover Cleveland, however, would spend the rest of his Presidency glowering in a futile fight against the intrusion. After his term ended, the Clevelands could retire in sort-of privacy for four years. Then he was elected again. By this time they were parents, with another baby on the way.
Cleveland’s antipathy to the media never ended. In his second term, it was discovered that he had cancer of the jaw, requiring immediate surgery. Just as he had covertly planned his clandestine engagement, he planned the secret medical procedure, swearing the doctors to silence. The patient recovered, and the doctors kept their word. The public did not learn of Cleveland’s operation for a quarter-century, and he had been dead for a decade.
Nobody keeps secrets like that anymore!