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Frances Folsom Cleveland was America’s youngest First Lady

Frances Folsom Cleveland

On January 20, 1961, a very pregnant 31-year old Jacqueline Kennedy took her place in history as one of America’s First Ladies. Though her grace and beauty added a polished enchantment to the White House, her age ranked her as the third-youngest of the country’s presidential wives. The title of youngest is still held by Frances Folsom Cleveland. She was 21 years old when she married then President Grover Cleveland on Junes 2, 1886 in the Blue Room of the White House and became America’s 27th First Lady.

Born on July 21, 1864 in Buffalo, New York, Frances was the daughter of Oscar Folsom and Emma Harmon. All of Frances’ ancestors came from England and settled in the areas which became the states of New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. She was originally named Frank, after an uncle, but later changed it to the feminine variant, “Frances”.

Much like Princess Aurora and Prince Phillip in Sleeping Beauty, Grover Cleveland met his future wife shortly after she was born. He was 27 when he first laid eyes on Frances. Developing an avuncular attitude towards the child, he bought her a baby carriage and doted over her throughout her childhood.

Oscar Folsom died on July 23, 1875 due to a carriage accident, leaving no will. With no executor named, the court appointed Cleveland, Oscar’s law partner, to administer the quarter-million dollar estate he left behind. This brought Grover into more frequent contact with Frances, now 11-years old.

Throughout her teen years, Frances lived with her mother’s family in Medina, New York. Following high school graduation, she enrolled in Wells College, one of the nation’s two liberal arts institutions specifically for women. Here she pursued her interest in photography. Among her other classes were botany, logic, astronomy, religious studies, and a special favorite – political science. Frances was an active debater in the Phoenix Society, delivering a complicated speech on the topic of free trade, tariffs and protectionism. When she was not busy giving speeches, she helped to build sets and make costumes for the theater club.

During the spring of 1885, Frances and her mother made a trip to Washington. It was while they were there that President Cleveland proposed marriage to her. Emma was not overly happy with the idea, considering herself to be a more suitable bride for the bachelor president.

Desiring that Frances enhance her knowledge of Europe and the continent’s social customs and protocols, the president sent her, accompanied by Emma, on a trip to explore seven European nations. This would also offer Frances the opportunity to assemble the appropriate trousseau she would need for her public appearances as First Lady. The women left in September and returned in May.

On June 2, 1886, 21-year-old Frances Folsom became the bride of 49-year-old President Grover Cleveland. To date, Cleveland is the only president to marry in the White House. Though there was a 27 year difference in their ages, the span between President John Tyler and his wife Julia was even wider - 30 years.

The historic wedding attracted an enormous amount of international attention during the weeks and days prior to the ceremony. The most surprising fact, however, was the bride’s identity. Thinking the President had chosen his widowed friend, Emma Folsom, for his bride, the public was astonished to learn it was actually Emma’s 21 year old daughter.

If she was a student of American History, Princess Diana likely sympathized with the situations Frances faced prior to and after her marriage to the President of the United States. Every move the bride-to-be made was stalked by reporters as Frances prepared for her relocation from New York to Washington, D.C. Each day, the society pages published columns about the wedding, ranging from the factory where the wedding cake boxes were produced to how many gifts had arrived.

On the day of the wedding, the White House was transformed into the executive flower shop, from the decorated banisters and rooms to the orange blossoms which adorned the bride’s train. The guest list had been limited to family members and closest friends, along with members of the president’s cabinet and their wives. Journalists were barred from the wedding and “mum” was the word for participants and guests when the press when seeking interviews.

The intimate candlelight ceremony took place in the Blue Room with Reverend Byron Sutherland officiating, assisted by the groom’s brother, Reverend William Cleveland. Music was provided by the Marine Corps Band, led by John Philip Sousa. Frances’ paternal grandfather, John Folsom, had originally been asked to conduct the wedding ceremony; however, he died 16 days prior to the scheduled nuptials. Following the ceremony, the city of Washington, D.C. erupted with the sound of church bells and ship horns. The couple then left for a honeymoon at Deer Park Lodge in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains.

