Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Ye Olde Sex Scandals: Grover Cleveland's Love Child

RUN GROVER RUNOh, to be a governor of New York–if you're not dealing with a sex scandal, you're not doing it right. Take the case of our 22nd and 24th President, Grover Cleveland. (The only guy to serve two nonconsecutive terms, and the second bachelor–but not for long–to take office.) If there's one thing that's true, it's this: a bachelor politician equals girl trouble for sure.

Freed from the freezing shackles of Buffalo, where he was mayor, the New York governor was kicking it in Albany with his political shtick of "honesty"–which gave him the nickname "Grover the Good"–when the Democrats decided that he was the best candidate for President in June of 1884. He appealed to both Democrats and reform-minded Republicans (who were referred to disparagingly by The New York Sun as "Mugwumps"; they later reclaimed this term as a point of pride), and who hated candidate James G. Blaine for his ties to the railroads and stocks. Cleveland's campaign had the slogan "Public Office is a Public Trust," coined by reporter William H. Hudson.


Yes, from the beginning, Cleveland was a nice boy!

On July 21, 1884, though, the Buffalo Evening Telegraph tried to change the game on Cleveland, with an article: "A Terrible Tale: A Dark Chapter in a Public Man's History." This bombshell, subtitled 'The Pitiful Story of Maria Halpin and Governor Cleveland's Son,' detailed, according to Republican loyalist and pastor Reverend George H. Ball, how the rotund bachelor Cleveland "seduced" a Buffalo resident–and likely wanton woman–named Maria Halpin, who had his now ten-year-old son out of wedlock. It was, "an epic of moral depravity…between brothel and the family, indecency and decency, between lust and law."

This was a salacious piece, and was doomed to irrelevancy-until the Blaine-supporting Boston Review took it up. Scandal ensued, and the story broke nationally. (The Nation, it should be noted, said that Cleveland's sin should be a disqualifier if the opponent was good "in all other ways"-but Blaine was a dick, essentially, and Cleveland's indiscretion was just in the tradition of randy politicians.) The Republicans started bringing children to Cleveland rallies to chant: "Ma, ma, where's my pa?"

A Study In Character

So how did Cleveland deal with it? As relayed in a public telegram, he simply decided to: "Tell the truth." He admitted he had relations with that woman, but that so had other men in Buffalo at the time. Since he was the only bachelor in his group of friends, he decided to take responsibility for the child and to send money. (Shades of Andrew Young, but, you know, in this case money was being give to the baby.)

The child was named Oscar Folsom Halpin, after Cleveland's law partner and best friend, Oscar Folsom. Folsom was married but also a suspected baby daddy. Later Cleveland would marry Folsom's daughter, Frances, while he was in office-but long after she had become his ward, as Oscar Folsom (maybe-pere) had died in a wagon accident.

Despite the scandal, Cleveland squeaked into office with a mere one quarter of one percent of the popular vote and a slim electoral lead. What ended up helping him was Blaine's mistakes. He had scandals: a shotgun wedding in Pennsylvania and another one (to the same woman) in Kentucky, when he was twenty. (He didn't come clean in the press-and was apparently his wife was six months pregnant when they wed.)

His big mouth didn't help: he said the Democratic party aligned itself with "rum, Romanism, and rebellion." This offended New York City's Irish Catholic voters, and he lost thousands of supporters to Cleveland. He lost because Cleveland's shtick was "honesty," and when this love child thing broke, he went pretty much straight out with it.

With Cleveland's democratic victory, the Republican's chant of "Ma, ma, where's my pa?" had "Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!" added onto it, and another chant was born: "Hurray for Maria! Hurray for the kid! I voted for Cleveland, and I'm dammed glad I did!"

And for the son of an "honest" man (who was, let's be honest, quite possibly the son of his business partner), the story of Oscar Folsom gets epic: Cleveland committed the alcoholic mother to an asylum after Oscar's birth, placing the boy in an orphanage. When she got out, she kidnapped the kid from the orphanage, and Cleveland stepped in, to try to set her up in business. When that failed, he gave her money to give up the child, and Oscar was adopted by a New York family. This Dickensian lifestyle led to the presidential love child changing his name.

