Speculating on Presidential Sexuality & the first Lesbian First Lady

Rose Elizabeth Cleveland, who served as First Lady for her bachelor brother, President Grover Cleveland from March 4, 1885 until his White House wedding to Frances Cleveland on June 2, 1886. (Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts)

Rose Elizabeth Cleveland, who served as First Lady for her bachelor brother, President Grover Cleveland from March 4, 1885 until his White House wedding to Frances Cleveland on June 2, 1886. (Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts)

As early as 1802, when journalist James Callendar first published snide suggestions that President Thomas Jefferson was conducting something of a romance and sexual relationship with African-American Sally Hemings, who was enslaved by him, there has been no hesitation by the media speculating about the sexuality of Presidents, First Ladies and their family members.

The first book to openly speculate on the sexual preference of a First Lady.

The first book to openly speculate on the sexual preference of a First Lady.

Published speculation about whether any First Family members were homosexual, however, didn’t begin until 1979 during the publicity anticipating author Doris Faber’s book, The Life of Lorena Hickok: ER’s Friend.

Lorena Hickok.

Lorena Hickok.

The basis for the book were letters between First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her confidante and companion, the reporter Lorena Hickok. some 3,000 of which they exchanged are now in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library.

Lorena Hickok, who lived in the White House for a time, was open about her later relationship with another woman. There was also intense speculation about the true nature of Eleanor Roosevelt’s unusually close relationship with Earl Miller, which began when he was a New York State trooper and she was the New York Governor’s wife. Eleanor Roosevelt was a very close and unapologetic friend of two lesbian couples before and during her time as First Lady, yet she never defined her own sexual preference in any way.

Empty Without You by Roger Streitmatter more fully explores the Eleanor Roosevelt-Lorena Hickok relatio

Empty Without You by Roger Streitmatter more fully explores the Eleanor Roosevelt-Lorena Hickok relationship.

The Roosevelt-Hickok letters are highly erotic with details of physical affection but the definitive lack of documentation of their sexual intimacy led some historians to fall short of labeling Eleanor Roosevelt as lesbian or bi-sexual while others. notably David Streitmatter in his book Empty Without You, make a definitive case that she was.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok.

Still others suggest that while, in fact, Mrs. Roosevelt loved Lorena Hickok, in truth she was extremely repressed and, however naively, might not have even perceived her passion for “Hick” as sexual in nature.

Arguments of this nature are similar to those made about whether it is entirely accurate to now label her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt, who lost the ability to walk due to polio, as a “person living with a disability” and have him embraced as a symbol of the disability community when he lived his entire life ignoring the truth of, and never acknowledging it.

Eleanor Roosevelt, 1930.

Eleanor Roosevelt, 1930.

By the time the Faber book was published, Eleanor Roosevelt had been dead for 18 years, and it had been 35 years since she had left the White House. Today’s definitive labels and identities of “gay” and “lesbian” did not exist in Eleanor Roosevelt’s lifetime except as snide suggestions in gossip column squibs or stories in magazines implying various scandals about public figures, and then always with use of degrading euphemisms intended as coded slang.

Betty Ford.

Betty Ford.

It was not until the early 1970s, when a definitive gay rights movement took form, that mainstream media coverage of gay issues as legitimate news subject began. In her 1978 memoirs, published a year after her tenure as First Lady ended, Betty Ford became the first First Lady to address the issue, registering her opposition to discrimination against those who identified as gay and lesbian.

Barbara Bush types on her laptop in 1990.

Barbara Bush types on her laptop in 1990.

The AIDS crisis prompted George and Barbara Bush to become the first presidential couple to invite openly gay and lesbian citizens to the White House,  for the Americans with Disability Bill signing ceremony.

Barbara Bush went further than any previous White House incumbent on the issue, writing a heartfelt letter addressed to the organization Parents of Lesbians and Gays, expressing herself against homophobia, and which she permitted to be widely published.

Nixon and Rebozo.

Nixon and Rebozo.

As American society grew more accustomed to the fuller discussion on all ranges of sexuality, journalists and historians also began to explore the topic in the context of the private lives of Presidential families.

Some, like a 2012 book Nixon’s Darkest Secrets, by Don Fulsom suggested that the tremendous trust Richard Nixon placed in his confidante and longtime family friend Bebe Rebozo concealed a physically intimate relationship.

It was based on no documentation but rather a quote from a reporter who claimed to have seen the President at a restaurant urge his friend to come pose with others for a group photograph by pulling him by the hand and holding it. Not even those who remained harsh critics of the late President found credence in the suggestion.