Prior to the wedding, Rose Cleveland, the president’s sister, had acted as White House hostess. When the newlyweds returned from their honeymoon, Frances assumed her duties as First Lady and quickly became an instant celebrity. The youth and charm of the 5’7” black-haired, blue-eyed beauty enhanced her popularity as young women sought to copy her unique hairstyle and requested their photos be taken in the same poses as those of Frances.

During the summer of 1887, two Washington reporters were at a loss as to what to print for a general interest story. Knowing how closely the First Lady’s clothing was monitored by the public, they drummed up a tale stating Frances had decided to stop wearing bustle-styled garments. As a result, almost overnight bustles were making their way towards the country’s garbage dumps.

Seeking a manner in which to use her influence to help uplift her countrywomen, Frances hosted Saturday morning receptions for working-class females who were unable to visit the White House during weekly business hours. Domestic staff members at the White House were stunned to see the quantity of “common” maids, government clerks, industry workers and shop-girls who lined up in the East Room to shake hands with the First Lady.

Unlike Rose Cleveland, Frances did not feel the need to ban hard liquor in the White House. Instead, she sought to set an example for other women by permitting the serving of alcohol, while at the same time, turning over her wine glass and consuming sparkling water.

During a timeframe when performance contracts were offered almost exclusively to men, the First Lady sought to enhance the fledgling musical careers of various young women. In one instance, Frances sponsored an American violinist who wished to study in Berlin. This young woman later became the first American to win the prized Mendelssohn Stipendium (scholarship).

With the intense popularity of the First Lady, the White House was inundated with a much larger quantity of correspondence, far surpassing that of her predecessors. In an effort to help handle this situation, Frances hired her college friend, Minnie Alexander, as a social secretary. History was again made due to the fact Minnie was the first non-family member to fill the position. Given the fact this was not a government job, the Clevelands paid her salary themselves. In an effort to streamline the response to the influx of correspondence sent to the First Lady, the first set of form letters was created.

Though prior to the wedding, Grover Cleveland had sensed the press would have an interest in his young bride, he was unable to fully anticipate to what degree it would actually be. In an effort to thwart as much intrusion into their private life as possible, the president purchased a 27 acre working farm in Washington’s Georgetown Heights. The acreage, later named “Cleveland Park”, offered the couple a level of privacy unavailable to them in Washington. Frances named the house “Oak View” and the Clevelands were at home there throughout the president’s first term of office, returning to the White House only during the active social seasons, from November to December and February to April. They sold the property when they left Washington in 1889.

In 1887, the Clevelands left on a rail tour, traveling through the South and West. During the trip, Frances’s popularity and fame grew even larger. Souvenir coins were struck in St. Louis to commemorate the First Lady’s visit and Harper’s illustrated newspaper made her their cover girl on a regular basis, experiencing an increase in sales each time. During the trip, one of the stops the couple made was in Nashville where the First Lady had the opportunity to meet her elderly predecessor, Sarah Polk.

President Cleveland lost his bid for re-election in 1888 and the couple moved to New York. They made their home on Madison Avenue and led a quiet life. It was during their time here the couple’s first daughter, Ruth, was born on October 3, 1891.

Prior to leaving the White House, Frances told her staff to take good care of the place because they would return in four years. Much to everyone’s shocked surprise, Frances’ comment proved to be prophetic. Four years later, former President Cleveland won re-election. When they returned to Washington for Cleveland’s second term, the couple again lived away from the White House, this time renting a home Frances named “Woodley”. To date, Grover Cleveland remains the only chief executive to serve two nonconsecutive terms in office, as the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.

When Frances Cleveland became the first former First Lady to return to that same position in 1893, she was a different woman. Her main focus was now on her three young daughters, two of which were born during the president’s second term in office. She also helped to redefine the president’s image. In the past, Cleveland had been seen as a beer drinking, coarse Buffalo politician who admitted to fathering an illegitimate son. Now, however, he was seen as a devoted husband and a doting father to his toddler daughters.

