Exactly 100 years ago today -- June 2, 1886 -- all of Washington worked itself into a romantic frenzy that would make the modern world forget its Carolines, Fergies and Marias. Long before satellites beamed brides and paparazzi preyed, Washington celebrated America's first Celebrity Wedding.
The president of the United States, Grover Cleveland, at 49, was marrying a maiden of 21 -- Frances Folsom, his former ward!
"MARRIED!," the front page of The Washington Post announced June 3.
It was as if Mark Twain scripted "La Dolce Vita."
In Washington, it was still a time of high-toned silliness with a home-town quality to the streets. Pennsylvania Avenue was "Main Street." It was the Gilded Age. Late Victorian. Heavily beaded bustles, kid gloves, monocles and spats.
The groom was a rotund, balding bachelor with a walrus mustache. But the center of attention was the bride, the turn of whose every satin footstep was carefully recorded in the newspapers with the juiciest of minutiae. She was the Lady Di of her day.
Like Cleveland, the tall, dark and ravishing "college girl" was from Buffalo. Her nicknames ranged from "the Bride-Elect" to "Yum Yum," but "Frankie" seemed to be most-loved.
Like Di, her hair style (shaved at the nape with a low-hung knot of long hair covering it) became the rage and was quickly dubbed "a la Cleveland."
Unfortunately for the press, "Frankie" was well protected by a bevy of matrons -- from ship to shore to carriage to railroad depot to Executive Mansion. That didn't mean reporters didn't turn out stories.
For days before the event, The Post headlined wedding stories, with a crowning front-page illustration of the happy couple the day after the wedding, coverage finally tapering after the honeymoon.
Alongside Post advertisements for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and corset sales, there were also stories of bloody fighting in Northern Ireland, cocaine addiction among the wealthy and the pressures on working women (under the heading of "Degenerated Women").
When Grover Cleveland's law partner, Oscar Folsom, died, his daughter became the ward of "Uncle Cleve," who had bought her baby carriage. Cleveland remained a bachelor, though not unoccupied. (In his 1884 presidential race, he was accused of fathering a child out of wedlock -- something he never denied. "Ma! Ma! Where's My Pa? Gone to the White House! Ha! Ha! Ha!" was a popular Republican ditty.)
While Frances Folsom matured and attended Wells College, which Cleveland paid for, the president quietly pursued her. A reporter quoted "a well-known society lady" who remained anonymous as saying that "passionate affection" grew in Miss Folsom, and when she visited the White House in 1885, gossip started that awoke Cleveland "to the fact that he loved his beautiful ward."
Then came the engagement. By the time Miss Folsom headed back from Europe in May, where she was said to be shopping for a trousseau, there was no stopping a press and public that smelled a wedding.
The May 29 Post reported the president was "naturally annoyed at the publicity which has been given the affair," and which "has led to almost endless -- and in many instances senseless -- gossip."
Competing papers scorned each other's tactics. As Miss Folsom's ship came into New York Harbor, one paper paid a tugboat to go up the river and get the exact number of her bags.
That night a prowling reporter at the White House "who was out late heard Cabinet members talk about the wedding . . . Secretaries were too full of it," but "when approached by the Post reporter they grew suddenly silent and vowed that they knew no more . . . "
Stories started breaking, like news that the wedding cake would have a "plain frosting in accordance with the wish of the president," and that his no-nonsense spinster sister Rose was put in charge of the floral decorations. In New York, there were "no less than a hundred reporters," waiting at Miss Folsom's hotel door -- the suite number printed by The Post.
That day there was also an interesting paragraph justifying the mounting press coverage:
"Everybody is gossiping about the White House wedding. Men and women are interested in an affair which has never before been witnessed and the curiosity manifested is neither vulgar nor impertinent; it is merely the penalty which those occupying high stations always have to pay."
The New York Times saw things slightly differently.
It recorded the reactions of an Englishman who was "shocked and disgusted at the freedom, levity and fulsomeness attending to the affair," but it also fought for the public's right to know.
"In days to come the wedding of President Cleveland will be considered an interesting historical event. It ought to be handed down . . . just as it is seen . . . The . . . subject . . . is entitled to be seen and described for the benefit of generations to come." Unfortunately, the advice was ignored. No writer was invited to the ceremony.
