"Why did you pick her?" is a question I am asked nearly every time someone hears about my book, "Frank: The Story of Frances Folsom Cleveland, America's Youngest First Lady." It's a fair question. Frances is not, as one person told me, "in the upper constellation of first ladies": that stratospheric region inhabited by Jackie Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dolley Madison and Abigail Adams. The fact that Frances was considered a hostess on par with Dolley Madison has long been forgotten, and the uncanny parallels with Jackie Kennedy have never been fully drawn.
There are quite a few "firsts" associated with Frances. In addition to being the nation's youngest first lady, she was the first to marry a sitting president in the White House; the first First Lady to give birth to a baby in the White House; and the first to remarry after her husband died (Jackie Kennedy is the only other first lady to do so).
There are the forgotten "firsts": a kindergarten in the White House for preschool children; the first First Lady to graduate from college; one of the first two female trustees of her alma mater, Wells College. Frances played a behind the scenes role in finally getting copyright legislation passed to protect American authors, and following the presidential years and the family's settling in Princeton, New Jersey, Frances was instrumental in the founding of the New Jersey College for Women.
Newspaper articles, as well as her letters, reveal a woman of strong and determined character, with an egalitarian streak that endeared her to the public and to the White House staff. Her husband, Cleveland, who came across in public as gruff and taciturn, actually had a better sense of humor and was an outstanding raconteur in private. Frances, perhaps because of the demands on her to watch her children and household while Cleveland spent hours in the presidential study, in a fishing boat or on a hunting trip, was friendly enough. But she also had a stern and unyielding streak that remained with her throughout her life.
Historians refer to Frances as a "transitional" first lady. Although she continued to maintain a very traditional posture as the White House hostess, she did, in fact, understand the value of parlor politics. She played that game well enough that sometimes even her husband, who believed women should not be in politics, had to support what she was doing.
Annette Dunlap will be selling and signing her books at Book 'Em North Carolina and we hope you'll drop by her table to talk to her about her writing and to purchase a copy of Frank: The Story of Frances Folsom Cleveland, America’s Youngest First Lady. She will also be serving on the panel discussion "Truth is Stranger Than Fiction: Writing the Life Story" at 3:00 pm in the Lewis Auditorium alongside Dr. Charles Beem and Dr. Edna Ellison. We hope you'll attend this exciting discussion!