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When presidents fall in love

An illustration of President Grover Cleveland's wedding appears in an 1886 issue of Harper's Weekly. (Library of Congress) (loc)

A Marine Band orchestra, under the direction of John Philip Sousa, played “The Wedding March” as President Grover Cleveland and his young bride walked arm in arm into the Blue Room. At 7:30 p.m. on June 2, 1886, Cleveland became the first — and only — U.S. president to be married in the White House.

Cleveland, a New York Democrat, is one of three presidents to marry while in office. The first was Virginia’s John Tyler, a Whig, in 1844, and the third was Democrat Woodrow Wilson of Virginia in 1915. Cleveland’s Valentine love story has several quirky twists.

The 300-pound Cleveland was a bachelor when he moved into the White House in early 1885. He won election despite a sex scandal. During the campaign, a Buffalo newspaper revealed that Cleveland had fathered a child with a single woman named Maria Halpern. A popular cartoon pictured Cleveland and a woman holding a crying baby with the caption: ‘Ma, Ma. Where’s My Pa?” After Cleveland won, his backers responded, “Gone to the White House. Ha, Ha, Ha.”

Rumors that the bachelor president would marry began soon after he took office. Cleveland was close to the family of his late friend, Oscar Folsom, who died in 1873. Folsom left behind his wife, Emma, and their 11-year-old daughter, Frances. Cleveland doted on the daughter, whom he had known since she was born. He called her “Frank,” and she called him “Uncle Cleve.”

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Newspapers speculated that the 44-year-old widow Emma Folsom would be the next first lady. But Cleveland told a friend, “I don’t see why the papers keep marrying me to old ladies all the while. I wonder why they don’t say I’m engaged to marry her daughter?” The 48-year-old president had, in fact, secretly proposed to 20-year-old Frances in a letter just before she graduated from Wells College in New York in spring 1885.

Soon newspapers began reporting rumors that “Frankie” was the “bride-elect.” The Boston Globe printed a long story with a picture of Folsom and the headline “Danced On ‘Uncle Cleve’s’ Knee In Infancy.’ ”

Finally on May 28, 1886, the president published their wedding announcement. He planned a small ceremony with about two dozen guests. Cleveland barred the press, but some reporters climbed trees outside the Blue Room to get a view. The wedding was front-page news across the country.

“The bride wore an enchanting wedding dress of ivory,” one paper reported. Frances was ahead of her time and eliminated the word “obey” from her wedding vows. Cleveland didn’t kiss the bride. But he gave her an “elegant diamond necklace, the stones being set in gold and extending all around the neck.” The wedding cake was a fruitcake.

The happy couple soon rode a Baltimore & Ohio train to a private cabin near Deer Park, Md. Reporters followed them and used binoculars to spy on the newlyweds. Cleveland was so furious that he wrote one New York editor that his reporters were “doing their utmost to make American journalism contemptible in the estimation of people of good breeding everywhere.”

Most Americans didn’t make a fuss about the age gap between the 49-year-old president and his 21-year-old bride. Folsom still is the youngest first lady ever and then was the most popular since Dolley Madison. Women followed the “Cleveland fashion” in clothes. Companies sold unauthorized “Frankie” products ranging from sewing kits to a tobacco pipe and liver pills.

To maintain some privacy, Cleveland bought a farmhouse on 27 acres in Northwest Washington to use as their primary home. The area later became known as Cleveland Park. The couple soon had their first child, baby Ruth. But in the 1888 presidential race, Cleveland lost to Indiana’s Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland won a 1892 rematch and became the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms.

Back in the White House, the Clevelands had two more daugthers. After a second term, the first couple moved to Princeton, N.J., and had a son and another girl. Cleveland died there in 1908 at age 71. Mrs. Cleveland remarried in 1913. But after she died in 1947 at age 83, she was buried with her first love, President Cleveland.

The first sitting president to wed, Tyler, was known as “His Accidency.” He moved up from vice president in early 1841 when William Henry “Old Tippecanoe” Harrison became the first president to die in office. In 1842, Tyler’s invalid wife, Letitia, also died. The 51-year-old Tyler soon fell in love with 22-year-old Julia Gardiner, the daughter of a wealthy couple from Long Island, N.Y. When a friend told Tyler he might be too old to marry Julia, Tyler replied, “Pooh. Why, my dear sir, I am just full in my prime.”

The couple wed on June 26, 1844 in New York City. They were married for nearly 18 years until Tyler died in early 1862. Julia died 27 years later. Tyler set a record unlikely ever to be broken: most children by a president, at 15 (eight with his first wife and seven with Gardiner).

Woodrow Wilson became the third president to marry while in office on Dec. 18, 1915, just a year after his first wife, Ellen, had died of kidney disease. The 59-year-old Wilson fell for 43-year-old Edith Bolling Galt, a wealthy D.C. widow.

The couple were married in a small private wedding at Galt’s Washington home. When Wilson suffered a stroke in his second term, Mrs. Wilson secretly took over many presidential duties. After Wilson left office, the couple bought a house near Embassy Row in Northwest Washington. Wilson died there in 1924 at age 67. Mrs. Wilson lived in the house until 1961, when she died at age 89.

The Woodrow Wilson House is now open to the public. In 2015, the house presented a 100-year wedding anniversary exhibit. Among the items: a century-old piece of the Wilsons’ wedding plum cake.

Ronald G. Shafer is a freelance writer in Williamsburg, Va., and author of “The Carnival Campaign: How The Rollicking 1840 Campaign of Tippecanoe and Tyler Too Changed Presidential Elections Forever.”

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