The lesbian love letters of an American First Lady


Rose Cleveland Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple

Rose Cleveland served as First Lady for her unmarried brother for fourteen months in the 1880s. Although history remembers her as First Lady to President Grover Cleveland, she deserves recognition in her own right and for her great relationship with the love of her life, Evangeline Whipple. A new book Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple tells the story of that relationship.

Known to her family as Libby, Rose Cleveland  lost her father at the age of seven. Her older brother Cleveland then left school and went to work as a teacher at the age of 16 to support his mother and younger siblings.

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When Rose left school, she also went to work as a teacher to contribute to the support of her mother.

At Muncy Seminary where she taught in Pennsylvania, her friends nicknamed her Johnny Cleveland. Contemporaries spoke of her strong personality and independent streak.

During her mother’s final years, Rose cared for her and worked part time. Her mother died in 1882.

Rose continued to support herself through teaching, giving lectures and literary endeavours. She believed strongly in altruism – a concern for the happiness of others.

We cannot touch humanity at large, except as we touch humanity in the individual… we make the world a better place through our concrete relationships, not through our vague, general good will. We must each find a true partner, someone who understands and appreciates us, someone whose faith in us brings out our best efforts. Our deepest craving is for recognition—to be known by another human being for what we truly are.

Grover Cleveland

Meanwhile, Rose’s brother Grover became a lawyer and moved into politics. Although renowned for his frugal lifestyle, dedicating his earnings to providing for his family, Grover managed a little fun.

An affair with a widow resulted in a son and considerable acrimony. The widow accused Grover of raping her. In turn, he accused her of alcoholism and saw her institutionalised. During his election campaign, documentary evidence of his provision of child support for the boy surfaced causing great scandal. Grover won the election anyway.

As only the second bachelor president of the United States, Grover turned to his younger sister to serve as First Lady. Records of her time in the White House indicate ‘Johnny Cleveland’ was now an attractive and feminine young woman.

The age-old menace of the female bosom

The New York Times reported on her appearance at a reception. She wore a Spanish lace dress lined with black satin. The transparent lace revealed her shoulders and arms, the bodice both sleeveless and low cut.

Another newspaper took umbrage at the Cleveland cleavage.

We were told the first winter she came here that she was a prude, preferring Sunday School and her cottage… to Washington…

But she seems to have gotten into the whirl… and wears her dresses as low in the neck as anyone.

Early in 1886, Mrs Elizabeth Cady Stanton, suffragist and social activist, published an open letter to Rose in the New York World. The letter warned that “the custom of partially denuding innocent girls in public is carried to the verge of immorality.”

A chastened first lady quickly replied in agreement that the décolletage should remain out of sight and out of mind for the sake of decency.

An anarchist newspaper compared the First Lady to a ‘de facto maiden’ and ‘superannuated virgin’, at least referencing her spinsterhood, if not alluding to lesbianism.

More Scandal and Dr Mary Walker

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More scandal arose though when Rose attended the theatre, “in company with a lady friend and without a male escort.”

Previously newspapers reported on the appearance at a White House reception of Dr Mary Walker, the ‘notorious dress reformer’.

Mary was a remarkable woman, indeed the only woman to ever receive the Medal of Honor. During the American Civil War, the surgeon and abolitionist found herself arrested and imprisoned by Confederate forces as a spy after crossing enemy lines to treat wounded civilians.

Probably invited to the reception by Rose, Dr Walker caused a sensation dressed in “full masculine attire, wearing a Prince Albert coat, blue satin scarf and white gloves.”

Dr Walker believed women’s clothes were unhealthy and inhibited a woman’s ability to achieve, stating that women would never achieve liberation while slaves to fashion.

When the newspapers complained of her dressing as a man, Dr Walker fired back, “I don’t wear men’s clothes, I wear my own clothes.”

rose cleveland Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple
Dr Walker in later years

The association with Mary probably never helped Rose’s reputation with the public.

Leaving Washington

Rose Cleveland retired from public view and went home to her cottage.

Soon after, her brother took a young bride, relieving Rose of her duties as first lady.

