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a secret life

25 may 2012

Until I read Charles Lachman's Secret Life, I subscribed to the received view of the famous sex scandal that nearly scuttled Grover Cleveland's 1884 Presidential campaign. Cleveland himself never denied fathering a child by Maria Halpin; he simply said (or strongly implied) that their affair was consensual and that he'd behaved as well as a gentleman should. His cronies insinuated that Halpin had behaved worse. The picture of her that has come down in biographies is that of a vengeful scorned woman who drove Cleveland nuts and eventually went nuts herself. Lachman, drawing on long-buried archival material, strongly questions this narrative.

Maria Halpin swore, in an affidavit, that Cleveland had dinner with her once, raped her afterwards, threatened her, denied her the cover of a face-saving marriage or even child support. He then, she said, kidnapped her and her child, incarcerated her in an asylum, paid her off with hush money, and made sure their son disappeared.

Lachman's countervailing evidence (from these affidavits, and from testimony in a later libel case arising from the scandal) turns the episode into one of the great he-said/she-said stories of history. Neither version is unbelievable. I will say that the forcible-rape version does not sound like Grover Cleveland. Well, not that I knew him or anything. Here's a man who was (oddly enough) good otherwise at avoiding scandal, a circumspect climber of the political ladder. Would he rape Halpin and then tell her "he was determined to ruin me, if it cost him ten thousand dollars, if he was hanged by the neck for it"? (289) Something doesn't add up. Not necessarily that she would even then hope for marriage, or that she would name her son after Cleveland and Cleveland's best friend Oscar Folsom: Victorian women's options often lay only in degrees of submissiveness. No, what rings false is this picture of Grover Cleveland.

Of course, many a rapist has depended on just such dissonances in the courtroom – and has defended himself by tarnishing his victim's reputation. I referred to Halpin anonymously in my review of Henry Graff's recent book on Cleveland as "an unstable woman of the Buffalo demimonde," the impression I'd gathered from Graff and that he had gathered from scholars going back to the great Allan Nevins. At the very least, Lachman establishes that this picture is unfair to Halpin. She was not a demimondaine, not (at least visibly) a party girl, let alone a call girl. She was a shop assistant of genteel credentials, a widow with children. She survived the scandal by many years, marrying twice again, and not becoming the madwoman of legend.

One can't adjudicate a 140-year-old snarling match. I'm tempted to say that both Halpin and Cleveland behaved like difficult people in the trying circumstances. If it's reasonable to conclude that they had a consensual relationship, then it's also reasonable to conclude that Cleveland strongarmed Halpin into silence (unsuccessfully, as it turned out).

A Secret Life is full of miscellaneous items of interest about Cleveland. He was a massively uninteresting President, but a distinctive character in the annals of American manhood. Much of Lachman's narrative is taken up with the President's courtship of Frances Folsom, his late friend Oscar's daughter. That courtship went on practically since Frances' birth, in terms that Lachman frankly calls "creepy" at one point. He was waiting for his bride to grow up, Cleveland liked to say. When she turned 21 and was fixing to graduate from college, he put on a charm offensive. She was elfin and nubile, a true fashion plate. He was 300 pounds, twice her age, and addicted to cigars – not to mention embroiled in a vicious sex scandal. But if you ever doubted that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, think about the story of Grover and Frances Cleveland.

Frances would outlive Grover by almost 40 years, becoming the forgotten grande dame of American politics. (Lachman tells a hilarious story of Dwight Eisenhower meeting Frances at a banquet in 1946 and hearing her mention that she'd lived in Washington: "Where?" asked Ike.) Lachman doesn't follow the Cleveland children far into their own lives, but a little Googling will reveal that Esther Cleveland (the only Presidential child born in the White House) was the mother of the late distinguished philosopher Philippa Foot, and that Francis Cleveland was a Broadway actor who was featured in the original production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. This is pretty cool stuff to know, if useless as hell.

Lachman does track down the most famous (in some ways) of all Grover Cleveland's children. Maria Halpin's son disappeared from the record even as the scandal unfolded in 1884. Lachman connects the dots and proposes that "Oscar Folsom Cleveland" became James E. King Jr, a prominent Buffalo professor of gynecology who died childless in 1947. This appears to be a completely new attribution, and hasn't worked its way into reference sources yet. It's unsensational and quite believable, however. King's father John Sr had delivered Halpin's baby, and his wife Sarah had ample opportunity and motive to spirit the child away. I like to imagine the elderly doctor on holiday in Manhattan in 1938, watching his much younger half-brother in Our Town – and being unable to meet him or reveal their family connection, if he even knew about it himself.

I must note peevishly that the production values of this Skyhorse Publishing book are low. Words run together, the central section of photographs was apparently assembled at random, and there's a weird recurrent cupertino in which what can only be "Miss" in original documents and quotations is repeatedly replaced with "Ms." Lachman's thought-provoking text needs better formatting.

Lachman, Charles. A Secret Life: The sex, lies, and scandals of President Grover Cleveland. New York: Skyhorse, 2011.