Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Story of Frances Folsom Cleveland, America's Youngest First Lady
by Annette Dunlap
Excelsior Editions, 2009. 195 pages.

More an extended encyclopedia entry then a comprehensive biography, Annette Dunlap's survey of the life of America's youngest first lady sketches the life of an intriguing figure without ever going too far below the surface. Frances "Frank" Cleveland is a barely remembered First Lady, overshadowed by the tragic glamor of Jacqueline Kennedy, the social activism of Eleanor Roosevelt and even the lunacy of Mary Todd Lincoln. But Frank married Cleveland in more ways then one and as his second term was considered a failure best forgotten, so too has Frank beenexiled from thought. Some historians have tried to rehabilitate Cleveland's reputation recently, so its not surprising that Frank would be resurrected as well. Dunlap herself clearly hopes to champion Frank but her polite narrative is far too brief to ever allow the reader a chance to form their own opinion.

Although the story of how Frank came to marry Grover Cleveland can be viewed with a romantic eye, it's impossible even for Dunlap's conservative eye to ignore the creepier aspects of a relationship that started when Frank was a little girl. Cleveland was her father's law partner and was left responsible for the family after Mr. Folsom's untimely death. Although she was only eleven, there were already hints that Cleveland had "tender feelings" for her. Asked about his plans for marriage by his sister, he even made the cryptic remark that "I am waiting for my sweetheart to grow up." He would continue to foster a friendship and while history is foggy on the exact point when relations became romantic, the fact remains that Frank married "Uncle Cleve" less then a decade after her father's death. It's a vaguely unnerving story by today's standards, although one does have to remember this was a much different age.

Still, one does have to wonder how this unique relationship at a key part in her development helped turn her into the "unconventional woman" of later years. She seems to have displayed a preternatural maturity when it came to handling both the press and the public, manipulating both as easily as they tried to manipulate her. She and Cleveland clearly had their stormier moments, as he strove to keep her out of politics even as she fought to find a way in. As First Lady, she performed charity work, helping bring copyright law to America, influenced the direction of American fashion by not wearing a bustle and was instrumental in helping to introduce the kindergarten to American children. Somewhere during this, she also found the time to have three children and raise a battalion of dogs.

After Cleveland's death, Frank continued the same sort of work, eventually lending her presence to the National Security League and to an organization that opposed women's suffrage. This last point is one of particular interest, as it seems the ultimate manifestation of her lifelong attempt to reconcile what were clearly some conflicting thoughts on a woman's role in the political sphere. But perhaps most revealing story is that one that took place in her golden years when she was suddenly faced with the possibility of going blind. Rather then sink into depression, Frank quickly taught herself Braille. This alone seems to demonstrate an enviable strength of character.

Too bad all this whizzes by the reader at lightning speed; anyone interested in reading Frank would be wise to read up on Gilded Age politics first (try Alyn Brodsky's biography of Cleveland, for a start). Dunlap assumes a familiarity with the era surrounding Frank that most modern readers may not have and it's this that ultimately keeps the book from achieving greatness. Frank is defintiely a well-researched account, drawing on newspapers, websites, Cleveland's presidential papers and Frank's own cornucopia of letters; Dunlap has even dug up an unpublished memoir by one of Frank's contemporaries, allowing for some unique insights into the Cleveland family. But the author herself fails to translate the research into any insights of her own; she reports the facts but shies away from any deep analysis or applying the facts against the larger backdrop of history.

This is the enviable characteristic found in the truly great biographies: one person's life becomes a window into an age. To view the complexities of Gilded Age politics from the viewpoint of a twenty-one year old first lady, especially one wrestling with a woman's place in the world, would have been a truly fascinating thing. Dunlap has definitely revived Frank, but it may take another biographer to truly resurrect her so she can breathe again.

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