Jack Kennedy as a new Senator, his fiance Jackie Bouvier and lifelong friend Lem Billings.

Jack Kennedy as a new Senator, his fiance Jackie Bouvier and lifelong friend Lem Billings.

Successful in its effort to show that John F. Kennedy was not gay but also that he rejected the prevailing homophobia of his era and circle was the 2007 book Jack and Lem by David Pitts.

That book chronicled the extraordinarily close emotional relationship of thirty years between the President and Lem Billings, who was gay but gave no outward indication of it to those around them.

Although it was for far longer a period of time than the Nixon-Rebozo friendship, the Kennedy-Billings one also suggests that the more American society came to openly consider the full range of sexuality among human beings, the more it sought to define a platonic but emotionally intimate friendship between two people of the same gender, especially among powerful and famous figures like Presidents and First Ladies.

“Modern times,” is of course, a relative expression but as early as the 192os when the first real loosening of sexual taboos began in American Pop Culture, the Boston mayor’s wife was known to openly gossip that the obvious affection displayed between the First Lady earlier that decade, Florence Harding and her friend Evalyn Walsh McLean “had to” mean it was a sexually intimate relationship.

Evalyn McLean and Florence Harding, 1922.

Evalyn McLean and Florence Harding, 1922.

It was true that Mrs. Harding had what could be characterized as “mannish” gestures and that the two women so loved each other that they were likely each other’s primary relationship.

While those factors were hardly “proof” that they were physically intimate, it was enough fodder for people to enjoy fanning it as gossip – but not enough to have it suggested in the press which had only just begun to print the derogatory terminology once used to describe those attracted to their own gender but not yet uniformly described as “gay” or “lesbian.”

Paradoxically, as the timeless recedes further back to what is now assumed to be a more rigidly intolerant period, there appears to be an increasingly nuanced aspect to how society viewed sexual preference despite the timeless factors which indisputably determine it.

C.A. Tripp's book The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln.

C.A. Tripp’s book The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln.

Seeking to clarify the grey shadings of this reality is what pitted historians into a dispute about arguably the most endearingly fascinating of all Presidents, Abraham Lincoln with the 2005 publication of  The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln by C.A. Tripp, the thesis of which is that the 16th President was gay, as that is understood in the context of the 21st century.

The book’s accounts of Lincoln’s physical, but not explicitly sexual intimacy with other men raised a firestorm of opposition from some Lincoln scholars who claimed the premise was a misreading of the nature of 19th century sleeping arrangements and the freer expressions of love among the same-gendered.

On the other hand are historians who point out that this dismissal is a willful denial of the fact that gay relationships could only exist in that time of sexual repression by subverting the record of what they did or how they felt within the socially-acceptable means of sleeping or expressing oneself.

Lincoln, 1846.

Lincoln, 1846.

Among the limited documentation presented for consideration is an early poem by Lincoln which illustrates that Lincoln was aware of men having martial-type partnerships, even if it doesn’t indicate he had one: “ For Reuben and Charles have married two girls, but Billy has married a boy. The girls he had tried on every side, but none he could get to agree; All was in vain, he went home again, and since that he’s married to Natty.”

And, of course, never passing up the chance to dismiss, deride or demean Mary Lincoln, few on either side of the argument seem willing to acknowledge that if Lincoln did love men intimately, it doesn’t mean he didn’t love his wife.

Just like the arguments used to make the case for what Lincoln would have done during Reconstruction had he lived, or whether Wilson would have accepted a compromise on the League of Nations had he not been disabled by a stroke, or if JFK intended to withdraw the U.S. from Vietnam, the real truth is that one may never be able to provide a definitive answer on some matters of presidential sexuality.

What can certainly be documented definitively about one President, however, is that there was wide speculation about the nature of his relationship with the man he lived with for some years in Washington before they were elected as President and Vice President (of two separate Administrations). And further, that the speculation proves that, however differently from today, there was a concept of “gay” as early as the 1830s.

King and Buchanan.

King and Buchanan.

While it is highly unlikely that President Andrew Jackson coined the phrases which were euphemisms for gay in his day, his use of them indicates that they must have had some degree of public familiarity. He called the U.S. Senator from Alabama, William Rufus Devane King and his roommate, U.S. Congressman James Buchanan “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy.” Aaron Brown, a U.S. Congressman from Tennessee, referred to King as “Mrs. Buchanan,” and sarcastically spoke of the duo having a divorce because of a political disagreement. King went on to be elected Vice President in 1852, but died shortly after being sworn into that position. His former boarding-house partner James Buchanan was elected President in 1856, right before Lincoln.

