Precious And Adored by Lizzie Ehrenhalt and Tilly Laskey is a scholarly edition of the correspondence between two socially prominent (and wealthy) American women from the turn of the 20th century. In addition to the letters, the book provides the historic, political, and social context of their relationship.
Rose Cleveland was the sister of U.S. president Grover Cleveland and served as his official White House hostess during part of his first term, until he married. Evangeline Marrs Simpson was left a wealthy widow after a very brief marriage to a much older man. The two met in upper-crust social circles in Florida in 1889 and began a life-long romantic relationship. Their letters reflect their initial passion, their continuing devotion, Rose’s heartbreak when Evangeline entered into a second marriage with a prominent clergyman, and then after Evengeline’s second widowhood, the life they made together in Italy until Rose’s death in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918.
Despite the author’s characterization of their relationship as “remarkable”, what their correspondence and biographies show is how ordinary and unremarkable it was for women of their era to enjoy romantic relationships. In contrast to the professional women of “Boston Marriage” fame who formed households together with little comment, Rose and Evangeline were each wealthy enough to have multiple homes, traveling between the north-east and Florida in the course of their social and business dealings, and much of their correspondence details the logistics of when they would meet and spend time together. As letters tend to be written when the participants are apart, these arrangements drive the volume of letters they left behind. It also drives the longing and desire for each other’s presence that the letters contain.
“I dare not think of your arms–but I am coming to them.”
“[Speaking of spring and youth] Will it come again, Eve? Is it keeping for me? Are you keeping it for me, wrapped up warm and sweet, fresh and deep, all in a closed bud that will open–when?”
But the emotion and sensuality of their letters are still not “remarkable” in the sense of being unusual. Many of the women in Boston Marriages expressed similar sentiments in their correspondence. “[I long] to lavish my love upon you, to let eyes and lips and hands tell you that I love you.” It is only the repressive and reactionary atmosphere of the early 20th century that reframed these expressions as merely “sentimental” and “conventional” rather than genuine records of erotic desire.
The crisis provoked by Evengeline’s second marriage shows how women of their time were struggling to articulate the sense that women could be enough for each other and not a substitute for relationships with men. The letters often danced around the un-naming of what they felt. “I cannot speak nor write of my love…you know–“ But the essence is there: “You are mine, and I am yours, and we are one, and our lives are one henceforth, please God, who can alone separate us.” But when Evangeline responded to Henry Whipple’s courtship, Rose desperately tries to offer an alternative. “I will give up all to you if you will try once more to be satisfied with me. Could you not take sex months for that experiment? We would go away from everyone.”
The age had no framework in which a female partnership would be accepted as establishing something not to be broken except by death. And Evangeline appears genuinely to have fallen in love with Whipple. Their relationship cooled to the merely social. Rose began traveling and spending time with another female friend, Evelyn Ames, though there’s no similar documentation of the nature of their relationship. Evangeline’s second marriage lasted five years–only a few more than her first. Rose’s letters begin sounding her out on resuming their romance. For nine years they resumed their “jet-setting” companionship, with Evangeline now fixed in the Whipple home in Minnesota and Rose chasing around on her business affairs, including a farm in Maine that she co-owned with Evelyn Ames, a citrus orchard in Florida, and other ventures. But finally in 1910 they sailed to Italy together and shared the rest of their lives there.
It doesn’t appear to have been meant as a permanent move. Indeed, Rose’s correspondence to Evangeline survived in part because Evangeline had left her house with instructions to the caretaker to leave everything “as is” for her return. But she stayed on in Italy for twelve years after Rose’s death and until her own.
The house was inherited by a charitable foundation who sold off some contents but the rest was eventually claimed for back taxes and the Whipples’ papers were acquired by various local historical societies, with Rose’s letters to Evangeline buried in a vast volume of other Whipple family material. (Henry Whipple was the first Episcopal bishop of Minnesota, so much of the material relates to his career.) It wasn’t until 1969 that the materials began to be reviewed by an archivist who identified the content and meaning of those letters. Due to their “suggestive content” the historical society separated them from the rest of the collection and locked them away “to be reviewed at a later date.”
This detailed history must be considered in the context of so many cases where we know that personal papers and correspondence were directed to be destroyed after death, or were destroyed by surviving family members to avoid affecting the reputation of the deceased. In the earlier parts of the 20th century, such records might be heavily edited for publication “lest readers misunderstand.” But because Rose and Evangeline’s correspondence was preserved in stasis until 1978, it was reviewed and published in a context more sympathetic and accepting of same-sex romance. Earlier publication was limited to a few extracts, but Precious and Adored offers the letters in full, with additional correspondence from other members of their social circle that provides context and background. (Evangeline’s letters to Rose were not preserved except in the occasional quotation in Rose’s responses.)
The Writing Style
About a third of the book consists of the authors’ explanation of how they came to tackle the project and a detailed and accessible explanation of the women’s lives and historic context. This is more of a local history project than an academic analysis, so don’t fear that it will be full of technical terminology. The letters themselves are not always engrossing reading, being full of the details of travel, everyday interactions, logistical arrangements, and business transactions. The romantic content is a constant low-level through-line: the longing for a response, the joy at receiving one, unhappiness at separation, fond memories of time together. And every once in a while, effusions of passion and possessiveness. (Perhaps a somewhat overwhelming possessiveness on Rose’s part, one gets the impression.)
Perhaps the hardest thing for a modern reader is to understand what women’s lives and words meant to them in their own context, rather than read them as we would our contemporaries. Ehrenhalt and Laskey do an excellent job of providing that context–of helping us to interpret these letters as they were intended and received, neither reading in more than they hold nor excusing their emotional reality as mere sentiment and literary convention.
There is always a temptation to want to claim historic figures “for the team”–to interpret women who loved women as heroic rebels and brave pioneers. Rose and Evangeline were not brave heroines. They were wealthy privileged white women who faced few consequences for the discreet conduct of their romance. They shared both the virtues and blind spots of their age. Even as they used their wealth for charitable purposes, they express casual racism. The power of their lives is not in being saintly role models, but in demonstrating one version of how utterly normal and ordinary life could be for women loving women in the past.
Read this book for a window on one of the many possibilities for same-sex couples in the past. Your life will be enriched by expanding your understanding of our history. And you just might be able to win a bar bet about who was the first “lesbian first lady” in the White House!
Excerpt from Precious And Adored by Lizzie Ehrenhalt and Tilly Laskey
“My Eve! Ah, how I love you! I paralyzes me. I have been going over & over your written words until the full message of them–some of them–has made me weary with emotion. This I must try and escape, for your sake. But let me cry & shout it. Oh Eve, Eve, surely you cannot realize what you are to me. What you must be. Yes, I dare it, now, I will not 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; clasp me in my despair of any other and give me every joy & all hope–this is yours to do.”
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Bits and Bobs
- ISBN number: 9781681341293
- Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press
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