Frances Cleveland

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Frances Cleveland
Frances Folsom Cleveland.jpg
Frances Cleveland c. 1886
First Lady of the United States
In role
March 4, 1893 – March 4, 1897
PresidentGrover Cleveland
Preceded byMary McKee (Acting)
Succeeded byIda McKinley
In role
June 2, 1886 – March 4, 1889
PresidentGrover Cleveland
Preceded byRose Cleveland (Acting)
Succeeded byCaroline Harrison
Personal details
Frank Clara Folsom[a]

(1864-07-21)July 21, 1864
Buffalo, New York, U.S.
DiedOctober 29, 1947(1947-10-29) (aged 83)
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
Resting placePrinceton Cemetery
Political partyDemocratic
(m. 1886; died 1908)

(m. 1913)
EducationWells College (BA)

Frances Clara Cleveland Preston (née Folsom born as Frank Clara;[a] July 21, 1864 – October 29, 1947) was an American socialite, education activist, and the first lady of the United States from 1886 to 1889, and again from 1893 to 1897 as the wife of President Grover Cleveland. She remains the youngest presidential wife at the age of 21, she was the only first lady to be wed in the White House, and she is the only first lady to have served the role during two non-consecutive terms. She was incredibly popular as first lady, becoming the subject of intense public and media attention.

Folsom met Grover Cleveland while she was an infant, as he was a friend of her father's. When her father died in 1875, Grover became her unofficial guardian. She was educated at Wells College, and after graduating, she married Grover while he was the incumbent president. When Grover lost reelection in 1888, they went into private life for four years and began having children. They returned to the White House when Grover was elected again in 1892, though much of her time in the second term was dedicated to her children. Frances and Grover had five children, four of whom survived to adulthood. She involved herself in education, serving on the Wells College board and organizing the construction of kindergartens. Grover died in 1908, and Frances married Thomas J. Preston Jr. in 1913. Frances continued to work in education activism after leaving the White House, becoming involved with Princeton University. During World War I, Frances and Thomas advocated military preparedness and American involvement. She died in 1947 and was buried alongside Grover in Princeton Cemetery.

Early life[edit]

Frances Folsom's childhood home in Buffalo, New York

Folsom was born in Buffalo, New York, on July 21, 1864, to Emma (née Harmon) and her husband, Oscar Folsom, a lawyer who was a descendant of the earliest European settlers of Exeter, New Hampshire.[1] She was the older of two children. Her sister, Nellie Augusta, died in infancy (1872). All of Frances Cleveland's ancestors were from England and settled in what would become Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, eventually migrating to western New York.[2]

A long-time close friend of Oscar Folsom, Grover Cleveland met his future wife when she was an infant and he was twenty-seven years old. He was fond of her, buying her a baby carriage and doting on her as she grew up. Her father died in a carriage accident on July 23, 1875, without having written a will. The court appointed Cleveland administrator of his estate,[2] and he would become her unofficial guardian for the remainder of her childhood.[3][4] The Folsoms moved to Medina, New York to live with Frances' maternal grandmother.[5] They later returned to Buffalo and continued to move to different boardinghouses until settling in a home. When she was 14, she joined the Presbyterian Church, to which she would remain devoted throughout her life.[6]

Folsom was highly educated for a woman in the 19th century.[7] She attended Medina High School in Medina and Central High School in Buffalo.[8] She left school before finishing, but Cleveland, then Mayor of Buffalo, obtained for her a certificate of completion and entry into Wells College in Aurora, New York as a sophomore where she quickly became the center of the school's social life.[9] At Wells, she became interested in photography and political science, and she participated in the Phoenix Society debate club.[8] She received three proposals of marriage while she was in college, two of which resulted in brief engagements. Cleveland maintained correspondence with her at this time, known to her as "Uncle Cleve". He would send her flowers while he was governor of New York and then while he was president.[3] When permitting, he would also visit her at Wells, and she would accompany him on tours of the state.[10] She graduated on June 20, 1885.[11] After graduating, she spent the summer at her grandfather's home in Wyoming County, New York.[5]

Cleveland proposed marriage to Folsom in writing, shortly after she graduated from Wells College in June 1885.[12] When it was decided that Folsom would be the wife of the president, she met with former White House hostess Harriet Lane to learn the responsibilities of the role.[7] The engagement was kept secret for a year while she traveled in Europe, and Cleveland's sister Rose Cleveland served as first lady in the meantime.[4] Rumors of their engagement were initially dismissed as gossip, for speculation of the president's love life was common. Popular gossip considered Frances' mother to be a more likely partner.[7][13][14] Folsom returned to New York shortly before the wedding and took a train to Washington, D.C.[3]

