The first celebrity first lady: Frances Cleveland

July 3

Sheet music titled "Luck and Love" using images of Frances Folsom Cleveland and Grover Cleveland. (Courtesy of S.J. Ackerman)

The celebrity couple raced through the night, fleeing media “ghouls” in hot pursuit. This wasn’t Di and Dodi or Kim and Kanye: The year was 1886. They raced trains, not careening autos. Instead of paparazzi, there were sketch artists. Their quarry was the president of the United States seeking honeymoon privacy.

President Grover Cleveland was 49. His bride, Frances, was 21, the youngest first lady in history. Here began America’s first celebrity-culture feeding frenzy.

America was crazed to know the couple. A Buffalo attorney in 1881, Grover Cleveland became mayor in 1882, uprooting graft. In 1883,he was New York’s governor, battling predatory machines. In 1884, voters disgusted with Gilded Age corruption made him president.

A bachelor, the first Democratic president in a generation seemed a grouchy workaholic, revealing little personality. The new first lady was a complete unknown, her identity concealed until the week before the wedding. Her rise was just as meteoric: bewildered high school dropout in 1882, college graduate in 1885, first lady in 1886. But it wasn’t just her youth that made everyone sit up and take notice. The relationship’s origins were fodder for even the most reticent gossips.

Frances Folsom was born 150 years ago, on July 21, 1864, to Emma and Oscar Folsom. Grover Cleveland was Folsom’s law partner, and he doted on baby “Frank,” as everyone called Frances. He bought her a pram; he babysat her as “Uncle Cleve.”

While Cleveland was attentive, Frank’s father was reckless. Oscar Folsom loved racing his carriage. Once, after being challenged to a race, he stowed little Frank in a hotel lobby and galloped off, forgetting her. Strangers got her home. Folsom died — from reckless driving — just as Frank turned 11.

By contrast, Cleveland was dependable, little Frank’s hero. Wishing her the education that poverty had denied him, he got her into Wells College, which offered women rare academic rigor.

Frank thrived. Gov. Cleveland sent flowers. Asked why he hadn’t married, he quipped, “I’m waiting for my bride to grow up.” Everybody thought he was kidding.

President Cleveland proposed by letter while Frank was in college, sweating her reply like a schoolboy. Upon graduation, Frank sailed for Europe to sightsee and purchase her trousseau.

Cleveland wanted privacy for her return. Eluding dockside reporters, his secretary, Dan Lamont, intercepted Frank’s homebound liner, slipping her onto a cutter, then into a Manhattan hotel. Scarcely visible on a high balcony, she waved as Grover rode in the Decoration Day parade. A band piped up Gilbert and Sullivan’s hit “For He’s Gone and Married Yum-Yum.” The crowd roared.

On June 2, Frank hopped from a carriage and “tripped up the [White House] steps and swept through the great entrance like a radiant vision of young springtime,” a veteran staffer enthused.


On June 12, 1886, Harper’s Weekly published this illustration by Thure de Thulstrup of the Cleveland-Folsom wedding. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

That evening, she and Cleveland married in the White House, with family and Cabinet couples attending. A reporter offered John Philip Sousa $50 to let him crash the wedding posing as a Marine bandsman. Sousa marched the rascal out. After the wedding, bride and groom dashed to a train and bolted out of Washington.

The pursuit train steamed close behind. It caught up at Deer Park, Md., a resort, yet unopened for the season, where the couple spent their first honeymoon night.

The next morning, Grover glared onto grounds infested with reporters. Some perched in trees with binoculars. They lurked beyond the railroad police perimeter. To sate media lust, Grover improvised pool reporting, reading congratulatory messages to less-odious journalists while Frank gazed adoringly. This was the start of a thousand-day Frank-mania.

As the honeymooners waved villagers farewell, Frank spotted an ill woman and impulsively leaped off the train’s platform to embrace her. “That little act has gone straight to the hearts of the mountain people,” the New York Times reported.

Jaded envoys and society mean girls swarmed to dissect the ingenue at the June 8 diplomatic reception in Washington. But Frank, glittering in diamonds, disarmed them. She mesmerized the public reception a week later. Two women gazing backward at her following their introductions collided with potted palms, one tumbling into the Marine Band. Frank shook 5,000 hands.

Within two weeks, an obscure kid exploded into America’s consciousness. She enjoyed Washington’s sharpest mentors: Lamont for PR and heiress Flora Whitney, spouse of the Navy secretary, for social savoir-faire, coaching straightforward Frank into decorous Frances. Yet nobody could have coached her into superstardom. Frank pulled that off herself.

The media were besotted by Frank’s appearance. Although “girlish,” her face was “intelligent and thoughtful. Although the dimples came readily, the smile was exceedingly sweet, and seemed a fitting accompaniment to her well-modulated voice.” One didn’t smile for the camera in 1886, but hers evidently was devastating. “It is no easy matter to produce five thousand new smiles and no two alike.”


Frances Folsom Cleveland in 1886, the year she married the president. She became an instant arbiter of fashion. (Underwood Archives)

Frank — who despised “Frankie,” which some publications called her — was unconventional. When the Women’s Christian Temperance Union scolded her “decollete” gowns, she ignored them. In fact, she was an instant arbiter of fashion. First came her coif, lovely auburn hair swept up from the forehead, then gathered behind above her shaved neck. Her arms were bare above leather opera gloves. She turned to American designers to fill her closets.

Women followed her even into fashion absurdity. Reportedly, she pinned on her shoulder a harnessed machette bug, gadding about on its gilt leash. Whether that was true or not, jewelers rushed shipments of vermin from Yucatan. A phony report that she disliked bustles banished them overnight.

