Skip to content Skip to navigation

A Lesbian First Lady in the White House

Monday, June 3, 2019 - 07:00

OK, I confess that the blog title is unabashed click-bait. But the story behind it is deeply fascinating and ultimately satisfying. The image of 19th century "romantic friends" as involving flowery, sentimental language that is purely conventional in content and not to be taken as *gasp* implying an erotic relationship is eroded a bit every time a collection of private records such as this comes to light. Not to say that all "romantic friends" can be assumed to include sexual relationships, but that such a possibility should never be categorically excluded. What makes this book valuable is not only that it presents the full, unabridged correspondence between Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, but that it has been contextualized in a sympathetic and open-minded way with a detailed historic apparatus that provides the reader with the background, not only of these two women, but of how their relationship was presented and understood, both privately and publicly.

I'm still amused at the thought that I'm receiving review copies of books I can include in the Project. (I actually received this to review for The Lesbian Review, not specifically for the LHMP.) Now if only I could convince some of the really really expensive academic presses to make similar offers!

This post marks the 250th publication covered by the Project. Maybe I should have treated it as more of an important symbolic event. It's hard not to look at the 600+ titles in my cumulative database and, rather than thinking "wow, look at what I've accomplished," instead think, "I'm never going to catch up!" But at the very least I can look at that list and be confident that at some point I'll be able to celebrate having covered 500 publications. (And by then, I'll probably be able to look confidently ahead to 1000.)

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Ehrenhalt, Lizzie and Tilly Laskey (eds). 2019. Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, 1890-1918. Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul. ISBN 978-1-68134-129-3

This is a deeply contextualized edition of the correspondence of romantic partners Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, covering the period from around their first meeting in 1890 to Cleveland’s death during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. There is a foreward from Lillian Faderman who situates them within the context of Romantic Friendship and notes how the content of the letters explodes the illusion that such relationships were passionless and non-sexual (though she describes the relationship as “one of the most remarkable love relationships between women in American History” which seems to me to contradict one of the important points, which is how normal and ordinary they were within their historic context).

Unlike their contemporaries of the professional classes who formed long-term domestic partnerships known as “Boston marriages,” Rose and Evangeline were wealthy enough that not only could economics not be used as an excuse for sharing a household, but their business concerns and social responsibilities prevented such an arrangement for much of the time they knew each other. Faderman also notes that, while there were a number of social framings for women who loved women available in the later 19th century, most of them had associations that women such as Rose and Evangeline would have rejected.

The preface outlines how author Tilly Laskey stumbled on the correspondence presented in this volume and how, after something of a pilgrimage to the town in Italy where Rose and Evangeline finally lived together as a couple, she determined to put together this edition. It is presented in the tradition of a local history project, based on the collection of Whipple family papers curated by the Minnesota Historical Society, but with the advantage (to queer-friendly readers) of being written at a time when the implied sexuality of the correspondents is not seen as scandalous or derogatory. (As opposed to 1969 when the material was first reviewed by an archivist and locked away as too “sexually suggestive.”)

The introductory material provides a detailed history of the two women, their social and business connections, the path of their relationship (which included Rose’s heartbreak when Evangeline entered into her second marriage with Henry Whipple, the first Episcopalian bishop of Minnesota), and how they renewed their bond after his death and eventually moved to Italy to live as a couple. One of the central considerations is the strongly passionate and erotic nature of Rose’s letters to Evangeline (the other side of the correspondence was not preserved) and how the two women understood the nature of their feelings for each other. I’m going to summarize the basic features, but the meat of this book is the verbatim transcripts of the letters themselves.

Rose Cleveland (1846-1918) was the sister of U.S. president Grover Cleveland and served as First Lady (official White House hostess) during the initial part of his first term until his marriage. But apart from that, she was an educator and author, successful enough that she was financially independent and able to make shrewd real estate investments. The social prominence from her time as First Lady helped maintain her popularity as an author, which in turn supported her continued financial success. Rose was considered something of a bluestocking and used her White House position in support of various reform movements including women’s suffrage, temperance, abolitionism, and Indigenous sovereignty. This prominence also subjected her to public scrutiny and her name was linked to a number of close female friends (including Evelyn Ames who was a close companion and business partner during her estrangement from Evangeline) though there is no concrete evidence for any of those relationships having the same romantic/erotic components as the correspondence with Evangeline offers.

Evangeline Simpson Whipple was propelled into wealth from more humble beginnings by a brief marriage to an elderly textile merchant and philanthropist. (He was 73 at the beginning of their two-year marriage.) His death left her an extremely wealthy widow at age 28, whereupon she became the support of her family and took up the successful management of her late husband’s ventures.

