A GAY FIRST LADY – BY ELLIN CURLEY

A comment made by presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg, caught my attention. He said that statistically speaking, the odds are that we have already had a gay president in America. Several presidents were unmarried, but in past times gay men often married and had children because they did not have the option of living an openly gay lifestyle.

While this was on my mind, I came across an article about a first lady who turned out to be a lesbian. Grover Cleveland took office in 1885 – a 50-year-old bachelor who apparently had fathered a child out of wedlock (this fact nearly derailed his campaign). The protocol called for him to appoint his sister, Rose, as First Lady. She was considered a ‘respectable’ single woman who was well educated, a former teacher at a woman’s seminary and the author of ‘serious’ books. She served as First Lady for a little over a year and then was relieved of her duties when her brother married his 21-year-old ward, Frances Folsom Cleveland.

Rose returned to the family estate in upstate New York and a few years later, when Rose was 43, she met Evangeline Simpson on the wealthy ‘social circuit’ in Florida. Evangeline was 33 and had inherited a fortune from her late husband who was almost 50 years older than she was!

The love letters that document their 30-year relationship, begin in April of 1890. Ironically, at that time there was no word in the English language to describe a romantic/sexual relationship between two women. The word ‘lesbian’ was only applied to the Greek poet, Sappho. The field of sexology only came into being in the 1890’s so the terminology would not exist for many more years.

Rose Cleveland

The concept of ‘romantic friendship’ was popular among women of the day but the relationships were often emotional and intellectual but not sexual. However, that gave cover for wealthy white women of the day and allowed them to have open relationships, often even living and traveling together.

The letters between Rose and Evangeline were discovered in 1969 when a cache of Evangeline’s family papers was donated to the Minnesota Historical Society. When the love letters, some quite explicit, were discovered, a memo was sent out suggesting that they are kept from the public. The ban wasn’t lifted until 1978, following numerous complaints. The full collection of Rose’s letters were finally published in a book called ‘Precious and Adored: The love letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, 1890-1918.

Rose on right, Evangeline on left

Rose and Evangeline’s relationship spanned 30 years but had its ups and down. Initially, they enjoyed extended visits to each other’s estates and they traveled together in Europe and the Middle East. They didn’t try to hide their relationship and Rose even wrote to Evangeline’s mother about her love for Evangeline. It seemed to have been accepted – but I wonder how many people of the day understood that there was a sexual component to the relationship.

In 1896, after six years with Rose, Evangeline shocked everyone when she announced that she was marrying a popular Episcopal preacher from Minnesota who was 34 years her senior. She didn’t need to marry him for financial reasons and her diary indicates that she was sincerely fond of him. But why she chose marriage over her relationship with Rose is a mystery.

Evangeline with her new husband

After the marriage, Rose and Evangeline continued to correspond but the tone of their letters changed dramatically. No more intimacies and pet names or professions of love. Evangeline’s husband died five years later, in 1901 and the letters between the two women changed character again. The two resumed staying at each other’s homes for extended periods until 1910 when Evangeline’s brother became seriously ill in Italy. Evangeline and Rose rushed to his side and finally lived together in a small Tuscan town.

In Tuscany in 1918, at the age of 72, Rose died after contracting the Spanish flu. Evangeline lived for twelve more years but wrote of Rose’s death that “The light has gone out for me. The loss of this noble and great soul is a blow that I shall not recover from.”

Photo of Rose with Evangeline on right and book cover on left

In today’s climate, Rose and Evangeline would probably have moved in together when they first fell in love and would have shared a peaceful, happy and uninterrupted 30-years together. At least they never felt shame or ostracism or persecution for their love – which probably would have been the case if they had been men. It’s nice to know that women had an acceptable social ‘cover’ for lesbian relationships, even in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Thankfully people don’t need to disguise or hide their love anymore, no matter what the sex or race of their chosen partner.

10 thoughts on “A GAY FIRST LADY – BY ELLIN CURLEY”

  1. There’s a wonderful new series on HBO called Gentleman Jack, which is taken from the diary of Miss Jane Lister. It’s about this very thing. The actor playing the lead is absolutely fabulous. Men who were found to be in sexual relationships were hung.

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    1. We watched the first episode of Gentleman Jack and I loved it. We just haven’t gotten back to it yet. Lesbians clearly had it better than gay men in the past so it’s nice to see the men finally catching up in freedoms and rights today.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ellin, what a poignant piece! Loved it. I knew bits and pieces about Grover Cleveland but not the whole story. Thanks for that.
        We’ll have to check out “Gentleman Jack”. Right now, we are rebinging “Midsomer Murder Mysteries” and enjoying it even more the second time around. It includes the subject matter of your piece, especially how the “upstairs” folks dealt with sexuality. Lots of bluster! I really enjoy seeing the Brit stars of the 60’s — Hayley Mills, Richard Johnson, Richard Todd, Honor Blackman, Joss Ackland — still working in their “golden years”.

