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Stage Struck

Frances Cleveland and the Theater

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Two leading ladies appeared at Washington’s National Theatre on the evening of July 2, 1886. On stage was Nellie McCartee, the star of the opera The Black Hussar. In the audience was the 21-year-old first lady Frances Folsom Cleveland, who, exactly one month earlier, on June 2, had married 49-year-old President Grover Cleveland in a White House ceremony. Public opinion was favorable toward both women. The Washington Post’s review of Miss McCartee’s performance observed that “despite a trace of amateurishness, she was very satisfactory and deserved the applause she received.”1 Frances Cleveland, who had instantly captivated Americans with her beauty and poise, was described by the New York Times as “charming and graceful, a hostess as agreeable in manner as she was beautiful to look upon.”2

President and Mrs. Cleveland arrived at the National that Friday evening in a driving rainstorm. The house was packed, and some who hoped to view the performance were turned away. Those who were fortunate enough to secure seats had the added benefit of seeing the new Mrs. Cleveland enter on the arm of the president. They did not yet know, on that wet evening in early July, that Mrs. Cleveland was devoted to drama and that President Cleveland, who was well known for his intransigence on many issues, would succumb to his wife’s interests and become a supporter of the performing arts.

Washingtonians enjoyed their theaters and patronized them regularly. The National, located three blocks from the White House, opened in 1835. Known as “The President’s Theater,” it had burned in February 1885 and was rebuilt and opened again for performances seven months later.3 Albaugh’s Grand Opera House was completed in 1884. Constructed by the Washington Light Infantry Corps, the theater, billed as “only a trifle smaller than the Metropolitan Opera House in New York,” was built in conjunction with an armory located on Washington’s Fifteenth Street, near Pennsylvania Avenue, just a few blocks from the Executive Mansion. Harris’s Bijou Opera House was a third noted venue, in addition to other smaller theaters and summer gardens that hosted musical entertainments.4

The National Theatre seen from across Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., as First Lady Frances Cleveland would have known it.

Library of Congress

Frances Cleveland developed a love of drama as a child, and she was once quoted as saying that she could spend entire days in the theater. She had reportedly known Lawrence Barrett, a leading actor of the time most noted for his Shakespearean roles, since she was 10 years old.5 Mrs. Cleveland told another Shakespearean thespian, the Polish-born actress Madame Helena Modjeska, that she had saved her pocket money as a child so that she could attend Madame Modjeska’s performances.6

President Cleveland’s interest in theater was less conspicuous. Among friends, he was known as a gifted raconteur and mimic. However, until his marriage, there is no record of his attendance at any performances as president. When Cleveland was first inaugurated, in March 1885, the Washington Post’s drama critic, H. H. Soule, reported that a theater manager had asked, “Is the new President fond of theater-going?” Soule replied that the new president was indeed fond of the theater. He went on to describe Cleveland’s preference for light opera and comedies and mentioned his friendship with the comedy team of Robson and Crane.7 However, Frank Carpenter, a reporter assigned by the Cleveland Leader to cover the capital, noted the president’s absence at the opening of the rebuilt National Theatre in September 1885. “He is reported to be fond of the theater,” Carpenter observed in his column on the subject, “but I do not think he has seen a play since he has been in the White House.”8 Now that he was married, Cleveland attended the theater regularly.

Actors and actresses customarily sent their calling cards to dignitaries upon arriving in Washington. This was how Madame Modjeska gained an invitation from Mrs. Cleveland to spend an afternoon at the White House. The first lady declared that the actress was her favorite and expressed her admiration by lavishing the actress with attention and filling her carriage with flowers from the White House conservatory.9

Mrs. Cleveland also occasionally influenced the selection of theater performances. In May 1887, Adelina Patti, a gifted coloratura soprano and noted operatic diva, traveled to Washington to perform the role of Violetta in the Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La traviata, at Albaugh’s Opera House. In an interview a few days following the performance, Madame Patti commented that she would have preferred to have sung Lucia di Lammermoor, because she found it a more challenging role. “But I understand that Traviata was chosen to please Mrs. Cleveland and some of the ladies of the legations who wanted to see my costumes,” Madame Patti told the reporter.10

Madame Helena Modjeska, one of Mrs. Cleveland's favorite actresses.

Library of Congress

A fortuitous meeting in June 1887, between Mrs. Cleveland and Richard Watson Gilder, the commencement speaker at her alma mater, Wells College, in Aurora, New York, was the beginning of a series of friendships that connected the Clevelands to the theater. Gilder was a literary power broker who helped launch the careers of several late nineteenth-century writers, including Mark Twain and Edith Wharton. Gilder owned and published Century magazine, the literary magazine in which he serialized his chosen authors’ works. The first lady and the publisher had a shared love of literature, and at the commencement they established an instantaneous rapport. Gilder accompanied Mrs. Cleveland on the return train ride from Aurora to Washington, where she introduced him to the president.

