If ever I was a contestant on Jeopardy, and the category was “FLOTUS Facts”, and the clue was “The first lesbian First Lady of the United States,” I would squeeze my buzzer and confidently respond in the form of a question, “Who was Eleanor Roosevelt?”
But I would be wrong.
Long before the esteemed Eleanor was notoriously steaming up the White House windows with her gal pal, journalist Lorena “Hick” Hickok, another lady-loving First Lady roamed the halls in comfortable shoes.
Ever hear of Rose Cleveland? No, she wasn’t the wife of President Grover Cleveland. Elected to office in 1885 at age 52, Grover was unmarried so he asked his 39-year-old sister, Rose, also unmarried, to fulfill FLOTUS duties of hosting receptions, making small talk with the wives of visiting dignitaries, and such. But Rose wasn’t crazy about her new job as the country’s most scrutinized social maven. She much preferred her teaching career at an all-girls’ school. There’s our first clue.
What kind of hostess was Rose? Was she a multi-lingual, Jacqueline-Kennedy type? Sort of. Rose hated those long hand-shaking receiving lines but was quite fond of a foreign tongue. While pretending to be impressed by world leaders like Kaiser Wilhelm, she often resorted to mentally conjugating Greek verbs — which sounds like a nasty euphemism. “Hey baby, I wanna conjugate your Greek verbs all night long tonight.”
The Washington elite didn’t care for Rose, and it wasn’t because she served wings and nachos at State Dinners. They characterized her as a “bluestocking,’ which was a derogatory term for an intellectual or literary woman. She actually dared to author a best-selling book of poetry under the pseudonym “George Elliot.”
Imagine the horror of having an intellectual or literary woman as First Lady. Thank goodness, we don’t have to worry about that today.
And Bluestocking Rose even lectured.
“We must each find a true partner, someone who understands and appreciates us, someone, whose faith in us brings out our best efforts,” she said in one such address. “Our deepest craving is for recognition — to be known by another human being for what we truly are.”
If Ellen DeGeneres had had a talk show in the late 19th century, Rose surely would have been a guest.
The press of the day didn’t approve of Rose, especially finding fault with her manner of dress. Apparently she was fond of frocks that exposed her arms and shoulders. That fashion choice might have been more acceptable if Rose’s hair was long enough to cover those tawdry shoulders. She wore her hair curly, short, and sensible. Hmmm.
Tongues really were set a-wagging when Rose invited her friend Annie Van Vechten for a month-long stay. They did scandalous things together like hosting tea parties and attending church. Maybe they conjugated Greek verbs. More notable was the fact that Rose fell into a deep state of depression when Annie left.
We all know that the best way to get over one woman is to get under another one, and that’s exactly what Rose did. In the winter of 1889, Rose met the love of her life, Evangeline Simpson, while vacationing in Florida.
Evangeline was a rich widow-woman. When the two met, they shared “an instant connection,” according to Smithsonian Magazine.
When spring returned, they both went back to their respective homes in D.C. and Massachusetts, but they kept in touch through the mail which conveniently was delivered twice daily in that era. That’s almost as good as FaceTime.
Remember, Rose was a word girl who knew how to sling a sentence together to set a mood. Hell, she was a published poet.
“My Eve! A, 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 and Heaven, by every sign in soul and spirit and body — and you cannot escape me. You must bear me all the way, Eve….”
Eve didn’t stand a chance against Rose’s pen. Bear her, she did.
Eventually, the two and purchased a home together in Florida, which they called Mar-A-Lesbo. (OK, I made that name up.)
Sadly, Eve left Rose after several years to marry a much older, much richer man. Hussy. But when the old guy died, Rose and Eve have reunited yet again. They moved to Italy and lived together until 1918 when Rose succumbed to the influenza epidemic. They were buried side-by-side when Eve passed 12 years later.
There is no question that Rose Cleveland was the United States’ first lesbian FLOTUS. You can read more about Rose and Eve in Lizzie Ehrenhalt and Tilly Laskey in their book, Precious and Adored.
The only question that remains is, why hasn’t a movie been made of this beautiful love story? Siri, call Netflix.