27 June 2009

Culture Spot: Love & Marriage in America’s Past – A White House Wedding

The Cleveland’s wedding – the only presidential nuptials ever held in the White House – took place in a flower-bedecked Blue Room. Frances Cleveland was more tolerant of the press than her husband, and the public, in turn, adored her.

Immensely private, somewhat abrasive, and a portly 300 pounds, President Grover Cleveland was not most people’s idea of a romantic leading man. But, as a 49-year-old bachelor in the White House, he nevertheless had mothers throughout America busily plotting schemes for introducing their daughters to him. Cleveland, however, paid no mind: when asked about his marriage plans, he simply replied, “I’m waiting for my wife to grow up.”

Little did anyone suspect that Cleveland was serious, for he was in fact courting lovely Frances Folsom – 27 years his junior, and the daughter of his former law partner in Buffalo, New York. Frances had been 11 when her father died, and Cleveland, who administrated the estate, also took on the role of her guardian. It was a duty he undertook with the utmost propriety. But in time, his avuncular concerns for his young ward ripened into abiding affection.

Given their considerable age differences and Cleveland’s prominence, he pursued the relationship with great delicacy and secrecy, mostly by mail. Waiting until she had graduated from college and made the grand tour of Europe, Cleveland stunned America with the announcement on May 28, 1886, that he would marry Frances at the White House within the week. By marrying quickly, he hoped, the opportunities for gossip and “keyhole journalism” would be kept to a minimum. But that would not be.

The couple’s simple Blue Room wedding (at which Frances wore an ivory satin gown with a 15-foot train) was duly covered by the press. But when the Clevelands left by rail for a remote honeymoon cottage in the foothills of Maryland’s Blue Ridge Mountains, they were trailed by a second train loaded with newsmen, who set up camp nearby.

With the aid of field glasses, the reporters went to work telling the world every intimate detail of the couple’s activities. As the days went by, Cleveland became increasingly outraged by what he termed the “newspaper nuisances” and their “colossal impertinence.” In truth, however, the public’s hunger for news of the pair was inspired not by malice but by affection. The president had captured the nation’s heart by falling in love. Frances turned out to be one of the most popular first ladies ever to preside in the executive mansion, and their January-and-June marriage remains among the more celebrated of all presidential matches.

Taken from Discovering America’s Past – Customs, Legends, History & Lore of Our Great Nation, 1993 published by Reader’s Digest

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