Why you should care
Because sometimes the aging plump guy with the weird mustache gets the girl.
Buffalo, New York, in the 1870s was a bustling metropolis perched on the Erie Canal and was also quite possibly the saloon capital of the world — with more than 600 barrooms. At the center of America’s “sink of iniquity,” playing cards in a back room, was Grover Cleveland, or Big Steve, as the 5-foot-11-inch, 250-pound New Yorker was known to friends, a cigar-smoking lawyer who loved sausages and sauerkraut and a future two-term president of the U.S.
Just a decade later, after the lifelong bachelor was sworn in as the 22nd U.S. president, Cleveland, 49, became the only one to marry in the White House, taking as his bride a 21-year-old beauty named Frances Folsom, his deceased law partner’s daughter, whom he had helped care for since she was a baby. Robbing the cradle of your dead friend may seem a risky move for a politician, but it paid off handsomely for Cleveland, revitalizing his presidency and giving America its youngest, and perhaps most popular, first lady.
Most of the time, Big Steve enjoyed the company of men, one of whom was his drinking buddy and law partner Oscar Folsom. But when Folsom was killed in a buggy accident in 1875, his good friend helped administer his estate and supervise the upbringing and education of 11-year-old Frances, or Frank, as the avuncular Cleveland called the girl since buying her a baby carriage when she was an infant. And Frances adored her “Uncle Cleve.” As her mother would later put it, “Frank made a hero out of him before she was out of short dresses.”
The president wrote frequent letters to Frances while she was in college and showered her with gifts.
Cleveland, a pro-business and small-government Democrat, rose fast politically, from mayor of Buffalo to governor of New York by 1882. But as Charles Lachman covers in A Secret Life: The Lies and Scandals of President Grover Cleveland, certain aspects of the governor’s colorful personal life almost derailed his presidential campaign against Republican James G. Blaine in 1884. The Sun newspaper opined that the American public would never elect as president “a coarse debaucher who would bring his harlots with him to Washington.”
But the biggest bombshell to drop on the Cleveland campaign took the form of Maria Halpin, a fetching Buffalo widow with whom Cleveland had become infatuated 10 years earlier and who had accused him of sexual assault. When Halpin became pregnant and pressed Cleveland to marry her, she was committed to an asylum, and the child, born out of wedlock, was sent to an orphanage. But once the presidential hopeful admitted that he and Halpin had been “illicitly acquainted” and that he was likely the father of the illegitimate child, the scandal receded.
When Cleveland took office in March 1885 after a narrow victory, he and his sullied reputation were badly in need of a makeover, and the White House needed a first lady other than the president’s sister. Fortunately, he happened to know a lovely, accomplished 20-year-old poised to graduate from Wells College. The president wrote frequent letters to Frances and showered her with gifts, from freshly cut roses every week to a bull terrier puppy. A few months after Frances graduated, Uncle Cleve popped the question in a letter. “Would you put your life in my hands?” he asked.
Her answer, of course, was yes, and the wedding was scheduled for the following summer. The only presidential wedding ever held at the White House took place in the Blue Room on June 2, 1886. With fewer than 30 guests in attendance, the commander in chief, dressed in white tie, escorted his bride, resplendent in ivory satin, down the grand staircase as the U.S. Marine Band, led by John Philip Sousa, played Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March.”
An accomplished pianist who was fluent in German, French and Latin, Frankie, as Americans would call their beloved first lady, was an instant sensation. She held weekly public meetings at the White House and was inundated with fan mail, and advertisers placed her image (without consent) on everything from perfume to ashtrays to undergarments. When Cleveland lost his bid for re-election in 1888, she reportedly asked a member of the White House staff to keep the place in good repair, as they would be back.
And so they were, in 1892, when Cleveland became the only U.S. president elected to two nonconsecutive terms. Frances would give birth to two of the couple’s five children while in the White House, and thanks to her, when the “walrus in wingtips” died in 1908, he had established himself as something few could have imagined in his earlier years: a devoted family man.