The two New Jersey–born men found they had a lot in common. Gilder was six years younger than Cleveland, but both grew up poor, were self-educated, and had risen to the top of their chosen professions. Cleveland preferred to spend his leisure time hunting and fishing. Gilder enjoyed more refined pastimes. He and his wife, the artist and founder of the Art Students League, Helena deKay Gilder, had created a salon at their summer home, Marion, located on Buzzards Bay, in Massachusetts, where they routinely entertained writers, artists, and actors. Joseph Jefferson III, the most celebrated actor of the time and beloved for his kindness and generosity, was a neighbor. A descendant of a noted theater family, he had gained fame for his varied repertoire of characters and was best known for his portrayal of the character rip Van Winkle. Jefferson, who lived in Massachusetts and Louisiana, commuted between his two residences in a private, seagoing yacht. He was the first American actor to grow rich from his art. Not much older than Cleveland, Jefferson, like the president, was a talented storyteller.

Gilder, in his memoir, Grover Cleveland: A Record of Friendship, dates the meeting of the actor and president in 1889, following Cleveland’s reelection defeat. As Gilder recalls:

"One day soon after the first term, and while he [President Cleveland] was staying at the Victoria Hotel [in New York City], he turned to me and said: “Are there any fish up around Marion?” My answer was evasive. I said that I should not like to be responsible for the fish in our Marion waters; that my experience as a fisherman in those parts had been in the company of Joe Jefferson, and that I would therefore bring him into the case as an expert. So one day Jefferson came and told the ex-President all about the fishing in Buzzards Bay, and in the streams and lakes of Cape Cod, near the home of that great actor and enchanting personality."

On the strength of this newfound friendship, the Clevelands rented cottages for the summers of 1889 and 1890, and in 1891, they purchased a home and small farm on the bay near the Jeffersons and named it Gray Gables.11

The celebrated actor Joseph Jefferson III was a neighbor of the Clevelands on Buzzards Bay and a political supporter. He was best known for his performance as Rip Van Winkle.

Library of Congress

There are some indications that Joe Jefferson had met President Cleveland prior to this time, but, if not, the actor had formed a favorable opinion of the president. President and Mrs. Cleveland hosted a benefit performance of Jim the Penman, a drama by Sir Charles L. Young, on April 18, 1887, at the National Theatre, and held a reception for the cast at the White House.12 The benefit was for the Actors’ Fund of America, which had been founded in 1882 in response to the needs of aged actors. Joseph Jefferson, along with Mrs. Cleveland’s childhood friend Lawrence Barrett, as well as Edwin Booth and P. T. Barnum, were among the fund’s original incorporators. Barrett and Booth are mentioned as attending the charity event, but Jefferson was not. Nevertheless, the next year Jefferson told reporters that, at age 58, he would vote for the first time, casting his ballot to reelect President Cleveland. Jefferson’s three adult sons would also cast their first votes for the president. “Mr. Cleveland has given us such a quiet and conservative Administration that it should win for him the respect of every thinking man in the country,” Jefferson observed.13

However, Jefferson’s endorsement was not strong enough to win Cleveland’s reelection. On those occasions when the president worked late, a member of Congress or a cabinet member and his wife escorted Mrs. Cleveland to the theatre. In what would today be termed a political dirty trick, republicans used one of these times as a weapon to attack the president. A Massachusetts clergyman, the reverend C. H. Pendleton, charged that the president had beaten his wife when she returned to the White House after attending the theater escorted by Congressman Henry Watterson, a key ally of Cleveland’s in the battle for tariff reform. Pendleton claimed to have gotten his information from Chauncey M. Depew—a New York Republican and railroad president who had once offered Cleveland a position as legal counsel—who maintained that Watterson was his source. A scandal ensued. When a woman from Pendleton’s home state, Mrs. Maggie Nicodemus, wrote to Mrs. Cleveland to ask about the charges of abuse, the first lady took the unprecedented step of releasing her reply to major newspapers. The charges, she wrote, are “basely false,” and she stated that she “can wish the women of our country no greater blessing than that their homes and lives may be as happy and their husbands may be as kind, attentive, considerate, and affectionate as mine.”14

Given a faltering economy and soured relations with Congress, it is difficult to determine if the smear tactics affected the election outcome. Cleveland won the popular vote in the 1888 election, but he failed to gain a majority of Electoral College votes, losing his adopted state of New York. The loss was hard for the Clevelands, but it did not put an end to theater attendance. One of the last Washington performances that Mrs. Cleveland watched (without the president) before the couple left the White House was a production of McCaull’s Opera Company’s The Lady or the Tiger, performed at Albaugh’s Opera House.

