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Grover, Frank, and Baby Ruth


It’s been a while since a bachelor has been elected president of the United States.  In fact, it’s only happened twice.  The first was James Buchanan, in 1856, and the second was Stephen Grover Cleveland in 1884.  (The last bachelor to be nominated for president by a major political party was Adlai Stevenson, the unsuccessful Democratic nominee in 1952 and 1956.)  This probably accounts for why there have been so few weddings in the White House.  The first White House wedding took place during Cleveland’s first term, on June 2, 1886, when the president married Frances Folsom.

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Image of the Clevelands’ marriage.  The couple expressly requested there be no photographs taken.

Cleveland had known Frances Folsom all her life.  She was the daughter of Oscar Folsom, his law partner and best friend.  When Mr. Folsom died in a violent carriage accident at the age of 37 in 1875, Cleveland became the executor of his partner’s estate, and took under his wing the widow Emma Folsom and her eleven-year-old daughter Frances.

It was during this time Cleveland’s political career was starting to take off.  He was elected sheriff of Erie County, New York, in 1870, and later mayor of Buffalo, then governor of New York state, before finally being elected president in 1884.  He positioned himself as a reformer who believed in clean government.  Cleveland’s campaigns promoted him as “Grover the Good”.  He did have his share of detractors, who managed to dig up a bit of dirt that made him look not so good.  Cleveland had a reputation as something of a lothario, and was known to have been involved with several women in his time.  This alone wasn’t much of an issue, since he wasn’t married, but what became an issue was a woman named Maria Halpin, whom Cleveland, as Cleveland’s own presidential campaign put it, “illicitly acquainted” with.  Halpin had been admitted to an insane asylum in 1874, where she gave birth to a boy who was put up for adoption.  Halpin was released from the asylum by doctors who concluded she wasn’t insane, which only strengthened her claims that Cleveland had threatened to ruin her “even if it cost him $10,000,” Halpin claimed.  Halpin’s version of the facts came out after Cleveland’s did and, significantly, after the election that sent him to the White House.  The Cleveland campaign had dismissed Halpin, saying that she got around, and had been sexually active with several different married men at the time.  

This claim to paternity was an open secret in upstate New York.  Cleveland didn’t say it was impossible that he was the father, but said he was pretty sure he wasn’t.  Despite this, he was the one who was responsible for arranging the boy’s adoption, later claiming he was only doing the honorable thing, since what married man would step forward to help, thus ruining his own reputation?  He was a hero, saving this boy from the ignominy that his mother, a fallen woman, would bring upon him!

The facts did not support Cleveland.  There was no evidence that Halpin was involved with numerous married men, or any married men, and no one who knew her ever verified that this jibed with the Maria Halpin they knew.  Cleveland’s presidential campaign was eager to change the focus to Senator James G. Blaine (R-ME), Cleveland’s Republican rival that year.  The Blaine campaign loved bringing up this scandal to sully the Democratic nominee.  In public, Blaine supporters would often taunt Democrats with the chant, “Ma!  Ma!  Where’s my pa?”  After Cleveland won the 1884 election, his supporters sometimes responded to the chant with, “Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”

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A popular cartoon from 1884 illustrated Mr. Cleveland’s persistent problem.

By 1884, Cleveland had (what appeared to be) a steady job and a nice, white house to move into, so his thoughts turned to homemaking.  Young Frances Folsom was in college already, which was still unusual for women of the day.  During the second year of his first term as president, Cleveland married Folsom, who was 27 years his junior.  At 21, she was the youngest first lady in history.

In 1888, Cleveland won the popular vote against Senator Benjamin Harrison (R-IN).  Harrison was the third candidate to lose the popular vote but win the electoral vote.  This gave Cleveland and the Democrats a sense of popular mandate as they promptly set about gearing up to challenge Harrison in the 1892 election.  During this time, Cleveland fathered another child, this time in wedlock.  In 1891, the Clevelands became the parents of the girl they named Ruth.

Ruth Cleveland enjoyed instant celebrity.  She was also something of a boon to Grover Cleveland, who would rather as many people forget about the child he had with Maria Halpin seventeen years earlier.  The press promptly started to fawn over her, dubbing her “Baby Ruth”.

