The Delights and the Weight of History

“A gay first lady? Yes, we’ve already had one, and here are her love letters.” This was the arresting headline in the Washington Post. Seems that the unmarried, 50-year-old Grover Cleveland needed a respectable White House hostess, so he turned to his sister, Rose. And Rose was a, a… well, they didn’t have a word for it at the time.

The story, which first appeared first in the Daily Beast and was also picked up by the New York Daily News is almost as lurid as a bodice ripper. The surviving letters between Rose Cleveland and her inamorata, Evangeline Simpson Whipple, demonstrate a level of passion that our generations may feel but scarcely articulate with such florid fervor.

Rose writes: “My Eve! Ah, how I love you! It paralyzes me… Oh Eve, Eve, surely you cannot realize what you are to me. 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 in soul & spirit & body — and you cannot escape me. You must bear me all the way, Eve….”

Then: “You are mine, and I am yours, and we are one, and our lives are one henceforth, please God, who can alone separate us. I am bold to say this, to pray & to live to it. Am I too bold, Eve — tell me? … I shall go to bed, Eve — with your letters under my pillow.”

Oh, my overheated soul! All that’s missing is what Richard Hayden, in Howard Hawks’s brilliant “Ball of Fire” (1941), wistfully calls “the ineffable smell of rose water!”

In case anyone doubts that these women were lesbians and not just asexual partners involved in the term Henry James coined as a “Boston marriage” (the likely asexual cohabitation of two women in the 19th century), how do you account for the raw, feverish passion Rose expressed?

From the Post: “Because only Rose’s letters survive, we know little of how Evangeline responded. But, on a few occasions, Rose quotes Evangeline’s letters in her own: ‘Oh darling, come to me this night — my Clevy, my Viking, My — Everything, Come! God Bless Thee.’ Rose flirtatiously replied, ‘Your Viking kisses you!’” (In case you’re stuck on the meaning of “Clevy,” as I was, remember her last name.)

The Post continues: “Rose struggled to name their relationship — ‘I cannot find the words to talk about it,’ ‘the right word will not be spoken.’ Indeed, there was not a word for a same-sex relationship between women at the time. The word ‘lesbian’ existed, but only in reference to the Greek poet Sappho.”

A period of relative estrangement ensued when Evangeline up and married a man of the cloth: “Bishop Henry Whipple, a popular Episcopal preacher from Minnesota who was 34 years her senior. There is every indication she had real feelings for the bishop. She wrote of her affection for him in her diary, she didn’t need the money the marriage would bring, and, at 40 in the 19th century, she was probably past childbearing age.”

“Rose continued writing letters to Evangeline, but the intimacy fades into little more than travelogue.”

But wait! The love letters returned, thanks to a timely visit from the Grim Reaper: “Bishop Whipple died at his home in Minnesota on Sept. 16, 1901…. Over the next nine years, Rose and Evangeline’s letters took on a new character, away from the wild, sometimes obsessive, passion of early love and toward a steady tenderness. Evangeline continued to live in Minnesota, but the extended stays at each other’s homes resumed.”

In short, they ended up moving to Tuscany together and lived there until Rose’s death from the Spanish flu in 1918 at the age of 72. Evangeline wrote sorrowfully at the time, “‘The light has gone out for me. . . . The loss of this noble and great soul is a blow that I shall not recover from….’ She died of pneumonia and kidney failure in London in 1930.”

All this, of course, is a wholly separate discussion from the life of Eleanor Roosevelt.

“Elizabeth Warren Demands Reparations for Same-Sex Couples” is the headline of an article by Tyler O’Neil in PJ News, an off-brand right-wing news outlet. Perhaps needless to say, PJ News is agin’ it. “On Friday, Warren re-introduced S. 1940, the Refund Equality Act, which would allow same-sex couples to amend past tax returns. According to a report from the Joint Committee on Taxation, the bill would direct $57 million in refunds. The funds would go to same-sex couples in states that had legalized same-sex marriage before the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013. Warren introduced an earlier version of the bill in 2017.”

The bill shows broad support among Democrats. According to O’Neil, “The legislation is cosponsored by 42 senators, including six presidential candidates: Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).” That’s impressive. But frankly, I think LGBTQ reparations can only be discussed seriously after the more pressing question of reparations to African Americans for more than 400 years of slavery and other nominally subtler forms of oppression (think Reconstruction, Jim Crow lynchings, church bombings…) is resolved. But O’Neil isn’t even willing to discuss that. African-American “reparations are unworkable for many reasons,” he writes, “partially because the slaves and their masters are no longer alive. Economic history is messy, and it is far from clear that modern poverty and wealth derive from the injustices of slavery.”

Oh, really? As Forbes describes it, “Wealth is highly and increasingly unequally distributed, especially between African-Americans and whites. At the median, non-retired African-Americans had $13,460 in wealth in 2016 or only 9.5 percent of the median wealth of $142,180 that whites had at that time.”

Now why might that be? Beyond the statistics, the fact of the matter is that white Americans enslaved black Africans. We chained them together in ships before auctioning them off like cattle in the public square. We sold their babies out from under them. We owned them. And I say we despite the fact that my grandparents were too busy fleeing pograms carrying what little they had to think much about owning other people as slaves.

As uncomfortable as it is to acknowledge, white people’s wealth in the United States today derives however indirectly from the forced labor and subsequent systemic oppression of black people. Working out the calculations will be exhausting and ugly. As for the premise, though, it’s as simple as this: We used to own them; now we owe them.

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