“Beyond Americana”: An Interview with George ClevelandPosted: July 10, 2011
George Cleveland is Executive Director of the Gibson Center for Senior Services in North Conway, New Hampshire. His grandfather, Grover, was president of the United States—and in Cleveland’s words, the family resemblance is “fricking scary.”
I got in touch with Cleveland after seeing his picture (above) at the Grover Cleveland birthplace over a month ago in Caldwell, New Jersey. What ensued is the longest (and strangest) interview I’ve yet conducted since beginning this project in May: a rambling, 40-minute phone dialogue about D. B. Cooper, Ella May Clampett, and whether or not Grover Cleveland was a “big rapist child-eating monster.” Mr. Cleveland is likely the only presidential descendant to describe a presidential birthplace as “funky” and then brag about being related to the “first lesbian First Lady.” And eventually he arrived at the topic especially on his mind: the Marshfield Cherry Blossom Festival in Missouri, or “the only place on earth where you’ll see a direct descendant of Jefferson Davis with his arm around a direct descendant of Dred Scott.”
I couldn’t make this up if I tried.
Hello, Mr. Cleveland! This is Zach. Do you have just a few moments to talk right now?
Let her rip!
So what is your relation to Grover Cleveland?
I’m his grandson. I’m Richard’s son.
What’s it like growing up with a president in the family?
Oh, boy, yeah! I’ve been asked that a lot, and it’s never that easy to answer. Sometimes it was a real, umm, burden, because people expect things of you that just aren’t reality. You know, like automatically people think you’re rich, or you’re just something that you’re not, and that’s sort of a drag. But other than that, as far as the growing up part, that was difficult. But now it’s actually become kind of fun.
Fun in what way?
Well, first of all, I think history is just one of the coolest things in the whole world. Because there’s so much we don’t know that’s just waiting to be discovered. Not to mention how much we can learn from history, although we never do. And, you know, I just love being around people who are into history. I work with the New York State History Day people, and I spend a lot of time talking about various aspects of history, and not just Grover, but primarily New Hampshire history. I’m going to Buffalo next week, for example. I’m going to be giving the commencement address at Grover Cleveland High School, and then just playing around with a lot of historical haunts out in Western New York. I went out to Hawaii a couple of times because Grover’s a big star out there still. So yeah!
You work in New Hampshire now, correct?
Correct. My main source of income is I’m the executive director of a senior service center: the Gibson Center for Senior Services. We do transportation services and programs and we also have senior housing.
Can you talk about your thoughts on the Grover Cleveland Birthplace in Caldwell?
The birthplace is—I just love being able to go there. Sharon Farrell is probably the world’s greatest authority on anything to do with Grover and Frances and the family. It’s great. Here’s this funky old house across the street from Dunkin Donuts in Caldwell, just down the street from where Tony Soprano lived. So, um, I love it! They do such a great job there, and the committee that oversees it has great events. I just wish I could get down there more often. They’ve done such a good job with it, and I just hope New Jersey realizes what a valuable resource it is.
Do they do justice to your grandfather’s legacy?
Oh yeah! Somebody told me that the wedding cake they have in there is designated the oldest piece of wedding cake there is or something?
Yes, they have a piece of fruitcake from your grandfather’s wedding!
And yeah, being in a room where your grandfather was born whether he was the president of the United States or not is kind of cool. I was there when C-Span did the American Presidents series from there. That was really fun. I learned a lot at that! Yeah! I think they do a very good job.
So what’s the point of preserving your grandfather’s birthplace? What value does it serve the town, the community of Caldwell, or the country?
A birthplace is a birthplace. A president, regardless of how he’s regarded by history, was still president of the United States. And that’s a pretty big deal. And how somebody becomes . . . the path they take in life that gets them into the White House can’t help but be an interesting path. And that path can only begin in one place. And that’s a birthplace. In this case, it was Caldwell, and the fact that it was really humble beginnings, because ministers were really not paid very much. By starting where a president started, that’s an important piece of history; therefore, it’s certainly important to the community of Caldwell and the state of New Jersey.
If people only remember one thing about President Cleveland, what should that one thing be?
Oh, God! Hmm. Well, boy, that’s a real tough question! I’m inclined to go for what he didn’t do as opposed to what he did. And that’s one of the big disappointments that he had in his presidency, that he was not able to turn around the overthrow of the kingdom of Hawaii. And I know that disappointed him. And I think he would’ve liked to have made that wrong right.
