She was America’s youngest first lady ever, and one of its most glamorous.
In her day, she was as popular and as widely admired throughout the nation as Jackie Kennedy was in the 1960s, or Michelle Obama is today.
And she was a Buffalo native – Frances Folsom Cleveland, born July 21, 1864, in a house that still stands at 168 Edward St., near the downtown business district. She was the wife of two-time president Grover Cleveland.
The 150th anniversary of her birth will be marked with a ceremony in the Robert H. Jackson Federal Courthouse on Monday. An exhibit of Frances Folsom Cleveland memorabilia will be on display in the Delaware Avenue courthouse’s atrium for invited guests starting at 3 p.m. Monday and for the general public from Tuesday through Sept. 3.
The only first lady ever to be married in the White House, Frances Cleveland was one of the most famous women in the nation during the latter part of the 1800s.
“She was young, beautiful, smart, stylish, glamorous, kind and very popular with the American people,” sad Mark D. Evans, a retired librarian and historian who is loaning the memorabilia that will be displayed. “Arguably, she was the most popular first lady ever. Reporters and photographers would climb trees and rooftops to get scoops on where she was going and what she was doing.”
“She was a gorgeous 21-year-old woman who married a president who was 26 years older, in the White House … that attracted a lot of publicity,” added Bren T. Price, one of the organizers of the exhibit and a trustee of the Buffalo Presidential Center.
The former first lady was born Frances Clara Folsom. Her father was Oscar Folsom, a wealthy Buffalo lawyer who was Grover Cleveland’s law partner. She and Cleveland were married in the White House on June 2, 1886.
There was a lot of secrecy surrounding the wedding, Evans said.
“There was no media, and there were only 30 guests there, and right up until the last minute, even the bride’s identity was kept secret. A lot of people thought Cleveland was going to marry Frances’ mother, who was the widow of Cleveland’s law partner,” Evans said.
After marrying a president more than twice her age, Frances Folsom Cleveland became a national celebrity. Her likeness was etched or imprinted on all kinds of items sold throughout the nation, Evans said.
“There were plates, jewelry, picture cards, glassware, textiles. There were probably more ‘Frances’ items than items made with the likeness of any other first lady,” Evans said.
About 200 such items will be on display in the courthouse atrium, and the exhibit can be viewed free of charge on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“It’s going to be a spectacular display. The Smithsonian Institution has nothing like it,” Evans said.
Several speakers will talk about Frances Folsom Cleveland during an invitation-only event in the Niagara Courtroom at 1 p.m. Monday. The speakers will include Chief District Federal Judge William M. Skretny, Mayor Byron W. Brown, County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and Cleveland’s grandson, George Cleveland.
George Cleveland is in his early ’60s and runs a senior citizens center in Tamworthy, N.H., Evans said.
He’s not stocky like the former president, but “looks just like him from the neck up,” Evans said.
After her husband died in 1908, Frances Folsom Cleveland married a college professor in 1913. She used her fame as a first lady to try to inspire young women.
According to the National First Ladies Library, Frances Cleveland helped start a Washington home for “friendless” African-American women after seeing two starving girls eating out of a garbage can. During World War I and the Great Depression of the 1930s, she used her needlework and organizational skills to help the Needlework Guild, an organization that made clothes and bedding for the poor.
She died in 1947, at age 83. She is buried in Princeton, N.J., next to the man she met in Buffalo and married in the White House.