Frances Clara Folsom Cleveland became the youngest First Lady at age 21 as the first woman to marry a president in the White House. She served as the 23rd and 25th First Lady of the United States while married to President Grover Cleveland.
“I detest him so much that I don’t even think his wife is beautiful.” So spoke one of President Grover Cleveland’s political foes–the only person, it seems, to deny the loveliness of this notable First Lady, first bride of a President to be married in the White House.
She was born in Buffalo, New York, only child of Emma C. Harmon and Oscar Folsom–who became a law partner of Cleveland’s. As a devoted family friend Cleveland bought “Frank” her first baby carriage. As administrator of the Folsom estate after his partner’s death, though never her legal guardian, he guided her education with sound advice. When she entered Wells College, he asked Mrs. Folsom’s permission to correspond with her, and he kept her room bright with flowers. Though Frank and her mother missed his inauguration in 1885, they visited him at the White House that spring. There affection turned into romance–despite 27 years’ difference in age–and there the wedding took place on June 2, 1886.
Cleveland’s scholarly sister Rose Elizabeth Cleveland: her bachelor brother’s hostess in 15 months of his first term of office. Rose gladly gave up the duties of hostess for her own career in education; and with a bride as First Lady, state entertainments took on a new interest. Mrs. Cleveland’s unaffected charm won her immediate popularity. She held two receptions a week–one on Saturday afternoons, when women with jobs were free to come.
After the President’s defeat in 1888, the Clevelands lived in New York City, where baby Ruth was born. With his unprecedented re-election, the First Lady returned to the White House as if she had been gone but a day. Through the political storms of this term she always kept her place in public favor. People took keen interest in the birth of Esther at the mansion in 1893, and of Marion in 1895. When the family left the White House, Mrs. Cleveland had become one of the most popular women ever to serve as hostess for the nation.
She bore two sons while the Clevelands lived in Princeton, New Jersey, and was at her husband’s side when he died at their home, “Westland,” in 1908. In 1913 she married Thomas J. Preston, Jr., a professor of archeology, and remained a figure of note in the Princeton community until she died. She had reached her 84th year-nearly the age at which the venerable Mrs. Polk had welcomed her and her husband on a Presidential visit to the South, and chatted of changes in White House life from bygone days.
The biographies of the First Ladies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The First Ladies of the United States of America,” by Allida Black. Copyright 2009 by the White House Historical Association.
Learn more about Frances Folsom Cleveland’s spouse, Grover Cleveland.