But as far as what he did—I mean, he wasn’t a war president. And we tend to remember war presidents for what they did more than non-war presidents. I mean, it’s just, there was so much. The whole gold and silver standard fight was huge. That was a real biggie. And Grover was, from what I understand, a real workaholic. He did so much work himself.
And hey! He had the first lesbian First Lady!
Speaking of Hawaii, I hear Caldwell has an annual picnic for Hawaiian delegates? What’s that like?
That is correct. There’s a group that comes over every year. April 30th has been designated by the Hawaiian legislature as Cleveland and Liliuokalani Reconciliation Day. And some friends of mine from Hawaii have been making the trip ever year since I think 2005. And generally they try to go to Buffalo, to Caldwell, and then to Princeton.
Have you ever gone to this event?
Oh yeah! Oh, it’s nuts! It’s great!
What’s it like?
It’s really kind of cool to see—I don’t know if you saw the pictures, but they have people doing hula on the front porch of the birthplace. And down the Princeton they have a very solemn ceremony where they put leis on the graves of Grover and Frances. They eat a lot. They always eat a lot. And it’s just sort of one big party and ceremonies and celebrating wherever we are as it is now and what happened there back then. It’s pretty cool. You should come.
Oh, I would love to! What else goes on in Caldwell for Grover?
Well, in Caldwell there’s the birthplace. You got that. Then, in Princeton, you’ve got the Cleveland Tower, which is part of the graduate school. Have you been there?
No, I have not been to the Cleveland Tower.
The Cleveland Tower is part of the divinity school now, and it’s this big, funky, gothic tower, and inside is this big, funky, gothic hall that just has this bust of Grover in it. And the last time I was there there was a tour group from New York City that came out and they did chanting in this great gothic vault, and the sounds . . . it was goosebumpy! It was great! But other stuff, monuments to Grover—not that I’m aware of. Buffalo’s got the big statue in front of City Hall. Oh yeah, they put a giant lei on that statue in front of City Hall every year. It’s like 20 feet tall or something, so it’s quite a big lei they put on.
And then his gravesite is very simple. The gravestone doesn’t even allude to his having been president.
So what does it say?
Just Grover Cleveland and the dates.
On a different note, what is the coolest Grover Cleveland artifact that you have?
The coolest! Oh, boy. What would I say is the coolest thing! Well, I don’t have it, but apparently somewhere in some drawer in my uncle’s house is one of the pieces of vulcanized rubber or whatever it was that they used to replace his jawbone with. When he had the famous operation.
There’s a great book out on that by Matthew Algeo, called The President is a Sick Man. And that was such a bizarre story. There’s also a really crappy book that’s coming out in August about—well, it’s making Grover out to be a big rapist child-eating monster.
What book is this!?
There’s a guy named Charles Lachman, and he wrote a book called The Last Lincolns. And he sent it to me, and I read it, and it popped along very nicely. It’s tracing what actually happened to the Lincoln bloodline. And I’m reading it fine, until the very end, when he says that the last Lincoln is D. B. Cooper. Do you know who D. B. Cooper was? Or is?
D. B. Cooper was the famous person who hijacked an airplane—I think it was in the ‘70s—and jumped off the backdoor with a parachute and a hoard of a million dollars and was never seen again. And it’s one of the great mysteries whatever happened to him. It became kind of a folk hero, that the last Lincoln was D. B. Cooper. So I’m sure something was up right there. So are you familiar with the whole thing about the illegitimate child in the Election of 1884?
Um . . . sort of. Refresh me?
I certainly can. In 1884, Grover ran against a guy named James G. Blaine, a lawyer from the state of Maine. And it’s considered even by our sleazy standards today to be one of the dirtiest elections ever. And one of the things that was brought up was that Grover supposedly had fathered a child when he wasn’t married. And the child went into an orphanage.
Oh, this is where the slogan “Ma, ma, where’s my pa”—
Right, that’s where that came from. “Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!” So Grover didn’t confirm or deny that he fathered the kid. The kid’s name, however, at the time of its birth was Oscar Folsom Cleveland. Which is intriguing because Oscar Folsom was Grover’s law partner and also happened to be the father of my grandmother. So it gets kind of complicated. So the theory is that Grover may have taken the rap because he wasn’t married.
So what Lachman is supposedly saying in this book is that the woman was in fact raped, and she was forced into a lunatic asylum, and Grover forced the kid into an orphanage, and wouldn’t support him, bla bla bla blab bla. For which I have specific evidence that refutes that. I’ve got a letter that he wrote that I found accidentally on eBay last fall. Where Grover went to the head of the orphanage and said, “Here’s some money to take care of the kid.” It was a very nice and tender letter, certainly not indicative of somebody who was trying to force this child into obscurity.
