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A ladylike exhibit

Frances Folsom Cleveland is focus of Beaver Island State Park event

Updated: 10/21/07 7:45 AM

Curtis Nestark prepares for “Buffalo’s Own First Lady: Frances Folsom Cleveland,” an exhibit planners hope will raise awareness for the proposed Western New York Center for the Presidency and Vice Presidency.

She was the Jacqueline Kennedy of her day, a dark-eyed brunette who arrived in the national consciousness when she wed Grover Cleveland, her guardian and law partner of her late father, in the White House in 1886 — one year into Cleveland’s first term as president.

Not only was Frances Cornelia Folsom young and attractive — at 21 she was her husband’s junior by 28 years — she followed a line of rather dour, far older first ladies who mostly stayed out of public view.

The courtship and marriage came with titillating baggage. Cleveland was executor of Oscar Folsom’s estate and had supervised Frances’ upbringing. And he admitted paying child support in 1874 to Maria Crofts Halpin, who — though she’d had affairs with several men, including Frances’ father — claimed Cleveland was the father of her son.

Curiously, the boy was named Oscar Folsom Cleveland.

Once the public warmed up to Frances and the five children the union yielded, people couldn’t get enough of her. Slight wonder, then, that the Grand Island Historical Society chose her as the star of a free exhibition today that is intended to drum up interest in the proposed Western New York Center for the Presidency and Vice Presidency.

“Buffalo’s Own First Lady: Frances Folsom Cleveland” will be on view from 1 to 4 p.m. at River Lea in Beaver Island State Park. The Victorian building is the restored summer home of Cleveland’s uncle, Lewis F. Allen, and the historical society’s headquarters.

The more than 300 items were loaned by Mark D. Evans of Avon, a collector of presidential memorabilia. They demonstrate that Frances was a star in her own right — the subject of countless magazine covers, newspaper stories, editorial cartoons and knickknacks produced during her husband’s nonconsecutive terms as president, from 1885 to 1889 and 1893 to 1897.

During an election campaign, Judge magazine depicted her as the face on the queen of hearts playing card, under the heading “Cleveland’s Great drawing card on his Southern Tour,” and above the line “What a pity it is for Grover that hearts are not trumps in politics.” As in most compelling stories, there is an element of tragedy. The couple’s first child, Ruth, a precocious blonde who, according to Evans, was the Shirley Temple of her time, died of diphtheria at 12. Urban legend has it that Curtiss Candy Co. named the Baby Ruth candy bar after her, and that she was the subject of the George Hamilton IV recording, “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” though both occurred long after she died in 1904.

The exhibition is a collaboration between the Grand Island historical group, headed by Curtis Nestark, and the proposed presidential museum, which would include artifacts from the presidencies of Cleveland and Millard Fillmore and fellow members of what historian Sarah Slavin calls an extraordinary “leadership cadre” of Western New Yorkers who left an imprint on history.

The group includes Peter B. Porter, secretary of war in 1828-29; Nathan K. Hall, postmaster general from 1850 to 1852; Susan B. Anthony of Rochester, who led the women’s suffrage movement; Wilson S. Bissell, postmaster general from 1893 to 1895; Elbridge G. Spaulding, a congressman known as “the father of the greenback” for establishing the nation’s currency system; and Norman E. Mack, a Democratic National Committee chairman and congressman.

Organizers expect to firm up plans for the proposed center by year’s end, according to Maryann Saccomondo Freedman, a Buffalo lawyer and leader of the Association for the Buffalo Presidential Center.

“We hope to increase public awareness of what the association is trying to accomplish,” Nestark said.