There was one other President also elected as a bachelor whose marital status became a hot political issue. In the case of Grover Cleveland, however, it was regarding his paternity of an illegitimate child.

So focused did the American press become with the matter, in fact, that it entirely overlooked the issue of his First Lady’s sexuality.


Grover (far left) and Rose Cleveland (seated at center) with their other siblings. (Grover Cleveland Birthplace, Caldwell, New Jersey)

Grover (far left) and Rose Cleveland (seated at center) with their other siblings. (Grover Cleveland Birthplace, Caldwell, New Jersey)

Although he began his presidency as a bachelor, Cleveland would leave the White House as a married man. For the first fourteen months of the Administration, his youngest sister Rose Elizabeth Cleveland served as the official hostess, from March 4, 1885.

Always called “Libbie” by her friends and family, was born June, 13 1846; she was educated at the Houghton Seminary and taught literature in Lafayette, Indiana and later at Hamilton College.

Rose was developing her own independent career as a writer, editor and lecturer, but she had also begun to assume management of his domestic life as Governor of New York towards the end of his term. She presided over the party of friends and family who gathered in the governor’s mansion in Albany, New York to celebrate his victory in the 1885 presidential election.

Rose Cleveland made her first public appearance as her bachelor brother’s First Lady as his Inaugural Ball escort.

Publicly, Rose Cleveland was considered a “bluestocking,” a serious, academic woman with little patience or interest in those subjects which women of her era were socialized to find most compelling, such as clothing, decorating and entertaining.

This is only a partial truth; as she revealed in one of her books, Rose Cleveland believed strongly in adhering to the societal conventions which dictated behavior and gender interaction.

Her private letters, however, do reveal the frustration she experienced as a result of her nevertheless feeling she must adhere to the unwritten code dictating the protocols followed by Victorian-era First Ladies which limited her from dining in private homes or appearing in the public markets.

That code did, however, permit First Ladies to appear in public theaters and like Mary Lincoln and Julia Grant, Rose Cleveland greatly indulged this personal passion.

She had a particular love for the contemporary musical theater productions of Gilbert & Sullivan and managed to even coax her hard-working brother out of the White House to attend the theater with her.

Presidential sister Rose Elizabeth “Miss Libbie” Cleveland served as First Lady from March 1885 until June of 1886. (Massachusetts Historical Society)

Rose Cleveland’s facility with the classics prove useful to her during the long hours she was required to stand while shaking hands with endless lines of guests at White House receptions. Finding this especially dull, she later revealed that she was conjugating Greek and Latin verbs in her mind during this process.

While she largely remained disinterested in politics, she didn’t hesitate to express her anti-Catholicism to the President in her warnings to him not to appoint too many “papists” to federal positions.

Most of her friends were theatrical or literary professionals. Rose Cleveland was herself notable as the first First Lady, though not a presidential wife, to publish books she wrote during her incumbency.

Rose Cleveland didn’t hesitate from exploiting her visibility as the nation’s First Lady in promoting her first book, this being the front page of it, which was published during her White House incumbency.

Her first book George Eliot’s Poetry and Other Studies was published while she was in the White House, in June of 1885; it went through 12 editions in a year and earned her some $25,000.

While still serving as First Lady, the following year she published You and I: Moral, Intellectual and Social Culture, a 545 page treatise considering the changes wrought on 1886 American life. Her last book, The Soliloquies of St. Augustine, translated into English,With Notes and Introduction by the Translator was published in 1910 by Little, Brown, and Company.

Rose Cleveland’s last efforts as First Lady were to enact the arrangements dictated by her brother for his White House wedding to Frances Folsom.

Neither she nor her future sister-in-law and her successor as First Lady left any real sense of what they thought about one another, although there is a suggestion of a polite but restrained relationship between them in a letter Rose later wrote to the woman she loved.

Cleveland caricatured in costume for Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado.

Cleveland caricatured in costume for Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado.

Soon to financially benefit from her brief stint of national fame, “Miss Libbie” might have felt a twinge of envy over the intense press coverage that Frances Folsom Cleveland received before, during and after she wed President Grover Cleveland in the White House Blue Room, and Rose left the White House on June 6, 1886.

The White House wedding of President Cleveland and Frances Folsom.

The White House wedding of Cleveland and Frances Folsom.

Given to a sardonic, often acid wit, Rose Cleveland almost certainly took a delight she kept secret from her brother when the marching bands at the 1886 Memorial Day Parade in New York serenaded the bride-to-be, watching it all from her hotel window, with the song “He’s Going to Marry Yum-Yum.”