Miss Cleveland never returned to Washington.

Despite the scandals, no one should suffer under the misapprehension Rose treated her time in the White House as a frivolous frolic.

In spite of the newspaper focus on Dr Walker, nights at the theatre with women bereft of male company and sexy dresses, Washington society mainly took exception to Rose’s studious nature.

Washington expected a first lady to entertain, not educate.

Rose did not do ‘light conversation’. She expounded on intellectual matters thus alienating those unused to substantive conversation interspersed with classical quotation. Some said the first lady kept herself entertained during receptions by quietly conjugating Greek verbs in her head.

After the White House

After leaving the White House, Rose began a successful literary career. Her subject matter hints strongly at her sexuality. She wrote on people such as George Eliot and Jeanne D’Arc.

While Joan of Arc was a woman who dressed as a man, George Eliot was in fact Mary Ann Evans, a woman who published as a man.

Rob Hardy in his wonderful article, The Passion of Rose Elizabeth Cleveland, published in the New England Review in 2007, and available at JSTOR discussed Rose’s musings.

Cleveland seems most interested in people, like George Eliot and Saint Joan, who display a kind of double nature: male and female, physical and spiritual, novelist and poet, warrior and maiden.

Rose herself appeared to reflect this duality. People described her in later life as ‘mannish’. This may indicate she ‘dragged up’ for her role as White House hostess and dressed in the high fashion she thought appropriate to the role she found herself in.

In two of her books, she played on her own name in passages referencing Shakespeare’s ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’.

Rob Hardy suggests she “raises the possibility that the true nature of the rose can be hidden, denied, or called by another name. She seems to invite the question: what is the nature of Rose?”

Evangeline Simpson Whipple

In 1889, Rose Cleveland visited Florida. There she met Evangeline Simpson.

Evangeline’s first husband, a wealthy 73-year-old wool merchant when he married 25-year-old Evangeline, died two years later, leaving her a very wealthy young woman.

When 43-year-old Rose met Evangeline, it appears the pair fell in love immediately and when they left Florida, they continued their romance via correspondence.

Rose held back nothing in declaring her love.

My Eve! Ah, how I love you! It paralyses me … Oh Eve, Eve, surely you cannot realize what you are to me. What you must be. Yes, I dare it, now, I will no longer fear to claim you. You are mine by every sign in Earth & Heaven, by every sign in soul & spirit & body — and you cannot escape me.

For six years the women carried on an affair, which according to a Washington Post report, their families accepted.

But the affair ended in 1896.

Evangeline suddenly became engaged to Bishop Henry Whipple. She knew the bishop for a long time prior to the engagement. He was husband of Cornelia, Evangeline’s ‘intimate’ friend. After Cornelia died as a result of an accident, leaving Bishop Whipple with six children to care for, Evangeline began the relationship with him.

It seems likely she felt some obligation to the orphaned children.

Evangeline ignored Rose’s entreaties to end the relationship.  A few months later, the wealthy heiress and the famous bishop married.

Rose Cleveland Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple
Evangeline Simpson Whipple and Bishop Whipple

Rose left for Europe, where she lived in Paris and continued writing.

She continued her correspondence with Evangeline, though the letters became less passionate.

However, Bishop Whipple, like Evangeline’s first husband, was considerably older than his bride. He died in 1901.

Italy

Rose and Evangeline took up where they left off.

They travelled to Italy to care for Evangeline’s sick brother and remained there the rest of their lives.

Rose died in 1918 from Spanish flu caught while volunteering for the Red Cross nursing influenza sufferers.

Evangeline remained in Italy where she too died in 1930.

They share a crypt in the cemetery in Tuscany’s Bagni di Lucca where they lived.

Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple

The women’s relationship remained a family secret until a member of the Whipple family donated a box of documents to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1969.

The Washington Post claims that when historians found the letters, they deemed the correspondence too racy for public release.

A staff memo noted the letters “strongly suggest that a lesbian relationship existed between the two women”.

Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple opens a closet door closed for generations.

Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple is available from the Minnesota Historical Society.

 

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