White House weddings: Grover Cleveland only President to be married there

Published 2:22 pm Tuesday, August 1, 2023

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The is the first in a short series by local Presidential historian, Betty Etchison West, about weddings that have taken place in the White House.

By Betty Etchison West

For the Enterprise

I became interested in White House weddings when I saw a book on my own shelf which had been untouched for years.

The book, “White House Brides” by Marie Smith and Louise Durbin, is old; the copyright date is 1966.  I pulled it off the shelf and started reading.

That was all it took; I was interested.

I had read about the weddings in the biographies and autobiographies of the presidents and first ladies, but this was the first book devoted to weddings.  I also sought more up-to-date information.

There have been 19 weddings in the White House or on the White House grounds from the time the White House was completed on Nov. 1, 1800, until 2023.

That number includes the wedding of one president, nine children of presidents, three nieces or nephews of the president or first lady, two siblings, two staffers, one granddaughter, and one friend

The only president to be married in the White House was Grover Cleveland.

The marriage of Grover Cleveland and Frances Folsom was most unusual.  Grover Cleveland was 49 and Frances Folsom was 21. Grover Cleveland was the law partner of Frances Folsom’s father.

Before Mr. Folsom died as the result of a buggy accident, he asked his partner to take care of his family. Grover Cleveland did just that. He made sure that Frances was well cared for and that she would be able to attend good schools.

When Frances was a student at Wells College, she was the only girl there who had fresh flowers in her dorm room all of the time.  You guessed it; the flowers were from Grover Cleveland.

It is not known when Grover Cleveland’s feeling changed from that of a caretaker to that of a lover but that happened. Just after Frances graduated from college, she and her mother sailed to Europe and spent time there.  Frances bought her trousseau there.

President Grover Cleveland and the young college graduate, Frances Folsom, who was called Frank, had fallen in love. Soon after the ship, on which Frances and her mother were passengers, docked, plans were under way for a wedding – a White House wedding.

Plans were completed so hastily that President Cleveland wrote out the invitations himself. The invitations were sent only to family members, cabinet members, and a few friends. The president supervised every detail of the wedding in the White House Blue Room. He even conferred with John Phillip Sousa who directed the Marine Band concerning the music.

Even though it seemed that plans were made quickly, the Blue Room was beautifully decorated. The following is the description of those decorations found in Smith and Durbin’s book, “The White House”:

“The mantelpiece above the west fireplace was hidden by a bed of red roses in a myriad of shades, with the monogram C.F. in white. On the opposite mantel against a bank of red roses and purple pansies, the date June 2, 1886, was fashioned in yellow pansies into letters nearly a foot tall. The handsome mirrors were festooned with smilax and the crystal chandelier and the gaslight brackets around the walls were twined with greens.  Above the door leading from the main corridor were the words, “E. Pluribus Unum” worked in dark blue immortelles on a deep red back ground.  Rose garland twined above it and the other doors.”

Mr. Cleveland and Miss Folsom wanted a small quiet wedding, but, when they started down the steps together and the Marine Band started playing, the church bells throughout the city started ringing, and the cannons in the Navy Yard started booming out a presidential salute.

“The couple entered the Blue Room, and the Rev. Byron Sunderland of the First Presbyterian Church stepped forward to meet them. The tall, graceful, blue-eyed, fair bride was beautiful in her gown of corded ivory satin with trimmings of silk India muslin crossed in Grecian folds. A coronet of orange blossoms held her vail of tulle about five yards long.”  That description was also taken from the Smith and Durbin’s book.

After the short ceremony during which the groom placed a plain gold wedding band, engraved with the date, on the bride’s finger, the happy couple and their guests moved to the family dining room where a wedding supper was served.

The couple went by train to Deer Park, Md. where they planned to have a quiet honeymoon. The reporters beat them there and harassed them as long as they stayed at Deer Park. They were probably glad to get to Washington so they could disappear behind the wall of the White House.

Even though she was young, Frances Folsom Cleveland became a popular First Lady. She enjoyed the role very much. President Cleveland lost his next election to Benjamin Harrison. When the staff lined up to say good-bye to the departing President and First Lady, Frances told the group to take care of the place because they would be back.

Truer words were never spoken. Cleveland ran against Harrison four years later and defeated him. Grover and Frances Cleveland returned to the White House.

President Cleveland is the only man to serve split terms as President.  He is usually counted as the 22nd and the 24th President.

The Clevelands had a little girl, Ruth, who became the darling of the American people.  There was even a candy bar named for her—the Baby Ruth bar.  Many people think that that candy was named for the great baseball player, Babe Ruth; not so, it was name for Ruth Cleveland, who died when she was 12 of diphtheria. The country mourned Ruth’s death. The Clevelands had four other children, but none could take the place of little Ruth.

After leaving the White House, President Cleveland practiced law and played the stock market to support his growing family.  The family finally moved to Princeton, N.J., where the former president did some writing and speaking. He died there in 1908.  About five years later, Frances married a Princeton professor of archeology.  Frances was involved in educational activism throughout the years that she lived in Princeton. She died in 1947 and was buried at Princeton Cemetery beside her first husband, the former President, Grover Cleveland.

Two other Presidents were married while they served as President, but neither of them was married in the White House.  Those were John Tyler, who became president when William Henry Harrison died after serving as president for just 31 days.  Mr. Tyler married a beautiful young woman, Julia Gardiner, in New York.  When John Tyler married Julia Gardiner, he was 54 and she was 21, but their marriage seemed to be a happy despite the difference in ages.

Julia Gardiner Tyler enjoy her role as First Lady, but it only lasted one term.  President Tyler was defeated by James K. Polk in the next election. After leaving the White House the Tylers returned to his plantation, Sherwood Forest, at Charles City, Va., and Mr. Tyler got involved in Confederate affairs. The Tylers enjoyed their life together at Sherwood Forest where they often had dances for their many friends.

The Tylers became the parents of seven children.  The tenth president and his first wife had eight children so Mr. Tyler is said to have had more children than any other president – 15 in all.  One of Tyler’s grandsons was still living at Sherwood Forest in recent years.

The other man who got married while he served as President was Woodrow Wilson. When Wilson’s wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, died of Bright’s disease, President Wilson just fell apart.  When he was young, his mother kept him, going.  When he married Ellen, she provided the feminine support he seemed to require to function.

After Ellen’s death Woodrow was truly distraught.

Less than a year later Mr. Wilson met a lady who was visiting his cousin, a permanent White House resident. That visitor was Edith Galt, a widow. Mr. Wilson was taken by Mrs. Galt’s strong personality. He began seeing her secretly because his advisors thought that it would be bad for him politically to be seeing another lady so soon after his wife’s death.  It seemed that the President could not help himself; he needed female support to survive.

After he visited Mrs. Galt, the president was seen dancing a little jig and singing a ditty as he walked back to the White House. Mrs. Galt gave him that support.  In spite of the advice of political advisors, Woodrow Wilson and Edith Galt were married in December 1915. By that time there were more important things for people of the country to think about (WWI) so the early marriage was really not important.  Woodrow Wilson and Edith Galt were married at her home not at the White House.

To this day in 2023, the only sitting President to be married in the White House is Grover Cleveland.  That marriage occurred on June 2, 1886.