Rose Cleveland acted as White House hostess — or First Lady — for president Grover Cleveland prior to his marriage to Frances Folsom. Picture: Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Rose Cleveland acted as White House hostess — or First Lady — for president Grover Cleveland prior to his marriage to Frances Folsom. Picture: Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

America’s secret ‘lesbian’ First Lady

"You are mine, and I am yours, and we are one."

They are passionate words, written by former US First Lady Rose Cleveland to the love of her life - Evangeline Simpson Whipple.

But for years, that loving relationship was covered up out of fear such a high-profile same-sex relationship would prove too scandalous for the public's sensibilities.

Now the couple's relationship has finally been revealed, with their love letters printed in the newly-published book, Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple.

They reveal a fascinating insight into a decades-long love story that survived scandal, betrayal and death.

FIRST LADY

When Grover Cleveland took over the US presidency in 1885, he did so under unprecedented circumstances.

He was 50 and unmarried, and had also fathered an illegitimate child.

He needed a respectable First Lady to take the heat off, and that role fell to his sister Rose.

At the time, custom dictated that a female relative should adopt the First Lady role if a president did not have a wife.

Grover Cleveland was unmarried when he became president. Picture: AP Photo/Library of Congress
Grover Cleveland was unmarried when he became president. Picture: AP Photo/Library of Congress

Rose Cleveland, who was also unmarried, was a published author and former teacher, and she stepped into the position for 14 months until her brother wed Frances Folsom.

THE AFFAIR

In 1889, 43-year-old Ms Cleveland met widow Evangeline Simpson, who was around 10 years her junior.

According to a detailed Washington Post report by journalist Gillian Brocknell, their love letters began in April 1890, although only ones sent by the former First Lady have survived.

"My Eve! Ah, how I love you! It paralyzes me … Oh Eve, Eve, surely you cannot realize what you are to me. What you must be. Yes, I dare it, now, I will no longer fear to claim you. You are mine by every sign in Earth & Heaven, by every sign in soul & spirit & body - and you cannot escape me," Ms Cleveland wrote in April.

The next month, she followed it up with a second letter describing her passion.

Rose Cleveland, pictured with mail fraud suspect Charles Panai. Picture: Getty Images
Rose Cleveland, pictured with mail fraud suspect Charles Panai. Picture: Getty Images

"You are mine, and I am yours, and we are one, and our lives are one henceforth, please God, who can alone separate us. I am bold to say this, to pray & to live to it … I shall go to bed, Eve - with your letters under my pillow."

For six years they enjoyed extended visits to each other's homes as well as overseas holidays, although they lived in different states.

According to the Washington Post, their families were aware of the relationship and it "appears to have been accepted".

But it came to an abrupt end in 1896.

THE BETRAYAL

That year, Ms Simpson announced her surprise engagement to Bishop Henry Whipple, and although Ms Cleveland tried to talk her out of it, the pair married in October that year.

Weeks later, Ms Cleveland left the US for Europe, where she remained for three years.

The women continued to write to each other, but the letters grew increasingly formal, until Bishop Whipple's death in 1901.

Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple lived together in Italy until the former First Lady’s death. Picture: Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple lived together in Italy until the former First Lady’s death. Picture: Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

SECOND CHANCE

The spark was soon reignited after his death, and the relationship resumed.

"I need you and life is not long enough to always wait," Ms Cleveland wrote in 1909.

Next year, her wish came true. Ms Simpson Whipple's brother fell ill in Italy, and both women travelled to care for him.

They lived together in Bagni di Lucca in Tuscany for many years - right up until Ms Cleveland's death from Spanish flu in 1918.

When Ms Simpson Whipple died in 1930, she was buried next to her long-term partner of almost 30 years in an Italian cemetery.

THE LEGACY

The details of the women's relationship was not widely known, until a member of the Whipple family donated a box of documents to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1969.

According to the Washington Post, historians eventually found the letters, which were deemed too racy to be made public - a staff memo at the time noted the letters "strongly suggest that a lesbian relationship existed between the two women".

When records of the affair were discovered in 1969, it was covered up. Picture: Kingmill Marrs Photographs/Massachusetts Historical Society
When records of the affair were discovered in 1969, it was covered up. Picture: Kingmill Marrs Photographs/Massachusetts Historical Society

But in 1978, that cover up lifted - and now, America's first lesbian First Lady and the love of her life are finally being celebrated through the publication of their letters.

According to the book's official description, the letters "guide readers through new love, heartbreak, and the rekindling of a committed relationship" and brings the lovers' "poignant story back to life".

Continue the conversation @carey_alexis | alexis.carey@news.com.au



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