First Lady of the United States[edit]


"The President's Wedding" by Thure de Thulstrup

The wedding of Grover Cleveland and Frances Folsom took place on June 2, 1886, in the Blue Room of the White House. He was aged forty-nine, and she was aged twenty-one.[8] The wedding was personally organized by the president and his sister, and the press was barred from attending.[4] As the president wished for a quiet wedding, only 31 guests were present during the ceremony,[12] though hundreds of spectators gathered outside of the White House to celebrate the wedding.[15] Frances became first lady immediately upon marrying the president.[13]

The Clevelands spent a week in Deer Park, Maryland on honeymoon, where they were closely followed by reporters.[3] After the Clevelands returned from their honeymoon, two wedding receptions were held, one for the diplomatic corps, and one for the public. Frances Cleveland was credited with the increased sociability of the president after their marriage, as he became more willing to engage in social events.[3] The president set aside time in his busy schedule to be with his wife, attending the theater and going on carriage rides.[16] Cleveland had little involvement in the political aspects of her husband's administration, but she was in charge of their home life.[14] She insisted that he observe the Christian Sabbath by abstaining from work each Sunday.[13]

First term[edit]

Cleveland in a formal gown (1886)

Frances Cleveland was much-loved as first lady, drawing an unprecedented level of media and public attention.[3][13] She was the first first lady to have dedicated journalists writing about her activity. She maintained a strong public image, and was the regular subject of photographers.[4] Her travels and activities were meticulously documented by reporters, to the president's ire.[17] The publicity became significant enough that the Clevelands chose not to use the living quarters of the White House after their wedding. Instead, they took a private residence, the "Red Top", to escape from public attention.[3] Frances Cleveland received hundreds of letters each week, several times more than previous first ladies, prompting the use of form letters to more efficiently reply to them[13] and the hiring (at her own expense) of her college friend Minnie Alexander as a secretary.[8] She also scheduled many social events on Saturdays to ensure that they did not conflict with the schedules of working women that wished to meet her.[13]

In 1887, the Clevelands toured the United States. Frances endured a severe insect bite and a black eye, and she spent so much time shaking hands that she needed to use an ice pack at the end of every day. While in the White House, she kept many canaries and mockingbirds.[3] She became close friends with poet Richard Watson Gilder and his wife Helena de Kay Gilder, and she would accompany them in meeting prominent writers of the time.[18] In 1888, a rumor developed that Grover was abusive toward Frances; in response, Frances praised her husband and harshly condemned the rumor as a political smear.[12] Another rumor suggested that she was unfaithful to her husband, having an affair with newspaper editor Henry Watterson.[8]

Private life[edit]

When President Cleveland lost reelection in the 1888 presidential election, Frances' tenure as first lady ended, but she prophetically informed the staff that they would return the following term. After leaving the White House for the first time, the Clevelands sold the Red Top house and moved to Madison Avenue.[3] Cleveland struggled with the transition from public to private life, having never run a private household of her own.[19] She underwent a period of depression over the following months, and she retreated to the Gilders' cottage in Marion, New York.[20] Frances and Grover for the most part led separate social lives after leaving the White House.[20] She would find comfort in 1890 when they purchased the Gray Gables summer home in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, where the couple would develop their own private home life. Here they would often host for close friends, including the Gilders and actor Joseph Jefferson.[21]

In between her tenures as first lady, Cleveland took on charity work and grew more involved in New York social life through her charitable projects.[22] Much of this work was to support the construction of free kindergartens in New York.[12] She also involved herself with fundraising work for Wells College.[23] Cleveland became a mother with the birth of Ruth Cleveland (1891–1904), dedicating herself to the child and taking up work that was often performed by a nurse.[24]

Second term[edit]

Cleveland in February 1897

Grover ran for president again in the 1892 presidential election, and despite his misgivings, Frances' image was often used prominently in campaign material.[3] Her social connections were valuable for the Cleveland campaign in New York; her charity work in the state and her friendship with the Gilders allowed the Clevelands to build connections with New York's The Four Hundred society and helped win over disaffected Republicans. These factors contributed to Grover winning in his home state, which he had failed to do in 1888. Nonetheless, he disapproved of any involvement she had in the political aspects of his career.[25] After returning to the White House in 1893, Cleveland's routine largely resembled that of her first tenure as first lady. She would insist on evening drives with the president, and she had her birds and dogs returned to the White House. She did, however, continue her work in the establishment of kindergartens.[26] She also became involved with the Home for Friendless Colored Girls, and in 1896 she visited the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church with the group.[12]

