As First Lady of the United States, a woman faces instant and unending public scrutiny. But while many in the role may have secrets they’d rather not be unveiled to the nation, one First Lady in particular kept a big part of her life hidden from view. This woman served in the role for a year, after which she embarked on a clandestine lesbian affair. And the public never learned of this illicit tryst until recently, as her private letters have now been published in a tell-all book.
The First Lady in question was Rose Cleveland, who had met her future lover Evangeline Simpson while on a trip to Florida in 1889. Following that initial encounter, the two subsequently embarked upon what would become a decades-long liaison. And they may have kept the truth about their relationship hidden, too, if only they hadn’t sent each other such romantic, passionate letters over the years.
As time went on, Rose and Evangeline’s relationship would cool off and reheat. Ultimately, though, the women made a decision to be together, defying the traditions of their time. And through it all, they had their letters to sustain their bond – with excerpts from those messages now very much on public view.
Rose had originally entered the world on June 14, 1846, as the ninth child of Richard Falley Cleveland and Ann Neal Cleveland. Then, when Rose was seven, the family upped sticks to Holland Patent, New York, so that Richard could serve as pastor at a Presbyterian church in the village. But he wouldn’t be in his new role for long.
Tragically, Richard passed away just one month after the Clevelands relocated to Holland Patent, leaving his and Ann’s nine children to care for their widowed mother. But as Rose was just seven at the time, she couldn’t contribute to the family in the same manner as her brother Grover. The 16-year-old future president would ultimately move to New York City to work as an educator at the New York Institute for the Blind.
Yet Rose would go on to follow in her big brother’s footsteps, as she, too, went into teaching to take care of herself and her mother. Her career began at the Houghton Seminary in Clinton, New York. She also taught in Lafayette, Indiana, and at a girls’ school in Muncy, Pennsylvania, where she quickly earned a reputation for her independent nature.
Eventually, though, Rose headed to Holland Patent to care for her aging, sick mother. And when Ann passed away in 1882, she left her daughter in charge of the family estate, which was called “The Weeds.” When not overseeing the Cleveland home, then, Rose filled her time by teaching Sunday school and delivering lectures that touched on her own faith.
Rob Hardy’s “The Passion of Rose Elizabeth Cleveland,” published in the New England Review in 2007, recounted one such inspiring lecture. In the address, Rose had said, “We cannot touch humanity at large, except as we touch humanity in the individual. We make the world a better place through our concrete relationships – not through our vague, general good will.”
Rose had gone on, “We must each find a true partner – someone who understands and appreciates us, someone whose faith in us brings out our best efforts. Our deepest craving is for recognition – to be known by another human being for what we truly are.” And as it turned out, her statement foreshadowed her own future.
It would take a few more years – and a few huge life changes – for Rose to meet her partner, though. First, you see, she had to rise to the role of First Lady of the United States. She ended up in the position in a roundabout way, though, as she never married; instead, she joined her brother in the White House.
Yes, famously, Grover would go on to hold the most prestigious job in the land. While Rose was busy teaching, her brother had switched his focus from education to law. Then, in 1870, Grover shifted into politics by running for and winning the position of Sheriff of Erie County, New York. He climbed further up the ladder, too, when he became the Mayor of Buffalo, New York, in 1882.
And Grover’s dedication to cutting government spending and corruption made him a frontrunner when it came time to elect New York’s next governor in 1884. He won that race, too, serving in the state’s highest post from 1883 to 1885. Then, fatefully, the Democratic Party sought the rising political star as their nominee for president in the 1884 election. Grover accepted the honor, of course, and would ultimately emerge victorious over Republican rival James G. Blaine.
When Grover won the presidency, though, one thing was missing: he didn’t have a wife to serve as First Lady. As the second bachelor in White House history, he therefore enlisted Rose to serve in the hostessing role instead. And she duly obliged, moving to Washington, D.C. and staying there for the first two years of her brother’s four-year term.
Life as First Lady didn’t quite suit Rose, though. According to the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, she had taken on the role in somewhat of a act of good will towards her presidential brother. But she felt the heavy burden of socializing as First Lady – and the rest of the world scrutinized her every action, too.
For one thing, Rose was apparently keener on improving her mind than in fraternizing with the great and good who came through the White House doors. To get through the tedium of gatherings, she even supposedly engaged in a little Ancient Greek conjugation – but only in her head, of course.
And Rose also disliked how much attention her fashion received. In the early days of her tenure as First Lady, for example, The New York Times splashed images of her in a reception dress across its front page. The paper pointed out the gown’s low neckline as well as the lace overlay that exposed her arms and shoulders.
This type of scrutiny bothered Rose, as did the rules that dictated her behavior as First Lady. Others in the same position during the Victorian era had avoided going to dinners held in private homes or to public markets – and restrictions of this nature seemed to dismay the president’s sister. Yet Rose did come up with at least one workaround by convincing her brother to attend theater productions with her.
And despite her dissatisfaction with her position, Rose did have a good reputation as First Lady. She had even helped her brother to secure his presidency after it was revealed that he had fathered a child outside of marriage. Such a scandal could have lost Grover the White House, but thankfully his sister’s respectable presence had balanced out his personal baggage.
The public also knew that Rose had served as a teacher, had had a solid education and that she was a writer. During her time as First Lady, she also penned a bestseller called George Eliot’s Poetry – an achievement that led her to become the first in her role to ever publish a work during her incumbency.
But Rose wouldn’t serve out her four-year tenure as First Lady, as the bachelor president wed 21-year-old Frances Folsom just 14 months into his and his sister’s time in the White House. In Hardy’s New England Review piece, he speculated, “It must have been a relief [for Rose] when her brother finally married.”