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Frances Folsom Cleveland and “Baby Ruth” Cleveland, 1891 (left).  Mrs. Cleveland a few years earlier, naked from the shoulders up! (right)

Frances Folsom herself was quite an asset to her husband.  Her good looks were often remarked on in the press, and she was charmingly outspoken.  When the Women’s Christian Temperance Union publicly scolded her for daring to wear gowns showing her bare shoulders, she ignored them, which drove women into stores to purchase whatever the first lady was wearing, whether it was a dress or jewelry or shoes.  The couple traveled everywhere together, which was good for the president.  One famous incident happened during a trip to Ohio, where Governor “Fire Alarm Joe” Foraker made harsh remarks about the president.  When Mrs. Cleveland (who went by “Frank”, not Frances or Frankie) got wind of this, she made sure to let him know.  In Ohio, the Clevelands had a prominent spot to watch a parade the governor appeared in, and when he passed, Frank turned her back on him.  The press dubbed this the “Foraker snub”, a term that came to be used to define every single setback the governor experienced from that point forward in his career, the term dogging him for the rest of his public life.

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Sheet music for a hit song about Grover and Frank, composed for the 1888 election (right).  Another popular song, the Frances Cleveland Waltz, from around the same time (left).

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Sheet music correctly predicting an 1892 victory for Cleveland in song (left).  Mrs. Cleveland’s image licensed to sell Sparks’ Liver and Kidney pills (right).  It’s more than just music!

Of course, the dashing Mr. and Mrs. Cleveland weren’t the only ones who caught the popular imagination.  Their child Ruth also inspired her share of songs.  A number of popular songs were written about the popular girl, and her celebrity was tracked in the papers.  While it was Ruth’s younger sister Esther who was the first child actually born in the White House, Ruth got all the fame, because life isn’t fair for the middle children.

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A popular song from 1892 imagines a world beyond partisan politics: Baby Ruth, daughter of the Democratic presidential nominee, and Baby McKee, grandson of the Republican incumbent, are playing together.

Grover Cleveland returned in 1892 to challenge Benjamin Harrison for the White House, and he became the first (and still only) former president to return.  Cleveland was not nominated for another term in 1896 (though he wanted it).  Despite his leaving the presidency, Baby Ruth remained a media sensation, and milestones in her life were tracked by the papers.

Unfortunately, at age twelve, Ruth contracted what appeared to be a mild fever that turned out to be diphtheria.  After less than a week of illness, she died on January 7, 1904.  Public sentiment was strong.  Ruth became the fourth most popular name given to baby girls during the first decade of the 20th century.  No data on why this name was chosen exists, but it’s not impossible that Baby Ruth’s popularity might have had something to do with it.

With all the songs and the licensing of names and images, one might think the Baby Ruth candy bar, which is still widely sold in America today, was just another product of the president’s daughter’s popularity.  That might or might not be true.  The Baby Ruth candy bar first appeared in 1921, seventeen years after Baby Ruth Cleveland had died.  The Baby Ruth, originally sold as the Kandy Kake, was manufactured by the Curtiss Candy Company, located on South Addison Street in Chicago, just up the street from Wrigley Field.  The name changed was explained by Curtiss as an homage to the former president’s late daughter, but some felt that the name was a way of capitalizing on the fame of baseball player George Herman “Babe” Ruth, who was at the height of his career.  If the candy bar wasn’t actually named after Babe Ruth, Curtiss wouldn’t have to pay any royalties on it.  Clever, huh?

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Baby Ruth and Babe Ruth: who sells more candy bars?

Whether that was Curtiss’s devious plan or not, it worked.  By 1926, the Baby Ruth was one of the most popular candy bars in America.  It has long promoted itself as a part of baseball, and successfully.  When Babe Ruth made his famous “called shot” in Wrigley Field in 1932, where he’s said to have pointed to a spot on the field where he would moments later hit a home run, Curtiss took advantage and installed a sign advertising Baby Ruths not far from where the “called shot” landed.  Whether or not Babe Ruth actually did call the shot remains in dispute to this day, and the placement of the Baby Ruth sign cast a little suspicion on Curtiss’s claim that their candy bar had nothing to do with the baseball player.  The sign stood for about forty years, but an actual marketing deal with Babe Ruth would take a little longer.  Babe Ruth’s image was used only once in a Baby Ruth marketing campaign, in 1995.

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The Baby Ruth: your source for dextrose, important for motorists!  This health claim was not generally supported by doctors in the past nor by doctors today, and predates the truth-in-advertising laws of the 1970s.  Drive at your own risk, candy fiends.

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