President and Mrs. Cleveland enjoyed a performance of Mark Twain’s Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson in 1893.

Library of Congress

Four years later, the Clevelands were back in residence at the Executive Mansion, and Mrs. Cleveland lost no time in resuming her attendance at Washington theaters. Only a few days following the inauguration on March 4, 1893, accompanied by family friend, Commodore E. C. Benedict, and his daughter, she attended the Charles Coghlan and Company show Diplomacy, held at the Academy of Music. The following month, Mrs. Cleveland, together with three other women friends, attended Americans Abroad, also performed at the academy.

In late May 1893, two months into their second White House tenure, President Cleveland discovered a troublesome soft spot in his mouth. A biopsy of the tissue determined the lesion was cancerous, and extensive preparations were made to perform the necessary operation in the utmost secrecy. The White House announced that Mrs. Cleveland had changed her original summer plans to stay in Washington and that she would, instead, travel to Gray Gables. At the same time, reporters were informed that president was losing weight by following a new diet program. The Clevelands and their most trusted associates then executed their carefully orchestrated plans.

The events of June and July 1893 were a drama of their own. Cleveland, sequestered on Commodore Benedict’s yacht, underwent an operation at sea that removed the cancerous portion of his jaw. Mrs. Cleveland, expecting the couple’s second child, deftly turned away reporters who began to suspect something because of the president’s prolonged absences and occasional daytime glimpses of him in pajamas. Without benefit of secured communication, Mrs. Cleveland carried on with the support of her neighbors, the Jeffersons and the Gilders, who knew the details of Cleveland’s health.

A letter to Joseph Jefferson, written after Cleveland had arrived, alive, at Gray Gables, neatly sums up the frustration of the normally unflappable Frances Folsom Cleveland: “He is hard at work on his letters. It is so dreadfully hard to do anything with him. This morning when no one noticed he got a peach and ate it. Wouldn’t you think a child would have more sense after the narrow escape he had?”15

Frances Folsom Cleveland Preston enjoyed the theater and anonymity in her later years.

Library of Congress

Upon their return to Washington at the end of August, the Clevelands slowly resumed their normal routines. during the second Cleveland administration the couple attended theater even more frequently than they had during the last two years of Cleveland’s first term. However, the burdens of a highly depressed economy, together with continued concerns regarding Cleveland’s health and Mrs. Cleveland’s pregnancies, reduced some of the social and large-scale charitable activities that had marked the latter half of their initial White House years.16 Nevertheless, Mrs. Cleveland’s involvement in the theater now included support of children’s theatrical events. She attended a young actors’ performance of Jack the Giant Killer, produced by the patriotic society the Legion of Loyal Women and performed at Albaugh’s Opera House. In 1896, the Clevelands were noted attendees at two plays that gained great popularity that year. The Prisoner of Zenda won excellent reviews and created a craze in Washington during its late March and early April performances. The dramatization of Mark Twain’s Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson also opened that year. The New York Times reported that at one point, President Cleveland’s laugh was so hearty and spontaneous that it infected everyone there.17

Upon leaving the White House in March 1897, the couple purchased a home in Princeton, New Jersey, but they continued to spend their summers at Buzzards Bay. The former president and Joseph Jefferson remained regular fly-fishing companions. “In their fishing jaunts,” wrote Francis Wilson in his reminiscences of the actor, “there were rules implied and expressed. There was ‘the hour limit,’ for example. The boat once anchored remained so, no matter what fortune attended, for at least the space of an hour. Conversation might always be interrupted abruptly for good fishing, but under no circumstances, it is related, could good fishing be interrupted for conversation.”18

Francis Grover Cleveland, the couple’s youngest child, who was born in July 1903, at Buzzards Bay, maintained that Joseph Jefferson had a “prenatal influence on his career.”19 Francis inherited his father’s gift for storytelling and his mother’s love of theater. He dropped out of Harvard to pursue acting. As a young performer, Francis Grover Cleveland had roles on Broadway in Our Town, Dead End, and other plays. In 1931, together with his wife, Alice, and a friend, Edward P. Goodnow, Cleveland founded the summer theater, The Barnstormers, at his summer home in Tamworth, New Hampshire.20

In its first years, the theater’s usher was Thomas J. Preston Jr., whom the widowed Mrs. Cleveland had married in February 1913, five years after Cleveland’s death in June 1908. Professor Preston was a tall, lanky man, with something of an Old World air about him. The ticket seller was a gray-haired woman with a pleasant smile and a charming manner. Because no one recognized the woman in the box office, Frances Folsom Cleveland Preston took advantage of her hard-won anonymity to pay attention to people’s comments about the shows and pass them along to her son. The girlhood dream of the former Frances Folsom had come true: she was able to spend every day in the theater.