When Grover Cleveland took office in 1885, he was a 50-year-old bachelor, a fact that almost derailed his campaign when rumors spread that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. (He had.) Protocol for unmarried or widowed presidents called for a female relative to fill the role of first lady. In stepped his sister, Rose Cleveland.
She was seen as an important counterbalance to her brother’s scandalous baggage: She was respectable, well-educated, a former teacher at a women’s seminary and the author of serious books.
She also had a relationship that spanned nearly 30 years with another woman, Evangeline Simpson Whipple, according to the editors of a new book. Letters between the two were preserved by the caretaker at Evangeline’s Minnesota home. They’re now collected in “Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple,” and make clear that they were more than just friends.
Rose Cleveland’s term as first lady was a mixed bag, according to the National First Ladies’ Library. Her book of essays, “George Eliot’s Poetry,” became a bestseller based on her fame, but she was frustrated with public scrutiny of her necklines and a ban on her going to private dinners or public markets.
Fourteen months in, Rose was relieved of her duties when the president married his 21-year-old ward, Frances Folsom. Rose returned to her family estate, nicknamed “The Weeds,” in Upstate New York.
Rose met Evangeline Simpson in the winter of 1889-1890, less than a year after her brother left office for the first time. (Cleveland is the only two-term president not to have served his terms consecutively.) They probably met in Florida, where both spent the season making the rounds among the nation’s wealthier families. Rose was 43 and never married. Evangeline was probably 33 and had inherited a fortune from a late husband nearly five decades her senior.
The love letters begin in April 1890, once the two returned to their respective homes. (Evangeline lived in Massachusetts.)
Rose writes: “My Eve! Ah, how I love you! It paralyzes me ... Oh Eve, Eve, surely you cannot realize what you are to me. What you must be. Yes, I dare it, now, I will not 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. You must bear me all the way, Eve ...”
Then, in May: “You are mine, and I am yours, and we are one, and our lives are one henceforth, please God, who can alone separate us. I am bold to say this, to pray & to live to it. Am I too bold, Eve — tell me? ... I shall go to bed, Eve — with your letters under my pillow.”
Because only Rose’s letters survive, we know little of how Evangeline responded. But on a few occasions, Rose quotes Evangeline’s letters in her own: “Oh darling, come to me this night — my Clevy, my Viking, My — Everything, Come! God Bless Thee.” Rose flirtatiously replied, “Your Viking kisses you!”
Rose struggled to name their relationship — “I cannot find the words to talk about it,” “the right word will not be spoken.” Indeed, there was not a word for a same-sex relationship between women at the time. The word “lesbian” existed, but only in reference to the Greek poet Sappho.
“This was before there was a concept of sexual orientation the way that we know it today,” said Lizzie Ehrenhalt, co-editor of the book. “That was really being invented right at the time they were writing letters in the 1890s, because that’s when sexology as a field gets going.”
The concept of “romantic friendship” was popular among women of the day, which were emotionally and intellectually intimate friendships, though not necessarily sexual, Ehrenhalt said.
Rose and Evangeline’s relationship was undoubtedly sexual, in addition to loving and intimate, Ehrenhalt said. One letter describes “long rapturous embraces” that “carry us both in one to the summit of joy, the end of search, the goal of love!”
Rose and Evangeline would beg each other for extended visits to the other’s estate. They gave each other pet names — “Clevy” and “Wingie,” and the somewhat awkward “Granny” and “Granchile,” which seems to have been an inside joke about their 10-year age difference.
They vacationed together in Europe and the Middle East. They bought property together in Florida. They didn’t hide their relationship from family, and it appears to have been accepted. Rose even wrote to Evangeline’s mother about her love for her daughter.
It carried on this way for six years. And then, betrayal.
In 1896, Evangeline shocked her friends and family when she announced she was engaged to Bishop Henry Whipple, a popular Episcopal preacher from Minnesota who was 34 years her senior.
There is every indication she had real feelings for the bishop. She wrote of her affection for him in her diary, she didn’t need the money the marriage would bring, and, at 40 in the 19th century, she was probably past childbearing age.
Rose did not respond well to the news of the engagement. She begged Evangeline to reconsider, writing:
“I do not think you need me now. But I plead that you will consider what I said this morning. I will give up all to you if you will try once more to be satisfied with me. Could you not take six months for that experiment? We would go away from everyone.”
Evangeline married the bishop on Oct. 22, 1896. Three weeks later, Rose sailed for Europe with a female friend — the extent of their relationship is unclear. She would not return for three years.
Rose continued writing letters to Evangeline, but the intimacy fades into little more than travelogue. She stops calling Evangeline “Granny,” and instead of “Granchile,” she signs her letters with the more formal “R.E.C.” — Rose Elizabeth Cleveland.
Bishop Whipple died at his home in Minnesota on Sept. 16, 1901. Soon after, Rose’s letters addressed to “Granny” resumed.
Over the next nine years, Rose and Evangeline’s letters took on a new character, away from the wild, sometimes obsessive, passion of early love and toward a steady tenderness. Evangeline continued to live in Minnesota, but the extended stays at each other’s homes resumed.
By 1909, Rose was in her mid-60s and getting a little tired of the back-and-forth arrangement. “I need you and life is not long enough to always wait,” she told Evangeline.
The next year, Evangeline’s brother became seriously ill while living in Italy. She and Rose rushed to his side, sharing a cabin on the ship across the Atlantic.
Even after his death two years later, Rose and Evangeline continued living together, finally as true partners, in the Tuscan village of Bagni di Lucca.
“I do think they associated with Italy a kind of romantic idea of freedom to love, freedom to have a relationship without people getting in your business,” Ehrenhalt said.
When World War I started in 1914, Rose and Evangeline not only stayed in Bagni di Lucca, but they also organized and funded relief efforts, particularly for refugees who flooded into Tuscany in 1917.
Then the Spanish flu pandemic struck. While tending to a sick friend, Rose caught the virus. She died on Nov. 22, 1918, at age 72.
Evangeline wrote to Bishop Whipple’s daughter of her devastation: “The light has gone out for me. ... The loss of this noble and great soul is a blow that I shall not recover from.”
Evangeline lived for 12 more years. She wrote a book about Tuscany and dedicated it to Rose. She died of pneumonia and kidney failure in London in 1930.
In 1969, a descendant of Bishop Whipple’s donated a collection of family papers to the Minnesota Historical Society. It is doubtful she knew the full contents of the boxes she gave away. When the staff discovered the love letters, a memo warned that some of the letters “strongly suggest that a lesbian relationship existed between the two women” and should be hidden from the public.
That ban was lifted following complaints in 1978. Historians have mentioned the letters over the years, but a complete collection of the letters had never been published, until Ehrenhalt and Tilly Laskey’s book.