It’s hard to believe, but true. When Grover Cleveland was president, his young wife used to pick him up at the White House in a horse-drawn carriage and drive him home to their summer getaway in a leafy rural area that is now Cleveland Park. No Secret Service for President Cleveland, no bullet proof glass, no escort carriages leading or trailing the “presidential carriage.” As they drove home, they would pause to watch the girls at the National Cathedral School playing tennis.
Theirs was the only presidential wedding to ever take place in the White House, and even more unusual, the beautiful bride was 28 years younger than the bachelor president. When asked why he waited so long to marry, Cleveland said he had to wait for Frances Folsom to grow up.
As young as she was, Frances was the perfect First lady. She thrilled Washington society by observing the social season with exquisite parties and receptions. Besides, she was an accomplished pianist and photographer, and she read Latin and spoke German and French. Best of all, her political instincts were first rate. Aware that many women were entering the work force, Frances instituted Saturday Open Houses at the executive mansion, so the working women could drop by on their day off and shake hands with the wife of the President.
Like a lot of other people, the President and his wife felt they needed a place to escape the heat of Washington summers. They found respite in a 27-acre stone colonial in what is now the 3500 block of Newark Street. They transformed the home into a fairy-tale Victorian with double-decker porches and a roofline full of turrets, towers and gables. Frances named the home “Oakview” but the reporters called it “Red Top”, because they kept at a distance from the house and all they could spot through the trees were the fanciful red roofs. The house is gone now, but the neighborhood that kept the Cleveland’s name still sports an enviable supply of elaborate Victorian houses.
It’s not unusual that a First lady as pretty as Frances Folsom Cleveland was the darling of the press, whether she wanted the attention or not. Reporters referred to her as “Frankie”, a name she disliked as much as Jacqueline Kennedy was said to dislike “Jackie”. Worse yet, her photogenic face appeared on soap and cosmetic products. A political opponent of Cleveland’s once said, “I detest him so much, I don’t even think his wife is beautiful.” But he was in the minority.
While we know that Grover Cleveland was the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms, history books don’t tell us about the prescience of the President’s wife. When they were leaving the White House after Cleveland lost his bid for a second term, Frances said her goodbyes to the servants, but told them to take good care of everything, because they would be back in four years. And they were.