Carole Owens: No Lenox summer for first lady
By Carole Owens, Special to the Eagle
Summer 1888: William Collins Whitney, Secretary of the Navy under President Grover Cleveland, wrote to his wife: "Do not invite Mrs. Cleveland to Lenox." To avoid the heat, humidity, and boredom of the city in summer, Mrs. William (Flora Payne) Whitney was renting Ventfort in Lenox for the season. Flora and Mrs. Grover (Frances Folsom) Cleveland were great friends. It would have been commonplace for Flora to invite "Frank" -- Frances’ nickname -- to be her house guest, but not in 1888.
That year the president was running for re-election. Cleve-
land was suffering under a barrage of bad press. He feared reports of his wife summering in Lenox would fuel the flames, and in turn, alienate the voters. What was it about the village of Lenox that could be detrimental to Cleveland’s re-election campaign? The Pittsfield Morning Call reported: "Despite criticism, the village is pretty, clean and wholesome." Had someone suggested Lenox was not wholesome?
In 1888 some, but not all, of the Berkshire cottages with which we are familiar had been built. The village-scape included Allen Winden but not Springlawn or Belle-
fontaine, Ventfort but not Ventfort Hall, The Mount, or Blantyre.
The Springfield Republican said Lenox possessed a "delightful character of life, elegant homes, and congenial society." The New York Times described Lenox as "all gaiety, life and fashion." Those words were all society-page speak for expensive and exclusive. Not the opposite of wholesome but certainly the opposite of "down-home."
The central issue, and the most hotly contested issue, of the president’s re-election campaign, was tariffs (the tax paid on certain imports). Cleveland wanted low tariffs. His opponent Benjamin Harrison wanted high tariffs. It was believed that high tariffs benefited American industrialists since higher tariffs discouraged imports. The result would be an American marketplace replete with American manufactured goods and little foreign competition. Lower tariffs were believed to benefit the consumer because the marketplace would be flooded with imports driving down prices on all goods.
Harrison was seen as the industrialists’ candidate. Clev-
eland was positioning himself as a man of by and for the people. That is how we arrive at his concern about Lenox.
No one argued that Lenox was not pretty, clean, and wholesome. The problem was that Lenox was also seen as the summer home of the economic elite. Six years hence, in Scribner’s Magazine, Lenox would be crowned as royalty: "The Queen of Resorts." The exclusivity of Lenox was complicated by Flora’s entertainments. They were consistently reported to be "sumptuous" with a guest list culled from "the 400." It was a heady mix and if "Frank" were a house guest, it would combine to make Cleveland look more like his opponent -- "one of them" -- an intimate friend of the princes of industry and barons of banking.
Frances did not have a summer in Lenox, although every society column from The Times to The Berkshire Evening Eagle reported that the first lady was expected daily. It seemed so logical that friend would visit friend, and so, while it was untrue, the story was irresistible, and it was reported.
Hopefully the thought of Frank in Lenox did not defeat Cleveland but something did. Despite all Cleveland’s efforts and his wife’s sacrifice, Clev-
eland was not elected to consecutive terms. He lost to Benjamin Harrison.
Now could Frank return to Lenox? No, the perpetual politician Cleveland was gearing up for 1892. Cleveland sat it out for four years, and was again elected president in 1892.
1901: A two-term president, Cleveland retired from politics. Surely now Frank could enjoy Lenox. Nope.
Summer 1901: "No Lenox for Cleveland." The Pittsfield Morning Call circulated a story from "an intimate of the former president." Cleveland was but an ordinary man with plebeian tastes who found that "Tyringham is preferable to the city set of Lenox." The former president and Mrs. Cleveland "live prudently consistent with their station ... they enjoy the tonic of Berkshire air without the exacting Lenox life." And the intimate added, "regardless of how much Mrs. Cleveland would like to be in Lenox."
Between 1888 and 1901 "the exclusiveness of Lenox was even more socially rigid than ever and this is saying much when it is known how much it costs to build into or otherwise get into the Lenox social set." The reporter feared rumors that the "building of smaller holdings with less great layout of grounds" may despoil Lenox. Although he felt Lenox did require "a variety of taste in house building and summer home creation."
Good grief: Cleveland was still grooming his political image and carefully fashioning himself a man of the people. Lenox was still the fashionable retreat for the uber-rich.
I wonder, reclining in Tyringham, what Cleveland was dreaming of running for next? I wonder if Lenox knew it had only a few years left before World War I killed more than our brave soldiers.
A Berkshire writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.
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