Frances was born in Buffalo, NY on July 21, 1864. Her mother was Emma Harmon Folsom Perrine. Frances had one sister, Nellie Augusta Folsom, who died less than two months after birth. Frances was 5'7" tall and had black hair and dark blue eyes. In 1881 at age 17, she dropped out of high school in her senior year, but completed her course of study through certification. She attended Wells College in, Aurora, New York at one of the first U.S. liberal arts colleges for women. She developed her passion for photography and was active in the theater club, building sets, sewing costumes and acting. She was also a member of the Phoenix Society, a debating club.
Cleveland had proposed to Frances in the spring of 1885 during a visit she and her mother made to Washington. Emma Folsom was not initially pleased with the engagement, believing that it was she and not her daughter to whom Cleveland might have proposed marriage. The President wanted Frances Folsom to tour Europe and understand the continent's more formal social customs and protocol, as well as visit historic sites to prepare her for the public appearances she would immediately be asked to make as First Lady.
The couple were married on June 2, 1886 in the Blue Room of the White House. Frances Folsom Cleveland was the youngest presidential wife to become First Lady and is also the only First Lady to be married in the White House. The couple spent their honeymoon in a private cabin at Deer Park Lodge in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland. Cleveland purchased a 27 acre working farm in the Georgetown Heights section of Washington, later to be called "Cleveland Park." The house afforded the privacy for the couple and they only lived at the White House during the active social season, from November to December and then from February to April. The other house was called "Oak View" by the First Lady but always known as "Red Top" because the roof was painted red. The Clevelands sold the property at a considerable profit when they left Washington in 1889. When they returned to Washington for the second Cleveland term in 1893, they rented a home called "Woodley."
The couple had six children; four daughters and two sons: Ruth Cleveland (born October 3, 1891), Esther Cleveland (born September 9, 1893), Marion Cleveland (born July 7, 1895), Richard Folsom "Dick" Cleveland (born October 28, 1897) and Francis Grover Cleveland (born July 18, 1903). In 1921, the Curtis Candy Company honored Ruth Cleveland by naming one of its candy bars "Baby Ruth" in her honor. Esther Cleveland is the only child of a President who was born in the White House.
Frances Folsom Cleveland did not participate in the 1884 election of her future husband and did not attend the 1885 Inauguration because she could not get permission to take leave time as she completed her last year at Wells College. Cleveland 's political enemies spread rumors about his wife in order to discredit him. A Republican after-dinner speaker spread a false rumor that Frances Cleveland was having an affair with newspaper editor Henry Watterson. Just before the 1888 Democratic National Convention, Democratic opponents of Cleveland published accusations that the president beat his wife and mother-in-law. Frances Cleveland issued a formal statement denying the allegation, and praising her husband's tenderness and affection. Her mother dismissed the charge as "a foolish campaign ploy without a shadow of foundation." Frances Cleveland's image appeared on numerous campaign paraphernalia, such as flags, posters, handbills, plates, ribbons, handkerchiefs, napkins, and playing cards.
Against the President's wishes, "Frankie" (as she was called in the popular press, a nickname she disliked) became an instant celebrity. She was so mobbed by admirers at public events that the president feared for her safety. The new First Lady joined the President in an unprecedented tour of the South and West in 1887, where she was received by friendly crowds. During her tour of the South, Frances met with her elderly predecessor Sarah Polk at her Tennessee estate, "Polk Place."
The weekly illustrated newspapers, Harper's and Leslie's made her a frequent cover girl. Young women copied her unique hairstyle (which called for all long strands at the neckline to be cut round). The Women's Christian Temperance Union, alarmed that the young First Lady wore gowns that bared her shoulders and petitioned her to stop wearing such clothing because it was an evil influence on young American girls. She neither responded nor stopped wearing low-cut gowns. Without her permission, her "endorsement" and image appeared on an array of products, including candy, perfume, face cream, liver pills, ashtrays, and women's undergarments. The problem became so widespread that one Democratic Congressman attempted to pass a bill in Congress that would halt the use of any woman's image - whether she be private citizen or celebrity - for commercial purposes without her written permission. When the bill failed to even come up for a vote in the House, the floodgates seemed to open wider in regard to the exploitation of "Frankie" Cleveland.