And she could think! “Without pretense or show, Mrs. Cleveland kept up pleasant conversation with men who are leaders in theology, medicine, finance, railroads,” an observer noted. Her “quick wit and gracious tact” were disarming.

American girls facing life’s dilemmas wondered, What would Mrs. Cleveland do?

Frank irked elitists with Saturday receptions for working women unavailable on weekdays. She remembered White House servants’ birthdays. She played with tots at the Colored Orphans Christmas party. She dedicated a home for factory girls, encouraging “struggling girls and working people of the entire country.”

The women delighted that Frances “should come to them and, for the moment, be one of them.”

Frank-mania became obsessive. Advertisers exploited her. She protested “her” ersatz endorsement of a cosmetic laced with arsenic, but the ad kept running. She became a tourist attraction. Hotels overflowed during the 1886-1887 social season with guests hell-bent on seeing her. Tour guides optimistically guaranteed a glimpse.

To avoid crowds, Frank ditched the White House carriage to shop inconspicuously via taxi. Theatergoers eyed her loge more than the show. She sometimes arrived at private visits shaken by a gantlet of reporters. Floods of fan mail forced her to hire a secretary and devise form replies.

The price of celebrity is privacy.


A crowd greeted the couple in Kansas City, Mo., on Oct. 13, 1887. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Frank went on tour by train in 1887 to rock-star acclaim. The gush of public affection exhilarated but exhausted her and Grover. Still, they had fun. Admirers thrust flowers and gifts into their carriage. She embraced serenading school kids.

But the downside was bizarre. In Atlanta, the couple ceased shaking hands because theirs were mauled, provoking resentful threats. Their greeter at Memphis dropped dead. Chicago was horrific. Fans engulfed them. Cops clobbered many, and the Illinois cavalry charged.

Frank’s grueling triumph alarmed Republicans who felt that she had to be taken down a peg, but tangling with her proved risky. GOP eminence Chauncey Depew repeated raunchy press insults, only to be threatened. Readers “wreaked their vengeance” on a rude Minneapolis Tribune editorial.

When Ohio’s blowhard Gov. “Fire Alarm Joe” Foraker, who had made ugly remarks about Grover, passed in a parade, Frank turned her back. Foraker foolishly whined about the “snub.” Every setback in his later career henceforth became another “Foraker snub.”

The Clevelands’ feelings for each other were no mystery. When Frank returned from an absence, Grover lost all his reserve in public displays of affection that embarrassed bystanders. Over the course of their 22-year marriage, which lasted until Grover’s death in 1908, the couple would have five children.


The Clevelands’ house in Georgetown Heights, which is now called Cleveland Park. (Courtesy of S.J. Ackerman)

What today is Washington’s tony Cleveland Park neighborhood was, in 1886, known as Georgetown Heights, sprawling farmland with views of the distant Potomac. There the Clevelands purchased a farmhouse that would become their primary residence. A single D.C. cop at the gate provided the only security.

Oak View was “a small, pretty, brownish-gray stone house with cool, pleasant verandas, surrounded with about thirty acres of rolling land covered with clover. ... The rooms are small and are prettily and comfortably furnished,” a magazine reported.

Oak View gave them a home. “Frank can’t really be said to have had a home,” Grover observed. Neither had he, growing up in parsonages and later living at his law office; he wanted a family place. Here was their refuge from the noise.

Frank liked lounging in a porch hammock, studying. Grover was “a different man after reaching his own domain.” The Clevelands gardened and tended their animals. They ate their own produce and drank milk from their own cows. Grover built a study. Late in 1888, Frank, confident of her husband’s reelection, added a tennis court.

Grover delighted Frank with a menagerie. Pens teemed with foxes, quail, bunnies, ducks, a tame fawn, along with farm animals and house pets, including white rats (until one nipped Frank). Frank addressed her poodle Hector in French.

Her zoo ballooned as U.S. consuls abroad dispatched fauna: Russian wolfhounds, German dachshunds, exotic fish from Indochina. The Oak View house served as the executive mansion. Its owners endured the official one on Pennsylvania Avenue only in the December-March social season.

Cleveland commuted downtown via horse and buggy, unescorted. But mostly he worked from home, savoring serene hours basking on the southeast porch, with its stunning view of the city, and with Frank by him reading or knitting, serenaded by songbirds.

Frank here fostered a unique sorority of Cabinet wives. Yet she wasn’t completely free on her hill. The Clevelands frequented the Whitneys’ nearby “farm,” but Frank skipped their galas. “The reputation we have for lavish hospitality and as rich people” would taint Frank in the public eye, William Whitney explained.

Oak View hosted Cabinet meetings. In 1887, Grover convened “Oak View Conferences” with advisers to plan his tariff-reduction initiative and (ineptly) his reelection campaign.

Frank was discreetly political, observing from the gallery as members of Congress debated the initiative. Her image soon appeared on campaign material.

Despite a slight popular majority, Grover Cleveland lost the 1888 election to Benjamin Harrison as the Northern industrial states rejected Cleveland’s preference for lower tariffs on imported goods.

Defeated, the Clevelands clung to Oak View. It got unmanageable when Grover joined a New York law firm. Frank got her last glimpse in 1889, before it sold. One of Grover’s last acts was to sign legislation authorizing a national zoo, just downhill.

Frank made great entrances; also, great exits. After a thousand-day run, at 24, she breezed out of the White House in 1889, cheering the sorrowing staff to care for the place, because the Clevelands would be back in exactly four years. Then she was gone.

She was back in exactly four years, when her husband became the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms.

But that’s another story.

S.J. Ackerman is a freelance writer in Washington.

E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit The Washington Post Magazine.

Follow the Magazine on Twitter.

Like us on Facebook.

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Lifestyle