But The Times said stories of a mob scene were false. "On the contrary, it is believed that the orderly people of Washington" would consider the wedding private.
Not according to the next day's Washington Post.
The paper said the event "should be observed by all the citizens of this District." At the hour of the ceremony -- 7 p.m. -- every single home and church bell, The Post advised, "should sound forth a wedding peal."
Meanwhile, the president traveled to New York for Monday's "Decoration Day" parade (serenaded with the then-popular song, "He's Going to Marry Yum Yum," from Gilbert and Sullivan's "Mikado"), at which women, The Post reported, had to be kept "from climbing the trees on Madison Square." Throngs were becoming a frightening crush, according to The Post. "Three or four churches were dangerously crowded where it was reported that the Folsom party would attend.
" 'Newspaper Row' was like a great barren, howling desert without a single green oasis in the shape of news . . . the faces of the correspondents presented lugubrious pictures." When it was announced that no journalist would be admitted to the ceremony, it was "gall and wormwood to the correspondents."
Terrorized by the press, "Frankie" Folsom rarely left her room. No news there. When, finally, she was whisked to the White House by a complicated route from a private railroad car at the station, a few reporters actually caught a glimpse of her giggling at them.
With "Frankie" now ensconced in the Executive Mansion the day before the wedding, it became a vigil center for the hopelessly romantic, the well-intentioned curious, the mentally disturbed and, of course, reporters.
Outside, the buzzing crowds covered the North Lawn, pressing their noses against the windows and ogling every entering guest. Women buttonholed the doorkeeper for the custom-made cake boxes. A man "known in a Richmond lunatic asylum as Grover Cleveland" came to supervise the ceremony. A farm couple presented a basket of June strawberries, the wife warning she'd be back to get her basket. A white-haired gentleman presented a blue-ribboned scroll, which he grandly declared to be a national poem to the bride-elect.
By 6 p.m., the "thoroughly democratic" crowd, which ranged from "ragged street arab" to "well to do merchant and his wife" to "rough bricklayer," shuffled into place around the house. There was no security to speak of. The June 3 account read, "The gates were left wide open. Everybody could come in and everybody who was so disposed entered the wide portals and passed up the wide asphalt drives . . . "
And then the magic moment.
"Suddenly the strains of the wedding march floated through the open windows . . . 'the service has begun' was whispered through the crowd. At the same time came the booming of cannon from the south, where a presidential salute was being fired and the merry peal of bells from the Metropolitan and other churches. Then . . . a tantalizing hush within the walls . . . the strains of the 'Bridal Chorus' . . . the ceremony was over."
And the honeymoon began.
The president wanted to avoid the reporters waiting for him and his bride. His carriage raced up to 17th Street, across K to First Street NE, and then to the railroad tracks, boarding an unassuming train that waited some distance from the station, where the waiting press was foiled. Luckily, word got out about the honeymoon at nearby Deer Park, Md.
Every move of the new Mrs. Cleveland was recorded by now-desperate reporters, who resorted to watching the newlyweds through spyglasses, but were kept at bay by guards. Not only were they not allowed to linger, but no hotel rooms were made available in the area.
"The President had hoped that he would not be followed," The Post reported June 4, "and was greatly surprised to find that the leading papers of the country had their representatives here almost as soon as he arrived." Under the headline of "Mrs. Cleveland Fishes" came the political warning that though she caught nothing, "she is not disposed to give up."
Stories on the wedding's impact began. Mrs. Cleveland's cousin Agnes, who sang comic opera at the Casino Theater as the "pretty waitress" in "Erminie," enjoyed a brief moment of fame. A luggage salesman used the Clevelands' image to sell his wares. Rose Cleveland sternly revealed that she had known for a full year that her White House days were numbered. A writer said political news would be more easily obtained since "she will confide all the important secrets that the President trusts with her" to "lady friends" whom "shrewd reporters will cultivate."
Only slowly did the Cleveland wedding ebb from the front pages. A warning to presidents said, "Privacy about a private matter does not suit the American people who, since the advent of modern journalism, have no private matters."
But The Post's own postwedding editorial was unique:
"There has been enough said about the President's marriage. Beyond extending to him and his bride its heartfelt wishes for a long, a happy and prosperous union, The Post does not wish to intrude."