Sunday, 18 September 2011

Grover Cleveland: A Secret Life?

The posts heretofore on this blog have been almost exclusively about British history, this being the primary research area of the Idle Historian. Recently, however, I came across a book about the scandalous life of American President Grover Cleveland: A Secret Life: The Sex, Lies, and Scandals of President of Grover Cleveland by Charles Lachman, which has been published by Skyhorse Publishing.

I had been rather unaware of the colourful past of Cleveland, who was President from 1885 to1889 and 1893 to 1897 (the only President to serve non-consecutive terms in office). What has been widely known since Cleveland's campaign (discovered and fostered by his political opponents) was that he had, as a young man, fathered an illegitimate son with a woman in Buffalo named Maria Halpin. Opponents shouted the derisive slogan at the candidate: "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?" Cleveland has also famously been cited as advising his associates to "tell the truth"  -- something that many politicians have perhaps wished they had done in hindsight. Sometimes the attempted cover-up really is "worse than the crime." And, indeed, the scandal obviously did little to hinder Cleveland's political success.

  A famous period cartoon, 27 September 1884, cover of "Judge" Magazine
("I Want my Pa"), referencing the Halpin scandal

Lachman's book A Secret Life, however, alleges that there is far more to the story than ever appeared at the time, mustering historical evidence for rape (as Maria Halpin accused Cleveland of at the time -- filed in a 1884 affidavit), his attempt to have her committed to an asylum after the birth, and the underhanded means by which the child was removed from his mother and placed in an orphanage. The boy was eventually placed with surrogate parents (who had a hand in the supposed abduction and persecution of Maria Halpin), and the mother was paid what in effect amounted to hush money. Lachman establishes the identity and fate of Cleveland's son for the first time in this book, an outcome different from what historians had previously maintained. His name throughout most of his life differed from the curious one he was given at birth.(*) It is a captivating narrative history, containing a rather startling turn of events -- detailed more than a century after they occurred.

While I cannot speak to the historical veracity of all the claims, the book does a great deal to tell the story from a perspective which is sympathetic to Maria Halpin, who at the time she fell pregnant was a widow who already had a young son. One of the pictures in the book which labels her "a woman defamed," signalling the revisionist treatment which the author follows. Indeed, Lachman summons a great deal of evidence that Halpin was not a "loose woman" -- as her opponents and Cleveland's supporters depicted her at the time. It seems right that such a marginalized woman, without important friends or power, should be able to add her voice to history retrospectively. This book persuasively argues for her ultimate "respectability" -- as nineteenth-century society would have termed it. As such, and for its absorbing readability, it is a fine entree into American history of the late 1800s.

Interest in the colourful character and presidency of Grover Cleveland seems to be on the upswing in general. Recently another book has been published: The President Is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Vilifies the Courageous Newspaperman Who Dared Expose the Truth, by Matthew Algeo. It explores another secretive and mysterious chapter in Cleveland's life: his secret surgery at sea (as the title implies) to remove a cancerous tumor from the President's mouth and the astonishing means by which this event was kept from the American public.

(*) Oscar Folsom Cleveland, the illegitimate son, named after Oscar Folsom, friend and law partner of Grover Cleveland. This led some to conclude that Oscar Folsom was the father of the child (playing into the narrative of Maria Halpin as a woman of loose morals), and that Cleveland somehow "took responsibility" for the child for reasons unknown.

Grover Cleveland later married Folsom's daughter, Frances Folsom -- she was much younger and he had been one of her guardian since childhood. Cleveland remains the only President to marry in the White House itself. 


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

A veritable and fascinating piece of scandal indeed. And, strangely, now fully revealed over a century later and about a man who, most likely, has been largely forgotten. Certainly of all American presidents we are able to bring to mind, he is not one we have ever heard about before now. Perhaps he goes down in American history for some brilliant piece of legislation?!

IdleHistorian said...

I cannot say that I know very much about his accomplishments in office, but he was re-elected to a second (non-consecutive) term. One imagines that he must have attained some degree of popularity. The wikipedia article about him states: "His battles for political reform and fiscal conservatism made him an icon for American conservatives." So, this is either a strength, or perhaps not, depending on one's political perspective! He belonged to the Democratic Party -- who at this time were economic "liberals" in the old sense of the term.

Lucy said...

It's a weird thought that some historian, long after our deaths, may rake through our own lives and, maybe, come up with new versions of ourselves - ones we will never know.

IdleHistorian said...

Excellent point, Lucy! It could be to one's benefit or detriment... but one would never know.

SloaneScholar1 said...

Grover Cleveland, on a recent trip to Buffalo, is one of the city's most celebrated historical figures. There are streets, bars, schools, and statues EVERYWHERE!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...