By Jeff Dufour - 01/25/06 12:00 AM EST
Modern-day tabloid newspapers, to say nothing of blogs, People magazine and “Entertainment Tonight,” would have had a field day covering the events of June 2, 1886.
On that day, President Grover Cleveland, a lifelong bachelor, finally took the plunge, in the only White House wedding in history to involve the president himself.
It was quite an event, with entertainment by John Philip Sousa’s band, a 20-pound salmon fished out of the Connecticut River, a 25-pound wedding cake shipped from Manhattan and an arc of flowers over one of the doorways that spelled out “E pluribus unum.”
But the wedding itself couldn’t match the intrigue surrounding the unique bride and groom. The daughter of Cleveland’s former law partner, Frances Folsom was 27 years the president’s junior. Some accounts even had him having purchased her first baby carriage.
When her father, Charles Folsom, died tragically in an 1875 accident, Cleveland became her legal guardian. Although he didn’t fulfill many fatherly duties, eyebrows were certainly raised in polite society when he began to court her in her late teens.
So interested were the media in the relatively small, low-key event (Cleveland himself worked until 7 p.m. that night) that the president played a trick on the media. He sent two of his guests into the carriage, which the media dutifully followed, allowing him and his new bride to depart later, unmolested.
There have been about 30 other major weddings at 1600 Pennsylvania, some even approaching the status of and interest generated by Cleveland’s nuptials.
Many historians still list the marriage of Maria Hester Monroe, daughter of James Monroe, and Samuel Gouverneur as the first White House ceremony. But according to Wilbur Cross, author of White House Weddings, that distinction went to Supreme Court Justice Thomas Todd and Lucy Washington, the widowed sister of Dolley Madison. In 1812, they were married in the Blue Room in a ceremony that was “so quiet it barely received a mention in the press.”
The Monroe-Gouverneur wedding was the first of a presidential daughter, and the first to generate the kind of buzz about town one might expect. Only three years after the White House was reconstructed following its destruction in the War of 1812, the media and polite Washington society alike were greatly anticipating the event.
But Maria’s sister, Eliza, who had taken over much of the social planning, “announced brusquely that the wedding was to be strictly a private affair,” Cross wrote. After the ceremony, a round of balls and parties was scheduled, “which it was hoped would assuage the hurt feelings being nursed by Washington socialites.” But even this gesture was for naught, as they all had to be canceled two weeks later when Commodore Stephen Decatur was killed in a duel, throwing the city into mourning.
The Monroe wedding took place in the East Room, a choice followed by the daughters of presidents Grant, Teddy Roosevelt and Johnson.
Nellie Grant’s marriage to Algernon Sartoris was called at the time the greatest wedding in the history of the White House. Some 75 carriages carried the guests to 1600 Pennsylvania, and Walt Whitman composed a poem to commemorate the occasion.
On Feb. 17, 1906, Alice Roosevelt married future Speaker of the House Nicholas Longworth before 1,000 guests at the White House. The House, in deference to Longworth, then a rank-and-file member, adjourned for the day.
The LBJ and Nixon administrations ushered in an era of “can you top this?” in their children’s weddings.
When Luci Baines Johnson married Pat Nugent on Aug. 6, 1966, they were attended by 10 bridesmaids, 12 ushers, a matron of honor, flower girl and ring bearer. Their wedding cake was a 13-tier, 300-pound behemoth.
They were married not in the White House but in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, returning to the president’s mansion for the reception.
Her sister, Lynda Johnson, had a White House ceremony, however, when she married future Sen. Chuck Robb (D-Va.) on Dec. 9, 1967.
Not to be outdone, Tricia Nixon was the first person to marry outdoors at the White House, in the Rose Garden, when she wed presidential aide Edward Cox on June 12, 1971.
Her dress made its way to the White House under the watch of designer Priscilla Kidder and a phalanx of armed Secret Service agents. A cover story in Life magazine reported that the group purchased a first-class seat for the dress to ensure its safe passage to Washington.
The June issue was the second cover story for the couple that year. Life covered their romance in a January cover story.