The Clevelands were upset at the extent of press and public attention focused on their daughter Ruth, and they controversially had the White House closed to the public while they were present. Again, they purchased a private residence outside of the White House. Cleveland had two more children as first lady, Esther Cleveland (1893–1980) and Marion Cleveland (1895–1977), and much of her time was dedicated to raising her three children. She still made time for her hostess duties, receiving the familiar crowds that she had encountered during her previous time as first lady. She also received heads of state, including one instance in which she disregarded precedent by meeting with Infanta Eulalia of Spain at her hotel.[3] She was not nearly as active, however, hosting only one in the 1894 social season.[27]

She took an interest in German culture and the German language during her husband's second term, learning the language and even hiring a German nurse so her children would learn the language as well.[28] The president's health was in decline during his second term, and his wife became increasingly responsible for his well being. She encouraged him to exert himself less, and she organized a fake fishing trip during which he had a tumor removed. When Frances' time as first lady came to an end, she wept as she left the White House,[7] personally saying goodbye to each member of the White House staff.[29]

Widowhood and remarriage[edit]

After leaving the White House for the second time, the Clevelands bought a house in Princeton, New Jersey. They had two more children over the following years: Richard F. Cleveland (1897–1974) and Francis Cleveland (1903–1995). Their firstborn daughter, Ruth, died of diphtheria in 1904 at their Gray Gables vacation home. Wishing to avoid memories of their child's illness and death, they sold the home and purchased a summer home in Tamworth, New Hampshire.[3][7] The Clevelands became involved in Princeton University and provided support for many Princeton students.[30] Grover died in 1908, and Frances was left to raise their four remaining children alone. She refused the pension to which she was legally entitled as a widowed first lady.[13] After her husband's death, she became involved in a legal battle against writer Broughton Brandenburg, who had been paid by The New York Times for an article supposedly written by Cleveland before his death, but which was a fraud created by Brandenberg.[31] In March 1909, she held a memorial program for her husband at Carnegie Hall.[32] Her grief was somewhat abated by a vacation to Europe with her family from September 1909 to May 1910.[33]

On February 10, 1913, at the age of forty-eight, she married Thomas J. Preston Jr., a professor of archaeology at her alma mater, Wells College.[34] Much like her engagement with Grover, she was secretive about the process to limit media attention. They were invited to the White House as guests of honor by President William Howard Taft to celebrate their engagement.[35] She was the first presidential widow to remarry.[13] After their marriage, they spent nearly a year living in London,[8] and they would regularly travel Europe together thereafter.[36] Her second husband would go on to teach at Princeton University, where she continued to be a prominent figure in campus social life.[7]

Later life[edit]

Mrs. Frances Cleveland with trowel at building foundation ceremony

Frances was offered a position as president of the Daughters of the American Revolution, but she declined the role due to its political responsibilities. She campaigned against women's suffrage, and in May 1913, she was elected as vice president of the New Jersey Association Opposed to Woman's Suffrage, serving as president of the organization's Princeton chapter.[8]

She was vacationing at St. Moritz, Switzerland, with her children when World War I started in August 1914. They returned to the United States via Genoa on October 1.[37] Frances and her husband worked with activists Solomon Stanwood Menken and Robert McNutt McElroy as well as former presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Henry Taft to promote military preparedness. She became a member of the pro-war National Security League, replacing her husband as its director of the Speaker's Bureau and the Committee on Patriotism through Education in November 1918. Around this time, however, Frances and Thomas began to disengage from the organization.[38] She caused controversy by accusing some Americans of being unassimilated, and she resigned from her position on December 8, 1919 in response to backlash against her proposal of a pro-war education curriculum.[8]

In 1919, she worked with McElroy as he wrote the first biography of Grover Cleveland, and she contacted everyone that knew Grover, wishing to collect letters he wrote for archival in the Library of Congress.[39] In 1922, she served as the head of Wells College's endowment fund.[7] During the Great Depression of the 1930s, she became president of the Needlework Guild of America and lead its clothing drive for the poor.[40] Cleveland remained prominent in political circles during the 20th century. She met with the wife of Democratic candidate Al Smith in 1928, and she was invited to a luncheon at the White House during the Truman administration, where she met General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower is quoted as not recognizing her and asking where in the city she used to live, prompting her to respond that she had lived in the White House.[3][7]