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    1. What was interesting to me about the story was how totally accepted women’s ‘friendships’ were – even when they were clearly more than just friendships.

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  2. Fascinating. I have to wonder how many went reeling after they read that there had been an actual lesbian first lady, because even today the stigma of that kind of lifestyle is huge. It shouldn’t be, but it is.
    You asked a rhetorical question in your post “But why she chose marriage over her relationship with Rose is a mystery.” I can answer that from one perspective. Because in those days (and even today) being gay was tantamount to social suicide. Even extremely wealthy gentlemen or ladies were not open about their true natures and being accepted socially was the ultimate goal.
    My grandmother on my mother’s side divorced my grandfather in the early 1940s. In those days that was social suicide. One simply did NOT divorce and if one did, the woman in the equation was branded a ‘scarlet’ woman and was ostracized by polite society. My grandmother preferred being scarlet to being shamed and beaten by her husband.
    In 1979 I was good friends with a woman who was what is called in modern parlance, a ‘beard’ for a gay man who was deeply in the closet and was an active member of his LDS ward.
    Even today nobody gay openly admits it and is embraced fully by the Church here. The LDS Church is far more tolerant than in the past, but gay individuals are stigmatized and ostracized, just like the ladies in your post would have been if they’d openly declared they were a couple. The world still has a very long way to go in acceptance. Thank you for sharing a most educational post today! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s sad to hear how much prejudice still exists today against gay people. On TV and in the movies, it often looks like everyone is happily integrated into society. But it’s also sad to hear that churches are some of the least likely people to accept their parishioners for who they are. You’d think that religion would be about tolerance and acceptance, but most religions, or at least religious organizations, are judgemental and punitive.

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    2. Melanie, in my former biz – TV News – Sexual preference – was both a non issue and one quietly observed and accepted. The focus was on a person’s ability to do his/her job and how they co-existed with everyone else in the always bustling TV news world.
      Ironically (?) Marilyn informed me that a long time colleague and friend was gay. We had mutual interests at work and outside of work in baseball, movies, etc. We were part of a group that shared a summer vacation house on Martha’s Vineyard for more than 20 years. My friend’s sexual preference was never an issue.

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  3. It is becoming more accepted and why not? As are the different cultures and race Becoming more accepted, Muslims, and Blacks to name a few, but that doesn’t mean that because it is accepted all people accept it, as in “like”or agree with it, right? The Catholic church is also full of closet gays, and child molester’s as well, and that has been going on for so long, it has been covered up, and still nothing much has been done about it, instead it is denied, and they are not living openly gay and accepted. Many say they accept gay lifestyles, and those people that live and work among us, but we have to don’t we? After all laws are passed that require us to be tolerant and accepting. This doesn’t mean everyone accepts that lifestyle. I work in nursing and care for many different types of people, in my work my job basically is to care for sick, it doesn’t matter their lifestyle or race, religion, I believe this is called “accepting” and it doesn’t affect me how someone else lives, and what they believe.
    I have friends with family members that are gay, I’ve known them most of my life, I love their children, when they told their friends, and introduced partner’s to me, this didn’t change my feelings for them. Truthfully, few of us were surprised, we knew.
    It is a brave act to tell others, especially those you love that you are “different” than the expected norm. Parent’s have expectations, friends and family are afraid, ashamed, it is a hard decision, not to mention the inner conflict of what you are taught growing up, and society’s idea of expected “normal” and your religious upbringing as well.
    Those Catholic priest’s destroyed my religion, I am ashamed of them, and the Church is full of s— ,as far as I am concerned.
    We all live our own lives, nobody walks it for us, you have to do what is best, and feels right for you. I remember a patient I cared for that was dying with cancer, she had a gay partner, they raised her children together. One day her partner asked if I would give them some alone time, and they would call if needed anything, she also said “I hope you don’t mind, but I love her”, she wanted to spend some time alone with her, “we don’t know how long we have”. I learned that day “love is love” it is that simple and good. Why would I want to deny anyone such a special feeling. I’ve never forgotten those ladies, she called me after discharge to tell me how much they appreciated me. I loved them too, they were good people. We are all just people, whatever name/label comes after that doesn’t matter, who are we to accept, or not accept someone else’s lifestyle.

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