The two women met around 1890 in Florida where both had real estate investments and Rose’s letters (beginning in April 1890) indicate a passionate attachment between them that clearly had an erotic component.

“My Eve! Ah, how I love you! I paralyzes me. I have been going over & over your written words until the full message of them--some of them--has made me weary with emotion. This I must try and escape, for your sake. But let me cry & shout it. Oh Eve, Eve, surely you cannot realize what you are to me. What you must be. Yes, I dare it, now, I will not 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. You must bear me all the way, Eve; clasp me in my despair of any other and give me every joy & all hope--this is yours to do.” (April 23, 1890)

Although they didn’t share a permanent household, the two traveled together extensively, including a trip through Europe  and the Middle East in 1891-93.

But Evangeline was also susceptible to the courtship of another member of their social circle, Henry Whipple, the first Episcopal bishop of Minnesota. And there are suggestions in the correspondence that--without a clear social framework for understanding romantic relations between women as being of equivalent importance--the combination of Whipple’s personal charms and religious charisma hit a chord. Rose pleaded her case: “I will give up all to you if you will try once more to be satisfied with me. Could you not take six months for that experiment? We would go away from everyone.”

Whether due to a stronger attachment (she was clearly genuinely in love with Whipple) or to the attractions of convention, Evangeline became Mrs. Whipple and spent five years immersed in supporting Whipple’s professional and charitable endeavors until his death. (He was 74 when they married, and 36 years older than Evangeline.) Rose wrote both of her hurt and her acceptance: “I will not stand in the way. That means that I will study only for your comfort and pleasure and happiness... What is yet for us I cannot see. But I think you will need me yet--in a future, perhaps.”

They continued to correspond and meet socially, though Rose’s extended trip abroad in company with Evelyn Ames shortly thereafter can’t help but be seen as something of a rebound. That future did arrive, however. After Henry Whipple’s death, Evangeline remained in Minnesota for nine years, continuing her late husband’s projects, but with regular travels that intersected with Rose. Then, in the years leading up to 1910, Rose made various arrangements to sort out her business affairs, feeling that she wasn’t as able to keep up the same level of activity in her 60s. In 1909 she wrote to Evangeline, “I need you and life is not long enough to always wait.”

The next year, perhaps with the excuse that Evangeline’s brother had fallen ill in Italy, the two of them traveled together to be with him until his death two years later. And then they stayed. They settled in the small mountain town of Bagni di Lucca, perhaps because of its English expatriate community and Anglican church, as well as literary associations. They purchased property there, supported a social community of female associates, and worked tirelessly in social services during World War I and after when the area was flooded with refugees and hit by the flu epidemic. Both Rose and their close friend Nelly Erichsen died of influenza while nursing the sick. Evangeline continued living in Bagni di Lucca until shortly before her own death in 1930 and her body was returned there to be buried next to Rose, with matching headstones.

Rose’s letters to Evangeline were not written with a thought for public consumption. They are candid in their passion and eroticism, as well as being largely filled with the minutiae of everyday life. The accident of their preservation (note that Evangeline’s letters to Rose did not survive except in quoted responses) is largely due to the fact that Evangeline doesn’t appear to have intended her move to Italy to be permanent. Her house was shut up, intact, for her return, which never happened. It was willed to a charitable organization which disposed of some of the contents, but the vast quantity of Whipple family papers were acquired by various local historical societies and the letters themselves were not identified until a cataloging project in the 1960s.

It is interesting that a certain amount of how Rose talks about love revolves around the inexpressibility of what she feels (while simultaneously clearly expressing it). There is a sense of a self-conscious censorship in naming their emotions, a sense of falling back on plausible deniability of what the content makes clear. This is present not only in the letters to Evangeline, but also letters to others in their social circle such as Evangeline’s mother, to whom Rose writes, “There are some things we both know and feel which we shall never, never say to each other. But I want to say that I shall never, never cease to be Eva’s if she ever needs me again.” (Written a month after Evangeline’s marriage to Henry Whipple.) The letters use the language not only of romantic love but of legal oaths that evoke marriage and commitment. And the correspondence around Evangeline’s marriage makes it clear that Rose considered it a heartbreaking betrayal of what she considered a competing bond. What makes their story special is how their paths returned to each other, in time for them to renew and enjoy that bond.

[Note: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. No money was exchanged for the inclusion of this book in the LHMP.]

Time period: 
Place: 
historical