As I enter the ballroom today, Lady B approaches me at one. She’s walking with purpose, and a curious gleam shines in her eye.
Miss Dare, I hear that this is another of those Colonial holidays.
Yes, indeed, Lady B. It’s Presidents’ Day.
Presidents. Hm. The American form of government may be more democratic, but it strikes me as decidedly less romantic. No princes. No dukes. No knights. Somehow, I doubt that young ladies lay their heads to their pillows each night and dream of one day marrying a senator.
You may be right, Lady B. And that’s no doubt one reason why we Americans make such liberal use of England as a setting in our romance novels. But American history has found room for a love story or two. Thus far, only one president has been married in the White House, but the story was like something straight out of a Regency romance.
Indeed? Details, Miss Dare. Pictures, or it didn’t happen.
Here’s a picture!
Grover Cleveland was in his late 40s when he became president, and he was, as they say, a confirmed bachelor. Actually, you could even say he was a bit of a rake–he’d admitted to fathering a child out of wedlock. After he was elected, he lived in the White House with his bluestocking sister, a scholar who wrote books on George Eliot and St. Augustine and chafed under the social restrictions of the day.
This sister sounds like she’d make an interesting heroine in her own right. Did Mr. Cleveland marry one of her bluestocking friends?
No, President Cleveland fell in love with his ward, Frances Folsom, a woman 27 years his junior.
Twenty-seven years old?
No, twenty-seven years youngerthan he. She was only 21 when they married, and he’d known her since her infancy. Her father and Grover Cleveland were business partners, and Mr. Cleveland became executor of Mr. Folsom’s will when he died. Though he was never Frances’ legal guardian, he was very involved in supervising her upbringing and education (which included stints at charming-sounding institutions such as “Madame Brecker’s French Kindergarten” and “Miss Bissell’s School for Young Ladies”). But it wasn’t until Frances reached her late teens that Mr. Cleveland’s regard transformed from beneficent guardianship to courtly love. He proposed marriage in 1885, shortly after Frances had finished her studies at Wells College.
My goodness. A proposal of marriage from the President of the United States. That must have come as a shock.
To her mother, it certainly did–or at least, that’s what was rumored. Gossip was that Mrs. Emma Folsom was thinking the President might propose marriage to her.
Scandal was precisely what President Cleveland feared. To delay speculation, he sent his fiance on a tour of Europe for most of the following year–for finishing, cultural exposure, and–of course–shopping. When they married in 1886, he announced the White House wedding less than a week in advance, to avoid press attention as much as possible.
Exactly, Albert. He knew the reporters would hound them, and he was right. When they left on a train for their mountain honeymoon, a second train full of reporters followed and set up camp. They cataloged the newlyweds’ every move for the public.
But contrary to President Cleveland’s concerns, the public wasn’t scandalized. Rather, the older bachelor’s obvious affection for his young, charming, vivacious bride endeared him to the American public. The first couple became an object of much fascination. Frances was a large part of his reelection campaign, due to her popularity. They appeared everywhere, on everything. Here they are, in a sewing machine ad.
What a remarkable story, Miss Dare.
Isn’t it? Not just a remarkable story, but one with a remarkable heroine. I’m just stunned, trying to imagine what it must be like to be twenty-one years old, preparing not only to marry a man nearly three decades your senior, but the President of the United States! What an enormous amount of pressure Frances must have felt. And yet she thrived in the role of First Lady and remained devoted to her husband until his death. She must have been a very remarkable woman indeed.
What do you think of May/December romances, in fiction? Any favorites to mention in the comments?
Do you have a favorite First Lady?