Thursday, May 27, 2010

Here's an excerpt from my forthcoming book about the secret operation on President Grover Cleveland in 1893:
On the morning of Saturday, September 9, a “general air of expectancy” permeated the White House. The doorkeepers and valets walked on tiptoes across the marble floors. Grover was behind his massive desk as usual, but he was clearly preoccupied. Just down the hall, in the master bedroom, his wife Frances was in labor. The family doctor, Joseph Bryant, was with her, and occasionally he would scribble a message on a small slip of paper and have it delivered to the president. Between these updates, Grover, as anxious as any expectant father, pretended to work. At eleven o’clock he sent a note to the War Department. The Marine Band was scheduled to perform a public concert on the White House lawn that afternoon. Grover asked the secretary of war to cancel it.

Childbirth was a dangerous endeavor in 1893. It killed one out of every one hundred women giving birth. (Today the rate in developed nations is one out of every 10,000.) Obstetrics was just emerging as a medical specialty. Physicians had begun replacing midwifes, but only among the upper classes. Obstetrical wards had been established in some hospitals in the 1880s, though only the urban poor, whose homes were generally small and unhygienic, gave birth in hospitals. Women of means would not begin having children in hospitals in large numbers until well into the twentieth century.

While we can never know the details of what happened in the master bedroom that morning, it’s safe to assume that certain Gilded Age conventions were adhered to. Even in the intimacy of childbirth, modesty ruled the relationship between doctor and patient. It’s likely Frances gave birth lying on her side with her knees pulled up to her chest. This is known as the Sims’ position, named for J. Marion Sims, a nineteenth century physician who pioneered advances in gynecology (albeit by experimenting on slaves). In the Sims’ position, the mother can avoid eye contact with the doctor, thereby (the reasoning went) preserving her dignity. Dr. Bryant, meanwhile, would be expected to avert his eyes from the main event. Doctors were encouraged to deliver babies “by touch,” so as to avoid offending women by looking at their genitalia.

By this cumbersome process, a healthy baby girl was delivered at noon. A few minutes later, Grover was summoned to the bedroom. Bryant informed him that Mrs. Cleveland had given birth to a “remarkably healthy and vigorous” girl. The mother, he said, was doing “wonderfully well.” The two men then shook hands warmly. Grover asked the doctor to keep the news to himself for the time being. Then he visited his wife and their newborn for about fifteen minutes before returning to his desk.

At two o’clock that afternoon, Grover finally broadcast the news. He informed his cabinet, and his secretary, Henry Thurber, told an Associated Press correspondent, “You can tell the world that we have a little girl baby here.” Soon telegrams and letters of congratulations were pouring in. The Clevelands would receive more than 17,000 in all. In a rare display of leniency, Grover gave the White House staff the rest of the day off.

The second Cleveland daughter was the first (and thus far only) child of a president to be born in the White House itself, though she was not the first baby born there. Nine other children had already entered the world within the historic walls of the presidential mansion. The first was Thomas Jefferson’s grandson, James Madison Randolph, in 1806. John Quincy Adams and Ulysses Grant each welcomed a grandchild there. John Tyler greeted two. And Andrew Jackson’s niece Emily Donelson gave birth to four children in the White House. (Since the birth of the Clevelands' daughter, only one other baby has been born in the White House: Woodrow Wilson’s grandson, Francis B. Sayre Jr., in 1915. Sayre became a prominent minister, serving twenty-seven years as dean of the National Cathedral in Washington. He died in 2008.)

Since the Clevelands already had a daughter, many Americans had hoped their second child would be a boy. “When the news that the … child was a girl spread through the city,” one paper reported, “there were many expressions of disappointment.” The proud parents, however, couldn’t have been happier. “She is a sweet baby,” Frances wrote to a friend, “looking much as Ruth did at her age, with dark eyes and hair. All here are pleased that she is a girl, however disappointed the nation may be.”

Six days later, the Clevelands announced the baby’s name: Esther.