Despite Francis’s best efforts, however, Cleveland’s second term was tarnished by the economic depression of 1893. The widespread unemployment resulted in numerous death threats against both the President and First Lady. Without seeking the president’s permission, Frances took it upon herself to increase the level of Secret Service protection for both her husband and the White House.

While at their summer home in Buzzard’s Bay during 1917, President Cleveland was diagnosed with jaw cancer. Due to the fact the condition required immediate surgery, and desiring to retard public disclosure of the President’s condition, the operation took place at sea. Frances immediately became her husband’s protector and successfully deceived the public and press regarding the reason for the President’s extensive absence from public appearances. With the permission of the Cleveland family, the president’s operation was later revealed to the public in an article published in the Saturday Evening Post magazine in 1917. Dr. W. W. Keen, one of Cleveland's surgeons, was its author.

When the Clevelands left the White House for the second and last time, they made their home in Princeton, New Jersey. A short time later, Frances was invited to become president of the Daughters of the American Revolution; however, she declined due to the political obligations she knew were part of the position.

After leaving Washington, Frances bore two sons; making her the only First Lady to give birth following her incumbency. In 1904, a year following the birth of the second son, daughter Ruth died at the age of 12 due to diphtheria. Ruth’s death sank Frances into a severe depression. Four years later, her husband died. Frances was now a 44-year-old widow with four children. In an effort to recuperate from her grief, Frances and the children went to Europe in September of 1909, returning to the States in May 1910.

Frances had served as a trustee for her alma mater, Wells College, since 1887. Her activity in this position continued over the years and when the college president was forced to resign, she actively campaigned for Princeton archeology professor, Thomas Jex Preston, Jr. to replace him. She also endowed a chair at Wells to which Preston was appointed.

On February 10, 1913, 49-year-old Frances married Preston, making her the first presidential widow to remarry. In April of 1914, the couple moved to London where they lived for a year.

World War I erupted in Europe during August of 1914 while the Prestons were on vacation in St. Moritz, Switzerland. They returned to the United States and became involved in the National Security League (NSL), a patriotic, non-partisan organization. Within the NSL, Frances assumed the position of Director of the Committee on Patriotism through Education in November 1918.

Following the death of Grover Cleveland, Frances was granted a free franking privilege, which remained in place after she remarried. (This same privilege would later be denied to Jacqueline Kennedy when she remarried.) The former First Lady immediately began a speaking tour in which she strongly urged Americans to take the threat of war seriously.

Until now, Frances’s public life had passed the white glove test regarding controversy. Her activity with the NSL, however, served to stain those gloves. In one instance, Frances suggested the reason Americans would not unite around a strong defense was due to "a huge percentage of unassimilated population that cannot think or act together." Add to that the psychological indoctrination she used towards children in the classroom and the organization’s rank and file now felt a line had been wrongly crossed. As a result, on December 8, 1919, Frances resigned from the NSL.

During both World War I and the Great Depression, Frances led the Needlework Guild of America during its clothing drive for the poor. She served as treasurer of the Princeton chapter from 1921 – 1924, then as the national president from 1925 – 1940. The formal speech she delivered in 1928 was broadcast over the radio from the group’s national convention. In 1925, Frances also joined the Board of Directors for the Campfire Girls, in addition to serving also as the organization’s president until 1939.

When Frances was misdiagnosed with impending blindness, she immediately began to learn Braille and obtained a Braille typewriter. Though later learning the diagnosis was in error and her eyesight would remain intact, Frances continued to use her special typewriter to create reading material for a Navajo Indian teacher who was blind and unable to afford the specially prepared text.

In June 1946, the now elderly former First Lady made her last public appearance when she joined President and Mrs. Truman, their daughter Margaret, General Dwight D. Eisenhower and former White House residents Edith Wilson and Herbert Hoover at the bicentennial celebration of Princeton University. Frances Cleveland Preston died on October 29, 1947 in Baltimore, Maryland. She was 83 years old and laid to rest in Princeton, next to Grover Cleveland. Her lifespan following her departure from the White House (51 years) is to date the longest of any former First Lady.

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