Frances Cleveland decided to use her influence in ways that she considered more beneficial for women. She began to host on Saturday mornings, held especially for those working-class women who were unable to visit the White House during the weekdays. Some White House domestic staff members, such as Ike Hoover, were shocked as "common" shopgirls, government clerks, maids and other service industry workers lined up in the regal East Room to shake the hand and have a personal word with the popular young First Lady. She set a personal example regarding drinking that she hoped other American women would follow: she permitted the serving of alcohol at events during which she was hostess, but turned down her own wine glasses at White House state dinners and drank only sparkling water. Frances Cleveland also made a concerted effort to support the fledgling careers of young women musicians in an era when the professional field of those who were offered the most lucrative and extensive performance contracts was limited almost exclusively to men. She sponsored a young violinist to study in Berlin and the girl became the first American to win the prized Mendelssohn Award. She also agreed to help a Washington African-American woman to establish The Washington Home for Friendless Colored Girls after she had come across two starving girls eating out of a garbage can. She also aided individual women in pursing college degrees and professional employment.
When the Clevelands returned to the White House in 1893 after a four year absence, Frances' most immediate priority was her three small daughters, two of whom were born during Cleveland's second term. Widespread unemployment and dissatisfaction with Cleveland's response caused tension. There were death threats made to the President, and Frances Cleveland - without knowledge or permission of her husband - had Secret Service protection of him and of the White House increased. At the Clevelands' summer home in Buzzard's Bay, the First Lady was alarmed when several suspicious men refused to leave the property and feared that they posed a kidnapping threat to her baby daughters. She called in the Secret Service.
When Grover Cleveland was diagnosed with jaw cancer and it required immediate surgery, the Clevelands believed that a public disclosure of the President's condition would add to the sense of national instability, the surgery was secretly performed at sea. Frances Cleveland played a large part in the successful deception of the press and public, misleading those who questioned the whereabouts of the President or the true reason for his lengthy absence from any public appearances.
Following her permanent departure from the White House in 1897, the family moved to Princeton, New Jersey. Frances focused her time on her children, turning down the presidency of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Her two sons were born within six years and four months after leaving the White House, thus making her the only First Lady to give birth to children after her incumbency there had expired. A year after her last child was born, however, 12-year old Ruth died of diphtheria in 1904 and Frances Cleveland sank into a severe depression. Four years later Grover Cleveland died, leaving her a 44 year old widow with four children. She took them all to Europe for an extended stay, from September 1909 to May 1910.
Frances Cleveland had continued to serve as a Wells College trustee and in was in there that she met Professor Thomas Jex Preston, Jr. He became her second husband. They married on February 10, 1913. In April of 1914 the former First Lady and her new husband moved to London to live for nearly a year. When war broke out in Europe later that year, the new couple returned to the U.S. Although she had avoided controversy throughout her public life, she suggested that Americans did not unite in support of a strong defense because of what she called the "huge percentage of unassimilated population that cannot think or act together." Equally controversial was her contention that women were yet intelligent enough to vote and when they were given the vote, were not successful in politics and should instead focus their civic activities on welfare charities. In May of 1913 she was elected as vice president of the New Jersey Association Opposed to Woman's Suffrage.
She remained active in the university life of Princeton and made her last public appearance at its June 1946 bicentennial celebration, joining former White House residents Edith Wilson and Herbert Hoover, as well as the President and Mrs. Truman and General Dwight Eisenhower. Frances Cleveland died on October 29, 1947 in Baltimore Maryland. She is buried in Princeton, New Jersey. Frances Cleveland lived for a longer period of time after leaving the White House than any other First Lady (51 years).