When Grover Cleveland was elected as the 22nd
President of the United States it was his little sister Rose who stepped up to the plate and served as her unwed brother’s de facto First Lady.
Although Rose’s name is absent from high school history classrooms and her
contributions have mostly been forgotten by time, today on what would have been
her 171th birthday, we remember her as the first lesbian First Lady of the
An 1885 drawing shows the short-lived First Lady’s portrait set against the White House. At the bottom is Rose’s full name: Rose Elizabeth Cleveland (x).
Rose Cleveland was born on June 13, 1846 in Fayetteville,
New York. She was the youngest of nine children born to her pastor father and
the family affectionately called her “Libby.” When her father passed away when
Rose was just seven years old, the whole family scrambled in order to make ends
meet. Most of her siblings left home in search for jobs – Grover, who was
sixteen at the time, moved to New York City and became a teacher at State
School for the Blind – but Rose stayed behind and looked after her mother. She eventually
went to school at Houghton Seminary and then became a teacher at Muncy Seminary.
Grover (far left) and Rose Cleveland (seated at center) with their other siblings. (x).
Her older brother Grover ascended to the presidency in 1885
and the 39-year-old Rose followed him to the White House; Grover was unmarried,
but the law dictated that the President must have a First Lady and so Rose
became the nation’s de-facto First Lady for the first two years of Grover’s
presidency. Rose was not ecstatic about her new position and felt that she did not fit it with the Washington elite. Nevertheless, the press were intensely interested in this shiny,
new First Lady; The New York Times repeatedly gave Rose
front-page treatment and reported on her lack of fashion sense (leave our tacky lesbian grandma alone!). Rose was no Claire Underwood and would rather have
been lounging under a tree with a book than wining and dining with politicians
and foreign dignitaries. Luckily, she was able to step down from the position
of First Lady when Grover married his wife, Frances Folsom, in 1886.
Rose (left) and her partner Evangeline Simpson Whipple (right). Courtesy of the
Minnesota Historical Society
Now free from the spotlight, Rose happily dissolved back
into her life of academia and became the principal of the Collegiate Institute
of Lafayette, Indiana. When she was 44, Rose met the love of her life,
Evangeline Simpson Whipple. The two exchanged explicitly romantic and sexual
letters back and forth for many years. In one, Rose writes: “My Eve looks into
my eyes with brief bright glances, with long rapturous embraces, when her sweet
life beneath and her warm enfolding arms appease my hunger, and quiet my soul
and carry my body to the summit of joy, the end of search, the goal of love.”
When Evangeline’s husband finally died, Rose swept her off her
feet and bought the two of them a house in Bagni di Lucca,
Italy where they stayed for the rest of their days. Rose passed away from
influenza at the age of 71. She and
Evangeline are buried side by side in Bagni di Lucca.