Three stories of love in the White House

National Constitution Center

Yes, it’s Valentine’s Day–and in a romantic tribute to couples everywhere, it’s time to turn back the pages of history to remember three unusual White House romances.

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Frances Cleveland

Frances Cleveland

Frances Cleveland

The home of the U.S. president since late in the John Adams administration, the White House has seen its share of drama.

But of all the 43 men who served as president since 1789, only three have gotten married while they were serving as president.

Two presidents were widowed and married again, while a third was a bachelor who shocked Washington when he chose a wife.

John  and Julia Tyler

President John Tyler arrived at the White House under unusual circumstances. Chosen as the running mate of William Henry Harrison in 1840, Tyler unexpectedly became president when Harrison died in 1841.

Tyler, who had been a Democrat in the past, quarreled with his newfound allies in the Whig party. Party leader Henry Clay tried his best to get Tyler to quit office; ultimately, the Whigs simply kicked the president out of the party.

But the biggest threat to Tyler’s presidency came as he was romancing a young woman in 1844.

Before running in the 1840 election, Tyler’s first wife, Letitia, had suffered a stroke and had serious health problems. She lived in the White House for almost a year until she passed away in 1842.

A year later, a beautiful young woman named Julia Gardiner came to the capital from Long Island. Tyler started pursing a relationship with Gardiner soon after her arrival, despite the 30-year age difference.

In 1844, as Tyler was courting Gardner, her family was invited to join the president on an inspection trip on the frigate Princeton.

Tragedy struck when a gun exploded on the Princeton during a demonstration, killing Gardiner’s father and several Cabinet members. Tyler had been detained on his way to the top deck, narrowly avoiding death.

They were married in a private ceremony in New York in June 1844. The couple left the White House eight months later and had seven children. (Tyler had eight children with his first wife.)

Grover and Frances Cleveland

Forty years later, Grover Cleveland was elected president and entered the White House as a bachelor. He left four years later as a happily married man–who had lost an election. But in another four years, he returned to serve a second term in office.

Like Tyler, there was a considerable age difference between the president and his future wife.

Frances Folsom was the daughter of Cleveland’s law partner, Oscar Folsom. Cleveland first met her as an infant when he was visiting Folsom as a 27-year-old friend.

Frances lost her father when Oscar Folsom was killed in a carriage accident when she was 11 years old. Cleveland was appointed to oversee her father’s estate, but he wasn’t her legal guardian.

When Cleveland took office, there was talk that he would get married to Frances’ mother, Emma Folsom, since the family was seen visiting the White House quite often.

It then came as a huge shock when the 49-year-old president announced to the nation–five days before the ceremony–that he was marrying the 21-year-old Folsom.

The small, private ceremony was in the White House, with John Philip Sousa conducting the band. But Frances, who reporters had nicknamed “Frankie,” caused a media sensation.

Cleveland admonished the press during their honeymoon, but it didn’t stop the national obsession with the first lady. In many ways, she was the most visible first lady since Dolley Madison as a fashion icon and community figure.

Frances Cleveland was the youngest first lady and the only one to have a child in the White House (the couple had five children total). She was also the only first lady to serve two separate terms.

Woodrow and Edith Wilson

Edith Bolling Wilson was another important first lady who served a quiet yet important role when her husband was felled by a stroke while in office.

Edith Wilson had been married before; her first husband died unexpectedly in 1908. Six years later, she was introduced to President Woodrow Wilson at the White House by Wilson’s cousin.

The president’s first wife, Ellen, had died in August 1914. Edith Wilson met the president in March 1915, starting a whirlwind 10-month courtship that ended in marriage.

The couple was wed in a private ceremony at the bride’s house in Washington. Wilson was 58 and his bride was 43 at the time of the wedding.

In October 1919, President Wilson suffered a stroke that left him partially incapacitated. The first lady’s role as the “unofficial president” is controversial to this day.

Writing in her memoirs, Edith Wilson said she screened reports and notices for her husband, and under the advice of his doctors, let the official members of the president’s administration run the government.

But historians believe she played a much bigger role in deciding some presidential matters until Wilson recovered enough to become more involved in the government.

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