Later in life, she was afflicted by cataracts, and she learned Braille to use a Braille typewriter. She would continue to use it after her cataracts were removed, translating books into Braille for blind children.[41] Her final public appearance was at the Princeton University bicentennial celebration in June 1946.[8] While staying at her son Richard's home for his 50th birthday in Baltimore, Cleveland died in her sleep at the age of 83 on October 29, 1947.[42] She was buried in Princeton Cemetery next to President Cleveland, her first husband.[43][44]


Frances Cleveland by Anders Zorn, 1899

Cleveland was an incredibly popular first lady, and her reputation helped define the role for generations after her tenure.[13] Her social events were some of the most successful in White House history, and her popularity was such that it raised public opinion of the president.[7] Her presence in the White House eroded his gruff reputation and cultivated an image of the president as a loving husband, and later as a loving father.[8] In 1887, she was elected to the board of directors of Wells College, a position she would hold for over 50 years.[3] In honor of Frances Cleveland, Cleveland Hall was constructed in 1911 on the Wells College campus. Originally a library, the building currently holds classes in foreign language and women's studies, as well as offering a food bank for those in need.[45] Contemporaries ranked her among the greatest of first ladies.[46] Polling of historians recognizes her performance as above average; a 1982 poll placed her 13th out of 42, though the 2008 edition of the poll placed her 20th of 38.[47]

Fashion and image[edit]

Frances' fashion choices influenced women throughout the United States, including her hairstyle, which was commonly imitated.[3] Her beauty was widely celebrated in the press. The Women's Christian Temperance Union wrote to her requesting that she dress more modestly, fearing that she was setting a poor example. She refused to do so. [13] Her fashion choices and purchases influenced the behavior of consumers, and products she used enjoyed an increase in popularity. An article published by the Atlanta Constitution falsely stated that she no longer purchased bustles, causing a decline in their popularity.[14][12] News articles on her activities would continue to reference her beauty and her sense of fashion through her seventies.[48]

As there were no laws regarding personality rights while Cleveland was first lady, her immense popularity led to the extensive use of her image in advertising, and many products falsely claimed to have her endorsement. It became significant enough that a personality rights bill was proposed in Congress, but was not enacted.[13]


Frances Cleveland did not publicly support political causes while serving as first lady.[13] The Clevelands condemned the Frances Cleveland Influence Clubs that formed in her name in 1892.[14] Instead, she worked with charity groups, including the Needlework Guild, which made clothes for the poor,[3] and the Christmas Club and the Colored Christmas Club, which gave gifts to children during the holiday season.[12] Cleveland's interest in the arts made her a supporter of international copyright protections, and she attended a convention on the subject while first lady in 1888.[49] An exception to Frances Cleveland's avoidance of political activity was her interest in the political situation of the Republic of Hawaii. Frances endorsed Princess Ka'iulani's claim to the throne as the heir apparent.[8]

Frances Cleveland supported the temperance movement, personally abstaining from alcohol and donating to the Woman's Christian Temperance Union.[3] Unwilling to impose these beliefs on others, however, she continued to serve wine at White House receptions.[13] Frances endorsed some women's causes throughout her life, but she was opposed to women's suffrage. Like many female anti-suffragists of her generation, she felt that involvement in politics was an unfortunate duty to be avoided and that it risked women's control of the domestic sphere.[50] She believed that women should participate in society through charity work, such as her advocacy work for women's education and aspiring women musicians.[12] She would, however, vote in elections after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.[51]

See also[edit]

  • Philippa Foot – English philosopher and Cleveland's granddaughter


  1. ^ a b Sources disagree on Folsom's birth name. She may have been born Frank Clara Folsom and adopted the name Frances in preference of a feminine name.[52] She may have adopted the use of her middle name as Frank Clara, with a blending of these terms causing an erroneous use of Frances.[5] She may have been born as Frances Clara Folsom with Frank used as a nickname.[3][12][7][53]