So anyway, this book is coming out and it’s gonna get all sensationalized, and I’ve got a real funny feeling. I mean, I’ve already gotten calls from Buffalo TV stations and stuff about it. We’ll see what happens, because, like I’ve said, we’ve got pretty good evidence to the contrary. I haven’t seen this guy’s citations yet. I think that’ll make a big difference, but the scholarly community is up in arms. I’m kind of staying away from it because of the obvious family bias. Nobody wants to be the grandson of a rapist. But you’ll be hearing more about that, I’m sure, because it’s going to make a pretty big public splash.
Okay. So, has anyone ever recognized you as Grover Cleveland’s grandson because of your looks?
The problem is, I don’t know if you’ve ever Googled me, but if you Google me you’ll undoubtedly come up with a picture of me as Grover because I have impersonated him from time to time. And fortunately, even though I’m 58, I don’t have to dye my hair like that. But from the neck up, it’s fricking scary!
I think it was last year, I went to the Erie County Sheriff’s Department on a visit in Buffalo. And Grover was sheriff of Erie County. And when I walked in, they just went slack-jawed. Because they just have to sit there everyday looking at this picture of Grover, and suddenly the picture walks in the door. Yeah, that was pretty funny.
It’s not like you walk down the street and somebody says, “Oh my god, you look like Grover Cleveland!” But, you know, in certain contexts, it’s definitely there, and it is kind of bizarre.
Under what circumstances have you impersonated your grandfather?
Let’s see. I do it for historical groups, and every year the local Democratic party trots me out. Because they usually have a Jefferson-Jackson dinner, and up here they have a Grover Cleveland dinner, since he did live here for a while. So yeah, I put on a patch suit and I’m kind of like the warm-up entertainment.
Anything else worth mentioning about your connection to Grover Cleveland?
I don’t know if this would be helpful to you in any way, but every year I go to this really strange event in Missouri. And it’s in Marshfield, Missouri. And the event is the Marshfield Cherry Blossom Festival and Presidential Family Reunion. And it’s the only place on earth where you’ll get Elly May Clampett from the Beverly Hillbillies and George McGovern in the same room. It’s an event that nobody really knows how to describe, but this guy who started it five or six years ago was a history freak and he decided he was gonna call up family members of every president in the United States to try and get them to come. And every year he’d get about twenty presidents represented by some direct descendant. Or almost direct descendant. The first year, he got one from both lines from Jefferson—from the Sally Hemings line and from the direct Jefferson line. And they hadn’t met, even though they were distant cousins, and they became really good buddies. You should go online and take a look at it. If you Google “Marshfield Cherry Blossom Festival.”
That sounds fascinating.
It is! And the guy Nicholas who runs it runs the Missouri Walk of Fame in Marshfield. So anybody that has had any connection with Marshfield, Missouri ends up there. I met one of the original munchkins, and I almost got him to run for president in the New Hampshire primary. And like I said, Elly May Clampett. And George McGovern. And this year, the woman who played Erin on The Waltons. It’s beyond bizarre!
When does this take place?
It takes place generally at the very end of April every year. And it’s the kind of thing where, when I ask people who go and just kind of observe, I say, “How would you classify this event?” And nobody has been able to nail it. It can’t be nailed. It’s beyond Americana. It’s in a world all unto itself. Here, try this one: where else, where in the world did you ever think you would see a direct descendant of Jefferson Davis with his arm around a direct descendant of Dred Scott! It’s freaky.
Go online, and just look at some of the pictures on the website, and it’s really amazing. This year actually I met John Adams’—I guess his sixth direct grandson? Fascinating guy. And he was not too far from Peacefield. He promised me a tour one of these days. It’s incredible. Just weird things, like the Nixons and the Roosevelts go to Walmart. Stuff like that. You get these amazing stories. And I got a picture of Devon Nixon with his arm around George McGovern. It’s too freaky for words. It really is.
I don’t know if you’ve ever watched the Beverly Hillbillies, but the woman that plays Ella May—she’s 77 now and as spry as can be. The place where I stayed this year was a small B&B, and she was in the room next to me, and Ella May was always known for having this whistle that could shatter Tupperware. And she stills does it. And I got woken up from a nap by having Ella May Clampett whistle at me through the door. So it’s kind of like all reality is suspended for a period of about five days. It’s really pretty bizarre.