The musical piece was from one of Rose Cleveland’s favorite Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, The Mikado, which had become an international hit, first premiering in London the same month she had become First Lady, in March of 1885. Here’s a brief excerpt of the song:

37. After spending several winters at the Naples Hotel in Florida, Rose Cleveland purchased two beachfront lots for twenty dollars and built this cottage. (Naples Historical Society)

Rose Cleveland purchased two Naples, Florida beachfront lots  and built this cottage. (Naples Historical Society)

In leaving the White House, however, Libbie Cleveland was also afforded the relief of privacy, able to slip into relative obscurity rather quickly after her new sister-in-law became First Lady and the public remained obsessively fixated on her.

It was only then, as an “old maid” (as single, middle-aged women were once pejoratively dubbed) that she finally succumbed to a passionate romance with another woman, with whom she would spend the rest of her life.

From the White House, Rose Cleveland moved to Chicago, where she worked as an editor of the city’s Literary Life magazine for three years. The income she received from her book royalties soon accumulated and proved considerable.

Able to support herself well by lecturing and writing, Rose Cleveland left her job in Chicago. She then returned to the city of Utica, New York, where she purchased her own home.

Beginning in 1889, however, she had also begun heading south to Naples, Florida. There she bought two property lots for twenty dollars and had her own cottage built there on Gulf Street, five blocks from the pier.

Never having married or even dated a man, the former First Lady was about to embark on the great loving relationship of her life.

While there, the 44 year old Rose Cleveland began a romantic friendship with Evangeline Simpson, a wealthy 30-year-old widow. It soon developed into a romantic relationship, and then physical one.

In one of her first letters to the woman she called “Eve,” the former First Lady declared: “Ah, how I love you…you are mine by every sign in Earth and Heaven–by every sign in soul and spirit and body…”

Later in 1890, Rose Cleveland proposed that they meet in New York but rather than stay with the former President and First Lady at their Madison Avenue home, she wanted to share the same hotel room with Eve Simpson, an arrangement the latter agreed to.

After returning to their respective homes, the two women exchanged what can only be described as a series of increasingly erotic letters. “Oh, Eve, I tremble at the thought of you,” Cleveland wrote. “Sweet, Sweet, I dare not think of your arms.”

38. Evangeline Simpson and Rose Cleveland. (Minnesota Historical Society and NFLL)

Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson (Minnesota Historical Society)

The two women decided to live together, an arrangement which continued until Eve Simpson chose to follow a more conventional path. Securing her financial legacy, so to speak, seems to have been her motivation.

Evangeline Simpson and her husband Bishop Whipple. (Minnesota Historical Society)

In 1895, Eve became engaged to Henry Benjamin Whipple, the widower Episcopal bishop of Minnesota.

She was 36 years old and he was 74 years old, an age difference that made the one between 47-year old President Cleveland and 21-year old Frances Folsom seem tame by comparison.

The decision, Rose Cleveland wrote, hurt her deeply. Nevertheless, in a letter she wrote to Bishop Whipple on Executive Mansion stationery while visiting her brother during his second term, she expressed her genuine wishes that the couple had found love with each other.

40 cleveland

Rose Cleveland in Italy. (Hake’s Auctions)

The old bishop died in 1901 and within four years Rose Cleveland and Eve Simpson Whipple had resumed their contact by letter.

They decided to both leave the United States and live together in Italy.

When they sailed on a Cunard Line ship to Europe in 1910, the two women were unapologetic in sharing the same cabin bedroom together.

They settled in Bagni di Lucca, in Tuscany, living a life unbothered by publicity, until Rose Cleveland died of the Spanish flu epidemic on 22 November 1918 epidemic.

Despite her status as a former First Lady, her remains were not returned to the United States, but rather she was buried in the American Anglican Church Cemetery in the town where she had lived with Eve Simpson Whipple and another woman friend who had come to share their household.

Upon her death in 1930, Eve Simpson Whipple was buried next to Rose Cleveland as stipulated in her will. There they remain, their double burial spot recently restored.

Tomorrow, June 13th, is Rose Cleveland’s birthday.

The burial place of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Whipple. (inhonorofthepeople.org)

The burial place of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Whipple. (inhonorofthepeople.org)

Categories: Eleanor Roosevelt, First Ladies, History, James Buchanan, Presidents, The Kennedys, The Lincolns

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12 replies »

  1. The White House wedding of Grover and Frances Cleveland took place on June 2, 1886, not June 6, 1886.

  2. One of the best articles I’ve read on this topic. Clear and concise and free from the hysterical leanings to one way or another that usually accompanies these forays into a still taboo subject in American History.

