'I am waiting for my wife to grow up': The fascinating story of America's first celebrity First Lady

The Clevelands. (Creative cOmmons)
Frances and Grover Cleveland. (Creative Commons)

Words by Jesús del Toro

Frances Folsom Cleveland was the pioneer – although not always by choice – of much of what is today associated with being America’s FLOTUS - First Lady of the United States. And although the wife of Grover Cleveland was certainly not the first to assume that role (something that began with Martha Washington, the wife of first president George Washington), Frances was at the centre of some firsts and undertook activities that contributed to the evolution of what this role involves today.

Frances, also known as Frank, was the youngest first lady in US history and when she married President Cleveland at the age of 21, she became the first woman to marry a sitting president. This was a union that in itself had a unique background.

The affection of "Uncle Cleve"

Born in Buffalo, New York in 1864, Frances was the daughter of Oscar Folsom, a law partner and friend of Grover Cleveland, who was 27 years old at the time. Cleveland knew Frances practically from the day she was born, and it is said that he even bought her her first baby carriage.

Cleveland was close to the Folsom family and, as a child, Frances knew him as "Uncle Cleve." When Oscar Folsom later died in an accident, Cleveland was appointed administrator of his estate and, in this sense, he became the guardian of the girl, who was 11 years old at the time.

Cleveland, meanwhile, embarked on a rapid political career that took him in just a few years from sheriff of Erie County to mayor of Buffalo and, in 1882, to governor of New York. At the same time, he saw that Frances received the best education possible, including attending Wells College.

Over the years, Cleveland held great affection for Frances, and it is said that once he remarked that he remained single because "I am waiting for my wife to grow up."

Apparently, the then governor frequently sent Frances flowers while she was at Wells College.

The wedding that caused a sensation

In 1884, Cleveland was the Democratic presidential candidate, and after winning the election became this party's first president elect since the Civil War.

Since he was a bachelor, there was no first lady as such in the White House. His sister Rose initially assumed this role, although not without resignation. It is said that she despised having to organise and host social gatherings, which were actually the main activity of first ladies at the time.

Before long, though, Cleveland invited Frances and her mother Emma to Washington, where the 48-year-old president proposed to the younger Folsom lady, who was 21 at the time. The couple was married in the White House, in what was the first wedding of a president in the official residence, on June 2, 1886.

The wedding was a sensation, and when the newlyweds left Washington on a train headed to the rural location where they would spend their honeymoon, another train full of journalists and nosy members of the public followed them closely.

A real celebrity

Thanks to her youth and dynamic nature, Frances not only became the youngest first lady up to that point (and in reality the youngest in US history), she also intensely captured the attention of the media and the public in general. She spoke English, French, German, and Latin, played the piano, was a voracious reader, and enjoyed photography.

Although other earlier first ladies were followed by the press and the public, Frances Cleveland was the first to become a celebrity. Her youth and intelligence made her very popular, while her wardrobe made her a point of reference in the fashion of her time. Her events at the White House were very well attended and she even organised events at noon as well as on Saturdays, so that more people, including workers who could not visit her on weekdays, would be able to attend.

According to the account from the Miller Center of the University of Virginia, she shook hands with tens of thousands of people at public events where she accompanied the president.

Although Cleveland apparently would have preferred his wife to stay out of the press and public frenzy and "should be pleased not to hear her spoken of as 'the First Lady of the Land'," in the end there was little he could do to prevent his wife's fame.

Besides social events, Frances was involved in charitable activities for the benefit of poor children in Washington, and although she did not promote women's suffrage (something she even opposed well into the 20th century when the women's suffrage movement was gaining strong momentum, finally achieving its goal in the 1920 election), she was interested in promoting education for women.

There was so much interest in seeing and listening to Frances that she and her husband frequently stayed at a residence away from the White House, to which the public did not have access.

These were certainly very different times from today and, back then, it was much easier to access the White House and get close to the president in Washington. For example, it was not until the assassination of William McKinley in 1901 that Congress established the Secret Service as the body responsible for presidential security.

The fascination that always followed her

Later first ladies stirred up more attention and fascination than Frances, but she lived in an age prior to the existence of the mass media that, decades later, impetuously followed Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, and the wives of more recent presidents. Frances was such an icon in her own right that her image and name were used in ads to promote a variety of products, most of the time without her permission.

Although this was apparently annoying to her, Frances seemed to enjoy dictating fashion and attitudes. Her popularity was considerable and, as also happened to later first ladies, she was hated by her husband's opponents.

Cleveland lost the 1888 election. However, it is said that Frances told White House staff that "we are coming back just four years from today," something that actually came true. Grover Cleveland ran for president again in 1892 and won the election, the only US president to govern in two non-consecutive terms.

Upon her return, Frances already had a daughter and two more were born during her second stint in the White House. They all caused a stir as well and it is said that tourists would go to the White House to try to play with them and take locks of their hair. Frances left the White House in 1897 at the end of her husband's second term as president.

Since she was 27 years younger than her husband, Frances was widowed in 1908 at the age of 43, and in 1913, she was married for a second time to Thomas Preston, an archaeology professor at her alma mater, Wells College. She was the first widow of an American president to remarry.

In subsequent years, she remained active in charitable and educational services, supported the entry of the US into World War I, and years later ran a campaign to provide clothing to impoverished people during the Great Depression.

Frances died in 1947 at the age of 83. She was born at the end of the Civil War and died after World War II, a period of history in which the US experienced huge transformations and became the world's leading power.

Frances Folsom Cleveland Preston was, to a large extent, the woman who for the first time brought together the role of first lady with that of a famous celebrity who attracted mass interest.