  1. ^ The Folsoms of Exeter, The Exeter Historical Society, Exeter, New Hampshire Archived March 4, 2016, at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ a b "Frances Cleveland Biography". National First Ladies' Library. Retrieved May 23, 2011.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Schneider, Dorothy; Schneider, Carl J. (2010). "Frances (Frank) Folsom Cleveland". First Ladies: A Biographical Dictionary (3rd ed.). Facts on File. pp. 139–146. ISBN 978-1-4381-0815-5.
  4. ^ a b c d Schwartz Foster, Feather (2011). "Frances Cleveland". The First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Mamie Eisenhower. Cumberland House. pp. 75–81.
  5. ^ a b c Williams, Francis Howard (1886). The Bride of the White House. Philadelphia, Bradley & company. pp. 7–9.
  6. ^ Dunlap 2009, p. 16.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Watson, Robert P. (2001). "Frances Clara Folsom Cleveland". First Ladies of the United States. Lynne Rienner Publishers. pp. 144–150. doi:10.1515/9781626373532. ISBN 978-1-62637-353-2. S2CID 249333854.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "First Lady Biography: Frances Cleveland". National First Ladies' Library.
  9. ^ Dunlap 2009, p. 17.
  10. ^ Dunlap 2009, p. 21.
  11. ^ Dunlap 2009, p. 3.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i Scofield, Merry Ellen (2016). "Rose Cleveland, Frances Cleveland, Caroline Harrison, Mary McKee". In Sibley, Katherine A. S. (ed.). A Companion to First Ladies. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 265–282. ISBN 9781118732182.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Caroli, Betty (2010). First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama. Oxford University Press, USA. pp. 105–108. ISBN 978-0-19-539285-2.
  14. ^ a b c d Boller, Paul F. (1988). "Frances Cleveland". Presidential Wives. Oxford University Press. pp. 166–175.
  15. ^ Dunlap 2009, p. 9.
  16. ^ Dunlap 2009, p. 30.
  17. ^ Dunlap 2009, pp. 33–34.
  18. ^ Dunlap 2009, pp. 40–44.
  19. ^ Dunlap 2009, p. 62.
  20. ^ a b Dunlap 2009, p. 66.
  21. ^ Dunlap 2006, p. 72.
  22. ^ Dunlap 2009, p. 72.
  23. ^ Dunlap 2009, p. 58.
  24. ^ Dunlap 2009, pp. 73–74.
  25. ^ Dunlap 2009, pp. 77–78.
  26. ^ Dunlap 2009, p. 82.
  27. ^ Dunlap 2009, p. 99.
  28. ^ Dunlap 2009, p. 104.
  29. ^ Dunlap 2009, p. 107.
  30. ^ Dunlap 2009, p. 110.
  31. ^ Dunlap 2009, pp. 120–121.
  32. ^ Dunlap 2009, pp. 122–123.
  33. ^ Dunlap 2009, pp. 122–127.
  34. ^ Charles Lachman, A Secret Life: The Sex, Lies and Scandals of Grover Cleveland, p. 420 (2011)
  35. ^ Dunlap 2009, pp. 130–131.
  36. ^ Dunlap 2009, p. 133.
  37. ^ 1914; Arrival; Microfilm Serial: T715; Microfilm Roll: 2374; Line: 17; Page Number: 11; Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1820–1897; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M237, 675 rolls); Records of the U.S. Customs Service, Record Group 36; National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  38. ^ Dunlap 2009, pp. 142–143.
  39. ^ Dunlap 2009, p. 152.
  40. ^ "Needlework Guild for America-About Us". Needlework Guild for America. Archived from the original on January 26, 2016. Retrieved January 27, 2016.
  41. ^ Dunlap 2009, p. 161.
  42. ^ "Cleveland's Widow Dies At Age Of 83". The Hartford Courant. Associated Press. October 30, 1947. p. 4. Retrieved June 1, 2020 – via
  43. ^ "Grover Cleveland Gravesite, Princeton Cemetery". Presidents USA. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  44. ^ Robert Strauss (September 17, 2013). "Where Princeton Buries Its Departed VIPs". NJ Monthly. Retrieved May 7, 2017.
  45. ^ "Cleveland Hall of Languages". Wells College. March 7, 2003. Archived from the original on June 14, 2011. Retrieved May 23, 2011.
  46. ^ Dunlap 2009, pp. 58–59.
  47. ^ Ranking America's First Ladies (PDF) (Report). Siena Research Institute. 2008.
  48. ^ Dunlap 2009, p. 162.
  49. ^ Dunlap 2009, pp. 50–51.
  50. ^ Dunlap 2009, pp. 134–135.
  51. ^ Dunlap 2009, pp. 135–136.
  52. ^ Graff, Henry F. (2002). Grover Cleveland. New York: Times Books. p. 78. ISBN 9780805069235.
  53. ^ Dunlap, p. 15.


External links[edit]

Honorary titles
Preceded by First Lady of the United States
Succeeded by
Preceded by First Lady of the United States
Succeeded by