  3. Carl, what fascinating stories. Thanks for bringing them to our attention.

  4. Very nice article. I have few doubts about Buchanan. Lincoln…I don’t know. I’ve read that it was common at that time for people of the same sex to share beds and rooms…even with parents. That is not uncommon in poorer nations to this day. As for Mrs. Roosevelt – having read several bios – including one with many of her own writings – I agree that she may not have admitted even to herself any feelings of sexuality toward a woman. She said in her writings that she even had trouble with sexuality with her husband because of her learned repression – whom she loved at the time of their marriage. Also, I always wondered about her relationship with that young writer Joseph P. Lash, who also lived in the WH. But who knows – I’ve read some recent bios from women raised before the turn of the last century, and have been surprised by their fluid sexuality. But then, why would we believe people then are any different than people now?! Kinsey pretty much proved in his survey that people have always been more adventurous than society has lead us to believe. After all my research on JFK, some part of me wonders if he was denying being bi-sexual. YES, I know he told Lem back when they were teen at Choate that he did not play that way, but I remember comments by both a photographer and acquaintance about JFK’s extreme comfort with being naked with men. In fact, as I recall, one guy thought him a bit of an exhibitionist. I sure wish I could remember which book that was in…I’ve too many now to remember. As I recall, one guy commented on visiting JFK in the bathroom and the other gent was referring to visiting JFK and JBK to show them some photo proofs – and how he kept having to avoid the Presidential jewels while sitting on the floor during the viewing. JBK apparently had no issue with it and JFK expressed no embarassment… On the other hand, it could just be JFK’s comfort with having been one of nine kids, and also having spent so much time with men at school, at war and on the campaign trail. But, those guys comments did make me wonder – because it seemed that they wondered… I recall a comment from Lem’s oral history that made it fairly clear that he felt left out when JFK and JBK would retire to their bedroom and listen to records without him. I called the Kennedy Library not long ago and asked them why I could not have a transcript of the Lem oral history – especially since they’ve opened in the past. But, they claim that they intend to follow the intentions of Lem from now on. I believe some answers are in that history.

    • Thank you so much for such a thorough response and bringing out some interesting documentation. Through the course of my own research and writing of some twelve books, I’ve become more cautious about speculating on such personal matters as an individual’s interior life – though as long as there is ample evidence to posit a theory, it should definitely be put before the public for consideration, especially concerning public figures like Presidents. I’m not familiar with any of the material you mention regarding President Kennedy. As for Eleanor Roosevelt – yes there was that recording made by the FBI of her coming to visit Joseph Lash in a hotel room but my recollection is that there was nothing compromising to her which was recorded. It seemed to be a matter more of J. Edgar Hoover trying to “frame” her and all he could do was suggest it was inappropriate for an older woman in her position to visit the hotel room of a younger man. I think what is especially intriguing about her situation is that it presents the classic case of how others define someone and how they define themselves – and whether emotion alone is enough to constitute labeling someone, one way or the other, regarding their sexual preference. It is such a modern construct and so its a never ending question of how to label or categorize many historical figures who seemed to have a sexual preference for one gender with emotional attachments to another, or vice versa.

  5. I am a little late in responding to this post-i don’ t know how I missed it but woul dlike to put my 2 cents in.
    In my own studies of presidents and their wives-in cases that are more speculative than anything else-I hav formed my own opinions. I agree with one of the earlier posts about Lincoln-which said that in his day it was common fo men to share beds so i don;t necessarily think that translated into anything sexual. Eleanor Roosevelt-i have always felt was so deeply hurt by her husbands infidelity with Lucy Mercer that she simply shut down sexually after wards and never revived that part of herself. While she may have had lesbian friends and loved them i seriously doubt that she acted in a physical way.
    Florence harding-from everything i read may have driven her husband crazy with her nagging and bullying but I always got the feeling that she adored him and wanted only the best for him. i think her friendship with Evelyn mclean was just that-a close friendship with someone she grew to trust (for the most part). Her close friendships with other women had been destroyed on at least two other occasions-Susan Hodder and carrie Phillips-so any good female friendship would have meant a lot to her.
    Rose Cleveland-i believe was undeniably a lesbian. A good scout who pitched in when her brohter needed her help but when he married she was delighted to pursue her own interests-be they educational or personal.
    james Buchanan-i would say probably yes-he was gay and did have a realtionship with Pierce’s vice president. However-so much of this is just conjecture-we will never know.
    But it has become sport to speculate! Very sadly-in all of these cases-it would have been political suicide for any of the people to admit their true feelings. Hopefully we are moving in a direction where a president or first ladies sexual preferences will have no more impact on the American people than their hair color.

    Here’s hoping!

    Richard Klein
    New York, NY


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