The moral? Bring out your, let's say, "life complications" right away. One's admitted screw-ups are never a betrayal. It's a moral that certainly would've changed the insane, disastrous trajectory of John Edwards' staggering-and currently unavoidable-narrative of hubris and lies.

Cleveland, of course, was also lucky enough to have an opponent that self-immolated in a fit of Irish Catholic slurs. Ultimately, Cleveland beat Blaine with what are still the two most successful political tactics available: honesty and running against an idiot.

Elisabeth Donnelly finds the song "Love Child" to be really poignant.

18 Comments / Post A Comment

Cleveland was the only Democrat from Buchanan to Wilson, but was very conservative, even refusing the provide seeds to farmers whose crops had been wiped out so they could at least plant again the next year, leading Wilson to say upon his inauguration that in fact he, Wilson, was the first Democrat elected since Buchanan. I like to think of Cleveland as an early Bill Clinton and Obama, as the first Democrat elected since Carter, if not Johnson.

I'm serious, I like to think that. Sometimes when I'm driving I just pull over and think that. For fun.

I'm guessing that you have an extra "history lobe" in your brain or something, because I can't even think that sitting very still here at my desk, staring at what you wrote. Well done!

wiilliiaamm (#225)

There is a bar in midtown called Rudys. Long before the $2 redstripes and free hotdogs caught anyones fancy…it was a good midday drinking bar for skilled alcoholics (there was also one or two dependable coke dealers in residence). One of the oldtimers who occupied the same seat from 11am till about 4pm could give you the most detailed account of his dalliances with Mamie Eisehhower…yea…Mamie Eisenhower. Dude had her rockin his world while the General was building the worlds greatest highway system.

Admittedly, she does look like a good time. There's probably some serious mid-1950s partying going on just outside the crop on that photo.

Not pictured: Mr. Eisenhower.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

A bachelor politician equals… Ed Koch?

Tuna Surprise (#573)

Bachelor = unmarried man.
Confirmed bachelor = gay man. Koch is the latter.

Screen Name (#2,416)

"What of it? We did not enter our man in this race as a gelding." Perhaps now is the time to introduce a certain southern senator to the work of one Dr. Prudence Gourguechon.

I wanna know what's in footnote 14.

Screen Name (#2,416)

14. Senator Thomas Clay McCreery (D-KY) made the statement referring to Cleveland as "our man" the "gelding" to reporters from the Albany Times-Union while attending the races at Saratoga Race Course. Given national interest in Cleveland's scandal, the statement was widely reported in the press. What went unreported, however, was that McCreery did not make the statement about Cleveland at all, but was instead trying to explain why he staggered, without pants, out onto the course during the fourth race, flask in hand, and attempted to "mount" the numbers two, three, four and seven horses before he was escorted back to his seat. The race was declared no-contest and all wagers were refunded. "What of it?" a furious, and clearly drunk, McCreery shouted at reporters later that night at the Adelphi Hotel bar, when asked about the incident. "We did not enter our man in this race as a gelding."

Well done, sir/madam.

I'd bone a guy named Grover, provided he didn't do the funny voice while we were in flagrante delicto.

rj77 (#210)



Bittersweet (#765)


Well done.

Cleveland aside, a lot of the parallels between Gilded Age America and What We Have Today are pretty damn startling.

rj77 (#210)

Thanks to my junior year history teacher I'll forever know him as Grover the Rover. Miss Chandler, you were the bomb.

Ron Obvious (#351)

But the Page Six material didn't stop with Cleveland's first election. He caught hell from the press during his second term for having surgery on his cancerous jaw and not telling the public about it until it was over. And he married his very young foster daughter, Frances Folsom (Oscar Folsom's daughter), while he was in the White House. And Cleveland never hid the fact that as a sheriff back in Buffalo, he had personally supervised two executions, including pulling the lever that opened the trap door on the gallows. Grover Cleveland, renaissance man and a guy I'd like to have a beer with!

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