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New bio examines the skeletons in Grover Cleveland's closet

New bio examines the skeletons in Grover Cleveland's closet

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While a young man in Buffalo, Grover Cleveland drank ample quantities of beer, caroused with his male friends, possibly frequented houses of prostitution and fathered a child after possibly forcing the mother to have sex.

Charles Lachman uses these particulars to set the stage for a biography of the nation's 22nd and 24th president. It's a biography Cleveland would most certainly not appreciate were he alive today. And although Lauren Belfer alluded to Cleveland's seediness in "City of Light," hers was a work of supposed fiction.

Lachman, executive producer of TV's tabloidlike "Inside Edition," deals in facts culled from a variety of sources -- newspaper and magazine articles, official documents, court transcripts and other books, all properly cited in end notes.

Some facts remain uncontested -- Cleveland's girth grew as he quaffed; he had many fellow partiers as an assistant Erie County attorney, Erie County sheriff and Buffalo mayor; he hired someone to serve in his place after he was drafted for the Civil War; and he had a son who bore his last name.

But was Oliver Folsom Cleveland the product of rape? The mother, Maria Halpin, so contends, and Lachman furnishes official court documents and other sources to support her claim.

Cleveland's backers, on the other hand, debunk her story as that of a woman who slept around, drank too much alcohol and endangered the safety of her son. In fact, a 786-page two-volume Cleveland biography, published in 1923, never mentions Halpin despite the fact that her son's birth played a major role in the presidential election of 1884.

Lachman pulls no punches in detailing how Cleveland conspired with the delivering doctor to have the infant taken from the mother -- twice -- to eventually be raised as the doctor's son.

Lachman contends Cleveland also was instrumental in having Halpin committed to an insane asylum. She was released three days later when doctors found no indication she was mentally imbalanced.

Then, years later when he was running for president, Cleveland, through an emissary, offered Halpin $10,000 to refute newspaper stories that she bore his illegitimate child.

Such are the tawdry details of "Secret Life." But Lachman's research and crisp, clear writing keep the reader eager to learn more about the Buffalo native who twice was elected to the nation's highest office.

For instance, how he married -- in the White House -- a woman 27 years his junior. Her father, Oliver Folsom (name sound familiar?), was Cleveland's best friend, and after Folsom was killed in an accident, Cleveland became the guardian of Folsom's 10-year-old daughter, who eventually became Cleveland's White House wife.

Or how about the fact that Cleveland's sister, who acted as first lady until Cleveland married, was a lesbian.

As an interesting side plot, Lachman also details the various positions Buffalo newspapers took on Cleveland.

One, the Evening Telegraph, was first to publish details of the son born to Halpin. Another, the forerunner to this newspaper, whose founder was a close friend of Cleveland's, ignored or downplayed the story. The Buffalo Evening News then silenced the Evening Telegraph by buying it.

Cleveland was a looming figure as he rose through the political stratosphere, winning election as Buffalo mayor despite a Republican plurality in the city. He was New York governor when he first ran for president and the scandal of his illegitimate child seeped into the national press.

And he was heartbroken when voters in Buffalo and Erie County chose his opponent over their native son.

But he was elected once again in 1892, the only president ever to serve two nonconsecutive terms. Lachman follows his life to the end, but the final years lack the titillating events of his earlier years. He follows Halpin into hiding, the clamoring from the press for interviews and then to her death. No public funeral, "let me rest," she directed on her deathbed.

So what happened to Oliver Folsom Cleveland, the son she bore? Lachman reveals he was raised as the doctor's son and given his "father's" name, James E. King Jr. He died childless in 1947 after a distinguished medical career in Buffalo as a specialist in gynecology and a professor at the University of Buffalo Medical School. Lachman found no evidence that Dr. King ever met or sought his birth mother. He was buried next to adoptive parents in Warren, Pa., and, writes Lachman, "to the end, Dr. James E. King Jr, born Oscar Folsom Cleveland, kept the family secrets."

Lee Coppola is a well-traveled Buffalo journalist, a former federal prosecutor and most recently was the dean of St. Bonaventure University's Jandoli Journalism School.


A Secret Life: The Lies and Scandals of President Grover Cleveland

By Charles Lachman

Skyhorse Publishing

481 pages, $24.95

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