Frances Clara Folsom was born in Buffalo, New York, to Emma Harmon and Oscar Folsom. The gregarious Folsom patriarch had formed a law partnership with the quiet, meticulous Grover Cleveland, and as such the future president knew “Frank” since she was born. When Folsom was killed in a carriage accident in 1875, Cleveland took over as executor of the family’s estate; he did not become Frances’s legal guardian, as was mistakenly reported, but he did provide guidance when she was in the area between stints at school and stays with relatives in Michigan.
Frances was visiting the new president in the White House in March 1885 when he expressed his desire to marry her. The news came as a shock to Emma Folsom, who believed that she would be the one to marry the bachelor president, but she did not stand in the way. After graduating from Wells College that year, Frances was sent with her mother on a tour of Europe to learn about aristocratic customs and protocol. She returned to the United States with the public eager to learn more about the young first lady-to-be, and was married to Cleveland on June 2, 1886, in the Blue Room of the White House.
An immensely popular public figure, Frances found her image being used without permission to sell an array of items that included sewing kits, cigar boxes, calendars, perfume and candy. That prompted one Congressman to introduce a bill to stymie such blatant commercialization, though it never came to a vote. Cleveland frowned upon the excessive attention given to his wife, but he realized her importance to his reelection chances in 1888. Frances was featured in campaign literature and paraphernalia, even appearing as the centerpiece of one poster between Cleveland and running mate Allen Thurman.
With the president adamant that “a woman should not bother her head about political parties and public questions,” Frances made no attempt to influence policy as first lady. But she was hardly a figurehead, as she supported the Washington Home for Friendless Colored Girls and joined the Wells College board of trustees. She used her position to help women in the male-dominated field of professional music, notably sponsoring a promising violinist who went on to earn a prestigious German scholarship. And despite her youth and inexperience, Frances became renowned for her skills as a White House hostess.
Following Cleveland’s death in 1908, Frances married Wells College art history professor Thomas J. Preston Jr. in 1913. She remained outwardly non-partisan but active in her post-White House years, serving leadership roles within the National Security League and the Needlework Guild of America. Just 32 when the second Cleveland administration ended, she was younger than each of her successors until Woodrow Wilson married Edith Bolling Galt in 1915. She also lived longer than any other first lady after leaving the position, surviving another 51 years until her death in 1947.