On this day in 1886, President Grover Cleveland marries Frances Folsom. The wedding would prove to be the first and only time that a sitting President got married in the White House.
Grover was then 49 years old. Frances was a few weeks shy of her 22nd birthday. The marriage made Mrs. Cleveland our youngest First Lady.
“A school girl of 22,” a newspaper later reported, “without experience, set upon a pedestal before 55,000,000 of people; every motion scrutinized, every word criticized, and almost every thought that entered her mind subjected to close analysis.”
But Americans loved their new First Lady! “[A]lthough no woman of her age was ever placed in a more trying or conspicuous position,” the report concluded, “none ever won a conquest more complete.”
The couple had known each other for Frances’s entire life. When Grover first met his future bride, she was a baby and the daughter of his law partner. Thus, Grover watched Frances—“Frank” to her family—grow up.
She called him “Uncle Cleve.”
Sadly, Frank’s father was killed in a tragic accident soon after her 11th birthday. Grover was executor of the estate, which also left him as Frank’s unofficial guardian while she matured and went off to college. She was briefly engaged to a seminary student, but the engagement didn’t stick. In the meantime, Grover was elected Governor of New York, then President.
Throughout this time, the two stayed in touch. They wrote to each other, and she sometimes accompanied him when his official duties took him around the state. He sent her flowers from the Governor’s greenhouses. To her friends, the attention seemed fatherly, not romantic.
But was Grover already viewing Frank as his future wife? At about this time, Grover reassured his sister that he intended to marry, but “I am waiting for my sweetheart to grow up.”
Either way, Grover was a bachelor when he was inaugurated in March 1885. He invited Frank to the inauguration, but she couldn’t miss her exams at Wells College. She and her mother visited Grover at the White House soon afterwards, though. The visit appears to have been a turning point in their relationship, although it’s still unclear if Frank fully grasped Grover’s intentions.
Washington society was certainly clueless, and the rumor mill was working overtime. Many thought that Grover would marry a Miss Van Vechten, whose first name is lost to history. Others thought Grover intended to marry Frank’s mother.
Grover had other ideas in mind. After Frank graduated from college in June 1885, he wrote to her. “Would you put your life in my hands?” he asked. “Yes,” she responded. And, just like that, the two were engaged. They managed to keep their engagement a secret from the public until spring.
When the news broke, it took Washington society by storm. Frank had traveled to Europe with her mother, and rumors swirled that Grover had paid both for the trip and for Frank’s trousseau.
Frank’s grandfather considered such gossip the worst sort of insult, denouncing the allegations as an “infamous lie.” “I told her to draw on me to pay for it,” he said. “I want her to ask me for money. The only condition I imposed was that she should get as fine a costume as possible.”
Finally, the big day arrived. The couple were married in a small evening wedding ceremony in the Blue Room. The bride was stunning in her ivory satin wedding dress (pictured) and long veil. The newlyweds soon departed on their honeymoon.
It had been a “simple but beautiful marriage ceremony,” newspapers reported the next day. “A notable event,” but also a “quiet, homelike wedding.”
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Andrew Glass, President Cleveland weds in the White House, June 2, 1886 (Politico; June 2, 2016)
Annette B. Dunlap, Frank: The Story of Frances Folsom Cleveland, America's Youngest First Lady (2009)
Frances Folsom Cleveland (White House website)
She Charmed Them All: Mrs. Cleveland’s Exceeding Grace of Manner (Boston Globe; June 28, 1886) (p. 5)
Stephen F. Robar, Frances Clara Folsom Cleveland (2002)
These Were Wed: Grover Cleveland and Frances Folsom Made One (Mitchell Daily Republican; June 3, 1886) (p. 1)
Two Made One: The President of the United States a Happy Groom (Buffalo Times; June 3, 1886) (p. 1)