When bachelor Grover Cleveland became President, his unmarried sister, Rose Elizabeth Cleveland, assumed the role of First Lady. Rose Cleveland was a "bluestocking," more interested in pursuing scholarly endeavors than in entertaining cabinet wives and foreign dignitaries. She performed her hostessing duties only as a favor to her brother and loathed the social burden of her new position; she managed her boredom during receptions by silently conjugating Greek verbs. Much to her relief, Rose Cleveland would not serve as First Lady for long.
In fact, by 1886 Americans expected to welcome a new First Lady to the White House. It seemed that Grover Cleveland was quite taken with his former law partner and longtime friend's widow, Emma Folsom. Rose Cleveland had entertained both Emma and her daughter Frances at the White House, and the President's visits with the Folsoms were common knowledge. When the announcement came that forty-eight-year-old President Cleveland had married a Folsom, no one was surprised; most were shocked, however, to find that he had married not Emma Folsom, but rather her twenty-one-year-old daughter, Frances.
Frances Folsom Cleveland was the first woman to marry an incumbent President in the White House. The ceremony, arranged by Rose Cleveland, was simple and small and took place in the Blue Room. "Frankie" was young and beautiful, and the romance of a White House wedding thrilled many Americans, who likened it to royal nuptials. Reporters not only sought details of the event but also followed the newlyweds on their short honeymoon trip.
After the wedding, the press turned Frances into a national celebrity. Journalists were not the only ones interested in the new First Lady. Thousands of Americans deluged Frances with fan letters, so much so that she had to hire a social secretary to deal with the onslaught. Thousands more risked injury as they fought to catch a glimpse of her in public. The fuss bewildered the President, who was intent on making "Frank" a "sensible, domestic wife." Indeed, he asserted that he "should be pleased not to hear her spoken of as 'the First Lady of the Land' or 'mistress of the White House.' I want her to be happy . . . but I should feel very much affected if she lets many notions into her head."
Frances was a college graduate who played the piano, spoke French and German, read Latin -- she was a voracious reader -- and enjoyed photography. Although she did not adopt any special project as First Lady, she focused attention on the Washington Home for Friendless Colored Girls by encouraging other white women to support the institution. She also promoted the Colored Christmas Club, a charity providing food, gifts, and entertainment to poor children in Washington. Although she supported the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and refrained from drinking, Frances did not ban spirits from the White House. In addition, while avoiding the issue of women's suffrage, she promoted women's education as a means of achieving equality.
In the White House, Frances was an attentive wife and a gracious hostess. She negotiated a careful balance between the privacy her husband desired and the publicity Americans craved. She greeted and shook hands with ten thousand people at official presentations to the diplomatic corps and to the public. She instituted noon receptions, so she could accommodate as many guests as possible, and received visitors on Saturday so that working women could meet her. She impressed diplomats with her fluent French, thrilled Washington society with her lively social calendar, and patronized the arts. Yet she and her husband often left the White House after the social season because of the relentless interest the press showed in the new First Lady. In fact, they took up residence two miles away from the White House at an estate that was off limits to reporters.
Although the Clevelands tried to minimize press coverage, they could do little about the rampant use of the First Lady's name and likeness in advertisements. "Frankie ads" abounded and advertisers rarely asked permission from the First Lady before they affixed her image to their products. The exploitation was so egregious that Congress considered a bill to curtail such practices, but it never came to fruition; manufacturers continued to use the First Lady to sell their goods. It seemed a shrewd business decision as thousands copied Frances's fashions. When she chose to forego the bustle, its demise was only a matter of time.
Frances generally avoided the political dimension of her husband's administration. Her only real contact with that side of the Cleveland presidency came during election season, when she remained a constant presence. While she was wildly popular, her fame hurt as well as helped her husband. Rumors that the President physically beat Frances dominated Cleveland's 1888 campaign against Benjamin Harrison. The innuendo so outraged the First Lady that she issued a public statement denouncing the lies. Although she may have dispelled such rumors, Grover Cleveland could not overcome Benjamin Harrison, and the Clevelands packed their bags to leave the White House. But Frances was confident in their eventual return to the presidential mansion, telling one servant, "We are coming back just four years from today."
Right she was. Frances and Grover Cleveland returned to the White House in 1893 after her husband won the 1892 presidential election. This time she was not only a wife but a mother, and she handled both roles with great care and responsibility. And if the American public had been thrilled with a twenty-one year-old White House bride, they were now ecstatic about the Clevelands' daughter Ruth. But the public's interest in Ruth and the Clevelands' other two daughters bordered on the obsessive. Tourists tried to play with the girls and even tried to snip locks of their hair.
Meanwhile, Frances had to try to keep another aspect of the presidency private as well. When her husband developed mouth cancer, he enlisted her help in covering for him. They did not want to panic the American people or the financial markets by admitting that h was in danger. She complied and vacationed at their summer home in an effort to forestall concerns about the President's health. Indeed, as Grover Cleveland underwent surgery, the country was undergoing the effects of the depression of 1893. With the nation's financial woes cutting dramatically into the President's popularity, both Clevelands were happy to leave the White House four years later.
Despite the public's growing aversion to the Cleveland administration, it retained a love and admiration for Frances. Although she did not endear herself to the nation through any special project, many Americans, especially women, could identify with her. Youthful and college-educated, Frances was a role model for young women; a devoted wife and mother, she appealed to older ladies as well. In addition, many saw her as a balm for a nation still licking wounds suffered during the Civil War. Born in 1864, Frances had no memory of the conflict and seemed to represent a fresh start, a perception duly noted in the South when the couple undertook the first presidential tour of the region since the Confederacy's defeat.
When Frances became First Lady, her husband warned her, "You will find that you get along better in this job if you don't try anything new." Although she seemed to follow her husband's advice, Frances set an important precedent by focusing attention on the role of First Lady. Although she did not seek publicity, Frances Folsom Cleveland enjoyed a personal popularity that brought greater attention to and appreciation of the role. From now on, whether she liked it or not, the First Lady was news, not because of what she had or had not done, but simply because of who she was.