America’s First Ladies, #22 — Frances Folsom Cleveland

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Frances Clara Folsom was the wife of 22nd and 24th US president Grover Cleveland. Born July 21, 1864 in Buffalo, New York, she became First Lady when she was only 21 years old, and to this day still holds the record for youngest sitting First Lady.

Frances’s parents were Oscar Folsom and Emma Harmon. Oscar was a lawyer, with a heritage going back to the first European founding families of Exeter, New Hampshire. In fact, all of her ancestors on both sides of her family were from England, and were early settlers of the New England colonies.

Frances was the only child of her parents to live past childhood, so she was essentially raised as an only child. Interestingly, she was originally given the name Frank, after an uncle, but later began to go by the more feminine “Frances” as she became an older child and wanted to be thought of as a girl.

Her future husband, Grover Cleveland, was a close friend of Frances’s father, and met young Frances shortly after she was born. Grover was 27 when he first met Frances, and she was a baby. And, Grover took a particular interest in Frances from the beginning, buying her a baby carriage when she was still a newborn, and he continued to dote on her and buy her things during her childhood.

When Frances’s father died in an accident when she was 11, he did not leave a will. The court appointed Grover Cleveland as administrator of his friend’s estate, which brought him into even closer contact with Frances, as he was now in charge of all the financial decisions having to do with her father’s estate, which included her.

Frances finished school and went to college, attending Wells College in Aurora, New York. It was sometime while Frances was in college that Grover’s feelings toward her seem to have become romantic. He wrote her a letter to her in August of 1885, shortly after she graduated college, proposing to her. She accepted, though they did not announce their engagement in public until just five days before their wedding. This might have been because Grover was already President of the United States when he proposed, and their age difference may have caused a scandal if the public was given too much time to consider it.

They married on June 2, 1886 at the White House. Frances was 21 years old at the time, and Grover was 49 years old. Grover was and remains the only sitting US president to get married in the White House (not while in office, but in the actual building of the White House). Their age difference is the second greatest of any presidential couple, with only John Tyler and his wife having a greater difference (28 years for the Clevelands, and 30 years for the Tylers).

Only family, close friends, and the presidential cabinet and their wives attended the wedding. The wedding was held in the Blue Room of the White House, and John Philip Sousa and his band played. The words “love, honor, and keep,” were substituted in the ceremony for the traditional words, “love, honor, and obey,” for the bride. The presidential couple spent a five-day honeymoon at Deer Park in Maryland.

Naturally, the new First Lady, married to a sitting president, was the subject of a lot of interest from the media. Grover’s sister Rose, who had taken on the First Lady duties at the beginning of Grover’s term, was happy to give them over to Frances and return to her passion, which was education. Frances began the habit of having two receptions for the public each week at the White House, one of which was always on Saturday afternoons, so women with jobs could attend. She was considered a lovely, polite, and charming hostess by all who attended her events.

When Grover was defeated in his bid for re-election, he and Frances moved to New York City. Frances was confident in her husband’s political prospects, however, and told the White House personnel to keep up the building for them, because they would be back. She was right, as four years later, Grover won the presidency for a second time. Frances became the only First Lady to serve two non-consecutive terms in that role.

It seems Frances was a woman of many firsts in the White House. In addition to all her other firsts, she was also the first First Lady to give birth while her husband was president. Frances and Grover had two sons and three daughters total, three of whom were born while Grover was president, one of whom was born in the White House, and four of whom lived past childhood (their firstborn, a daughter born between Grover’s presidential terms, died at age 12 of diphtheria….her name was Ruth, and it is said the Baby Ruth candy bar was named after her).

The Clevelands continued their happy married life together for another 11 years after Grover left the White House the second time. Grover died in 1908, when Frances was still just 43 years old. Five years later, she remarried to Thomas J. Preston, Jr., an archaeology professor at her old college. Frances made another first for herself with this marriage, becoming the first presidential widow to remarry.

She was vacationing with her new husband, her two remaining daughters, and one of her sons in Switzerland the next year when WWI broke out in Europe. They left right away, using Genoa to head back to the United States. During the Great Depression in the 1930’s, Frances took leadership of the Needlework Guild of America in its mission to send clothing to the poor.

Frances died on October 29, 1947 while visiting her son Richard for his 50th birthday. She went peacefully and unexpectedly, never knowing a thing, at the age of 83. She was buried in the Princeton Cemetery in Princeton, New Jersey, next to her daughter Ruth and her first husband, Grover Cleveland, the 22 and 24th US president.