“Precious and Adored,” a highly unusual collection of love letters, proves a singular volume and a game changer in documenting upper-class relationships between women at the turn of the 20th century. The letter writers were two wealthy society women: Rose Elizabeth Cleveland (1846-1918) and Evangeline Simpson Whipple (1857-1930). This volume brings together 135 of their letters, mostly those of Cleveland, and thousands of handwritten nearly illegible pages they mailed to one another across states and continents.

Rose Elizabeth Cleveland, the sister of President Grover Cleveland and hostess at the White House during his first term (he was unmarried at the time), was known in Maine as “Queen of Seven Hundred Acre Island” for her farm and real estate dealings Downeast. Evangeline Whipple, the daughter of Irish immigrants, was a romance novelist who wed wealthy businessman-philanthropist Michael Simpson in 1882. Two years after their union, he died leaving her $2.5 million dollars.

Rose and Evangeline probably met in Tampa, Florida, on – prophetically it turns out – Valentine’s Day in 1890. They became friends, and for the rest of their lives remained integral parts of each other’s extended families. During this era, relationships between women of status were often referred to as “Boston Marriages.” This genteel phrase, which came from the pen of novelist Henry James, drew a convenient curtain on what such a relationship might entail. In the minds of such partners and their circle, it was nobody’s business why two charming, like-minded women chose to live and travel together.

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The many letters of Rose are now in the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society; the title comes from Whipple’s description of the loss of Cleveland in 1918. But they liked each other from the start; one of the couple’s earliest letters makes clear their immediate attraction:

“Oh Eve, Eve, surely you cannot realize what you are to me,” Cleveland writes to Whipple. “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 & Heaven, by every sign and soul & spirit and body – you cannot escape me.”

Even in the age of LGBTQ, though, is it right for historians to dig up the past? In her short, essential foreword to “Precious and Adored,” writer Lillian Faderman thinks the answer is yes: “Rose and Evangeline could have found no comfortable terms to describe what they were to each other. What we see in these letters is that they were, for a time, passionate lovers, who became strained though devoted friends during Evangeline’s [short second] marriage to [Minnesota] Bishop Henry Whipple. Then they loved again till death did them part.”

Most of Whipple’s letters have been lost – possibly destroyed – so this is a one-sided collection. But it’s crystal clear theirs was a two-sided relationship. And what a deftly handled research project! Readers seeking lascivious passages will be sorely disappointed. Those interested in learning what love can mean will probably find this volume rewarding.

“Our primary goal was to dispel myths and misinformation … and to work beyond the sexy tagline, the President’s sister and the bishop’s wife,” writes Tilly Laskey, co-editor of this collection of letters and curator at the Maine Historical Society. “Initially conceived as a publication that would briefly introduce the letters and present the transcriptions, this book evolved into a deep dive into the twenty-eight years (Whipple and Cleveland) shared.” 

Rose Cleveland, inveterate letter-writer, sister of Grover Cleveland, and half of a delicately named “Boston marriage.” Photo courtesy of Curtis Library.

Over the decades, an assortment of librarians at the Minnesota Historical Society were uncomfortable with the letters. That attitude slowly began to change as Americans’ understanding of LGBTQ life grew. It became clear to the library and to scholars, including those involved in this publication, that the holdings and related materials, along with manuscripts and documents across the globe, were of major import.

What emerges is not just a dual biography but a serious measure of love. That love carried over to Cleveland’s and Whipple’s families and their circles of friends. The two went about their business seemingly unhindered by scorn or prejudice. Each seems to have been accepted by the other’s kin without much ado, at least if you judge by the letters.

Was this an upper-class anomaly? This will be up to historians to debate, but clearly here were two women who lived lives of fulfillment and consequence yet were able to love and be loved. The pair helped to develop a hospital, school and refugee program in Bagni Dilucca, Italy. They were also instrumental in the founding of the early Audubon Society in Florida and a ministry to Native Americans in Minnesota. “Precious and Adored” offers substance and insight.

William David Barry is a historian who has written/co-written seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England.” He is working on a history of the Maine Historical Society. Barry lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.


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