Then, as Grover Cleveland biographer Charles Lachman wrote for The Daily Beast in 2019, “[Rose] departed Washington as she had arrived: an enigma.” Yes, the former First Lady slipped out of the spotlight in Washington, D.C., in favor of life at The Weeds in New York. There, she returned to teaching and later became editor of a Chicago magazine called Literary Life.
Rose’s personal life flourished after leaving her position, too. That said, she had raised eyebrows while still in the White House, according to Lachman. As he put it to The Daily Beast, “the rumor mills started churning” because of the First Lady’s hairstyle – a “short and sensible” crop of curls.
Then Rose invited a friend named Annie Van Vechten to come stay with her in the White House. The 40-year-old hailed from Albany, New York, and came from a prominent Dutch-American family. Some wondered, too, if Annie’s friendship with Rose was a ruse and whether the interloper had actually come to court the then-single president.
As it happens, though, Annie and Rose had more than just a casual acquaintance. Together, they hosted an afternoon tea and went to church. And Lachman has asserted that, when it came time for Annie to leave after a month in D.C., “Rose apparently sank into a state of melancholia.”
But Rose would eventually move on and find another woman – the one whom it seems would become the love of her life. In late 1889 the former First Lady met Evangeline Simpson. The two likely crossed paths in Florida – a wintertime destination for America’s wealthy families at the time. At that point, Rose was 43, and she had yet to take a husband of her own.
Evangeline, on the other hand, was 33 and widowed, having lost her much older, very wealthy husband in 1884. And according to Smithsonian magazine, when she and Rose had met, they had “enjoyed an instantaneous connection.” After the women had eventually returned to their respective homes, then, they kept in touch through letters. And these missives weren’t published until 2019, when they appeared in Lizzie Ehrenhalt and Tilly Laskey’s book Precious and Adored.
Neither Rose nor Evangeline held back in their written correspondence, either. In April 1890, for instance, Rose penned a message to send to her lover in Massachusetts that read, “My Eve! A, how I love you! It paralyzes me… Oh Eve, Eve, surely you cannot realize what you are to me. What you must be.”
Rose went on, writing, “Yes, I dare it, now, I will not longer fear to claim you. You are mine by every sign in Earth and Heaven, by every sign in soul and spirit and body – and you cannot escape me. You must bear me all the way, Eve…” But in the era in which Rose and Evangeline fell in love, same-sex relationships were strictly taboo.
In his piece for The Daily Beast, then, Lachman described Rose and Evangeline’s relationship as “one of the great forbidden romances of the Victorian Age.” And Rose herself had trouble describing the bond she shared with the other woman. Once, she wrote, “I cannot find the words to talk about it.” Back then, of course, the concept of sexual orientation was not as well explored as it is today.
Nevertheless, Rose followed her feelings for Evangeline and continued writing to her. In May 1890, then, another letter arrived for the widow. The former First Lady wrote, “You are mine, and I am yours, and we are one, and our lives are one henceforth, please God, who can alone separate us.”
Rose’s letter continued, “I am bold to say this, to pray and to live to it. Am I too bold, Eve – tell me? … I shall go to bed, Eve – with your letters under my pillow.” And while Evangeline’s letters have apparently disappeared, Rose referenced some of her love’s writing in her own messages. It seemed that the widow had nicknames for the other woman, too – with “Clevy” and “Viking” among them.
But the relationship between Rose and Evangeline didn’t just take place through their correspondence. The women had rendezvous in the Middle East and Europe, even purchasing a home together in the state in which they had initially met. More surprisingly, the couple didn’t conceal their love from their family members – and it appeared that these relatives didn’t outright forbid the relationship.
Six years in, though, Evangeline made a shocking decision. She announced in 1896 that she would get married to Bishop Henry Whipple – a man 34 years older than her. Pages from her diary seem to reveal that she had genuine affection for the Episcopal leader, too. Still, Rose begged her to change her mind.
In yet another letter to Evangeline, Rose wrote, “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.”
Rose’s words may have done little to sway Evangeline, however, as she and Whipple exchanged their vows on October 22, 1986. Then, less than a month afterwards, Rose boarded a ship to Europe and sailed away from her love. She would spend three years abroad, and – perhaps surprisingly – she continued her correspondence with Evangeline.
After the wedding, though, Rose’s letters took on a friendlier tone, describing her travels and toning down on the pet names she had once used for Evangeline. But when Whipple passed away in 1901, the former First Lady changed tack once again. Eventually, she resumed addressing her love as “Granny” – the nickname she had long used for Evangeline.
From there, it seemed that Rose and Evangeline had found steady ground. No longer did they write to one another in passionate absolutes, nor did they seem to be just friends. Instead, their correspondence took on a tender tone. They started visiting each other for long stretches of time, too.
Still, Rose wanted more – and asked for it in a 1909 letter. There, she wrote, “I need you, and life is not long enough to always wait.” Luckily, the chance would come for her and Evangeline to be together once and for all. In 1910 the widow’s brother, who lived in Italy, became very sick, leading both she and Rose to travel to Europe to care for him.
And in Italy – the Tuscan village of Bagni di Lucca, to be exact – Rose and Evangeline finally set up home together. They hunkered down there during World War I and banded together to coordinate relief efforts and care for refugees. Then, after the war, a friend of theirs fell ill with the Spanish flu, and Evangeline and Rose jumped in to care for her, too.
But Rose’s role as caretaker exposed her to the virus, which ultimately killed her in 1918. And, this time, it would be Evangeline who would express her devastation in a letter, writing, “The light has gone out for me… The loss of this noble and great soul is a blow that I shall not recover from.” And Evangeline finally joined the love of her life in death 12 years later, with she and Rose now buried side by side in Italy.