Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson by Jonathan Ned Katz

Originally published as: KATZ ON HISTORY, THE PRESIDENT'S SISTER AND THE BISHOP'S WIFE, An ADVOCATE Inauguration Special. The Advocate, January 31, 1989, page 34. 

As playful provocation, I cannot resist titling this story in the suggestive mode of Victorian pornography. But that title misleads; it defines Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Marrs Simpson Whipple by the men in their lives. And despite Rose's sibling tie to a president and Evangeline's marriage to a bishop, this is a story of a woman's romance with a woman.

In Florida, during the winter of 1889-1890, Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson fell madly in love.

And when the winter season ended, Evangeline urged Rose on to another rendezvous: "Oh, darling, come to me this night-my Clevy, my Viking, my Everything- Come!"

Who was this impassioned Evangeline, this ardent Rose? 

Rose, at 44, was a well-off spinster (as they said), teacher, and successful public speaker who had edited a Chicago literary magazine, published a novel, and written a popular book of essays dedicated to her fellow countrywomen.

As Grover Cleveland's ultrarespectable sister, Rose had helped her brother survive the scandal of fathering a child out of wedlock and then win his first presidential term (1885-1889). Rose had stood by Grover as First Lady during his inauguration and
initial bachelor years in the White House.

Evangeline was a wealthy widow of 30, well educated and well traveled, and fluent in several languages. The fortune of her businessman husband, Michael Simpson, had supplemented her own when he dis-­appeared at sea.

Soon after Rose and Evangeline's fervid Florida inaugural in April 1890 on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico, Rose writes to Evangeline, suggesting they meet in New York City - though she'd then be forced to stay at Grover's. She adds, hopefully, "[B]ut if you liked, I could spend most of the time at your hotel- in your room."

"Ah, how I love you!" Rose exclaims.

Evangeline's letters make her "heavy with emotion." Rose proclaims, "Ah, Eve, Eve ... you are mine by every sign in Earth and Heaven - by every sign in soul and spirit and body.

"Oh, Eve, I tremble at the thought of you," Rose declares, closing, "Sweet, Sweet, I dare not think of your arms." The two do get together again, apparently in that New York hotel room.

The intimacy grows. Rose writes from her home near Utica, N.Y., "I love you, love you beyond belief-you are all the world to me."

Rose views Eve's picture, "the look of it all making me wild." During the night, says Rose, "I ... tried to feel your hand - but it is no use, Eve. I am sure of you, but I do not see your delightful face-or feel your en-­folding arms - and lose all else in the shelter and happiness of that haven.

"My Eve,"says Rose, and refers to her friend's "long rapturous embraces - when her sweet life-breath and her warm en-­folding arms appease my hunger and quiet my breast- and carry us both in one to the summit of joy, the end of search, the goal of love!"

Rose calls Eve "the woman who is my world - my Earth - and God forgive me -­my Heaven!" She compares Eve to Cleopatra and herself to Antony: "Ah, my Cleopatra ... looks a very dangerous Queen - but I will ... crush those Antony-­seeking lips." And she  this letter with a tease: "How much kissing can Cleopatra stand?" 

For a year and a half', Rose and Evangeline live together. But by 1892, Eve, though still asserting her love for Rose, has apparently decided to seek a socially sanctioned with a man. Rose says she won't stand in Eve's way but acknowledges her own "pain" and "hurt" and begins to distance herself emotionally from Eve.

In the 1892 election, Grover Cleveland is returned to the presidency [ after Benjamin Harrison] for a second term. In 1893, Rose writes to Eve on White House stationery. Though still having trouble separating from her friend, Rose sends Eve "my best blessing-whatever you do."

In 1895, Rose writes to congratulate Eve's fiance, the widower Henry Benjamin· Whipple, the Episcopal bishop of Minne-­sota, on the success of his courtship. She adds poignantly, "Ah, how much we need, all of us, all the love we can get." A year later, the 36-year-old Evangeline becomes the second wife of the 74-year-old bishop.

When Bishop Whipple dies in 1901, Evangeline waits the required year, then abruptly leaves for Europe and never returns to the bishop's Minnesota.

By 1905 Rose and Eve are writing to each other again, and by 1908-1909 they are making travel plans. In 1910 Rose assures the Cunard Line that she and Eve will hap­pily share a cabin.

The two women live together in Italy for eight years until Rose dies of fever in 1918. Evangeline dies 12 years later, having directed her executors to bury her in Italy beside Rose and another woman friend.

As a new president takes office and we face another four years of patriotic paeans to the nation's past, I'm pleased to present the story of an earlier White House resident and her lover, an unfamiliar bit of lesbian American history.


We know of the romance between Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Marrs Simpson Whipple only because of an anonymous mole, a sleuth in the archives, who in the late 1970s sent a tip to Barbara Gittings, coordinator of the Gay Task Force of the American Library Association, who passed the tip along to me.

Mole Informed us that the Minnesota Historical Society held "a sealed box (no. 10)" of Rose Cleveland's letters to Evangeline Whipple, "revealing that a lesbian relationship existed between the two women." The public "catalog for this collection... lists only nine boxes."

In 1978, after several tactfully worded letters to the Minnesota Historical Society,
I was told that an unlisted box of Rose Cleveland's correspondence did exist and
had previously been closed to researchers until 1980. But "due to current scholarly interest," this restriction had been removed.

I ordered copies of the letters. But then, because Rose Cleveland's handwriting turned out to be so difficult to read and because of other commitments, I gave up the idea of transcribing and publishing the letters. I did, however, alert a group of lesbian and gay historians to their existence.

By a combination of good luck and good networking, one of these historians, Bert
Hansen, knew a graduate student who had attended St. Mary's Hall, a Minnesota
school founded by Bishop Whipple. This student, Paula Petrik, well recalled the imposing painting of Evangeline Whipple that hung in the school's dining room.
Hearing of the letters in box 10, Petrik researched the lives and loves of Rose and
Evangeline for a term paper.

I am deeply indebted to Petrik, now a pro-­fessor of history at the University of Maine at Orono, whose unpublished paper enabled me to briefly reconstruct Rose and Evangeline's story. Petrik is currently preparing a scholarly publication on the pair. Petrik's research also allowed John D'Emilio and Estelle Freedman to include a paragraph on Rose and Evangeline and a few lines of Cleveland's letters in Intimate Matters, their 1988 book on American sex history. 

Eleven years after the secret box was opened to the public, this almost sup-pressed episode of lesbian American history has finally come to light. 

Rose Cleveland, sister of President Grover Cleveland, was In
love with another woman for many years. She helped her
brother receive guests (above center) at his 1885 lnaugura-­llon and served as First Lady for several years.

Evangeline Marrs Simpson Whipple was a well-educated,
wealthy widow of 30 when she met Rose Cleveland during
a Florida trip In 1889. Their love affair would continue over
the next 28 years.


The letters of Cleveland and Whipple are now printed and discussed in Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, 1890–1918, edited and discussed by Lizzie Ehrenhalt and Tilly Laskey, with a Foreword by Lillian Faderman (Minnesota Historical Society Press, May 1, 2019).

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