By KELLY NICHOLAIDES
For Montclair Local
Dressed in 19th century formal garb before performing in a reenactment of President Grover Cleveland’s 1893 inauguration, George Cleveland joked that he channels his famous grandfather by putting on “funny” clothes.
The white-haired, mustachioed 66-year-old bears an uncanny resemblance to the Caldwell, N.J.-born president. Grover Cleveland built a reputation as a reformer who fought corruption and patronage, and was unwavering in his integrity.
“When we look back at history, it’s not about memorizing dates and events. It’s about how people worked to build this country. [Cleveland] stuck by what he believed in, upholding the public trust. His big line was to tell the truth and he didn’t care what it cost him,” George Cleveland said.
The descendants of the only U.S. president who won two non-consecutive elections, his grandson George Cleveland and great-grandson Thomas Robertson IV took on the roles of the 22nd and 24th president and vice-president Adlai Stevenson at a fundraiser in the Upper Montclair Woman’s Club on Saturday, Nov. 10. The black-tie event raised funding toward building a visitor center for educational programming at the Grover Cleveland Birthplace museum in Caldwell. The Grover Cleveland Birthplace Memorial Association presented the event.
The opulent gathering attracted approximately 200 guests to the $300 ticket affair. The evening included the inauguration reenactment, dinner, an array of historical items on display, a live auction and music performances.
Montclair Orchestra, under the direction of David Chan, the concertmaster for the Metropolitan Opera, played classical songs by Mozart and Liszt as guests waltzed. Miss New Jersey Jaime Gialloreto played the role of First Lady Frances Folsom Cleveland. John Elliott of CBS Morning News, along with former White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier, served as Masters of Ceremonies. An exhibition of artifacts from the Grover Cleveland Birthplace, The Morris Museum and private collections highlighted elements of Cleveland’s early life. A live auction of presidential memorabilia from Mesnier’s time serving under five administrations closed out the night.
Cleveland’s descendants say they strive to exemplify his legacy of public service and integrity. George Cleveland runs the Gibson Center for Senior Services in North Conway, N.H. Thomas Robertson is a retired foreign service officer and former U.S. Ambassador to Slovenia under President George W. Bush.
“I try so hard to do right by him,” Robertson said. “He spoke his mind. He fought corruption after the Civil War, cleaned up bureaucracy, fought Tammany Hall [the corrupt New York City Democratic organization], and defied the odds. He worked for the people. Anyone who came looking for jobs under his administration was selected by merit, not party affiliation.”
Cleveland served as president from 1885 to 1889 and from 1893 to 1897. He was a pro-business Democrat and fiscal conservative elected during an era of Republican domination, and gained support from both parties during his first tenure as president. Cleveland opposed high tariffs, imperialism and subsidies, while committing to the principles of classical liberalism.
“He lost his first re-election bid, but made a comeback four years later. During his second term as president, he defended the gold standard when silver was in abundance, angering the Democratic Party. But unemployment from the Panic of 1893 marred his second administration as railroad and steel companies collapsed,” Robertson said.
The Democratic Party suffered devastating losses in the midterm election that followed, transforming the party and ushering in the Progressive Era. Despite Cleveland’s disastrous second term, his commitment to character and integrity cemented his place in history.
CBS’s John Elliott told the crowd that Cleveland’s “tell the truth” maxim in American political history is more important now than ever before. “The lack of knowledge of our nation’s history is breathtaking. As a society, we need to bring history back. The stakes are high. Our elected leaders need to tell the truth, and get the work done,” Elliott said.
Cleveland’s descendants have visited the Grover Cleveland Birthplace, which is brimming with history of the president’s early life. “It’s such a thrill to watch them connect to the house, stand there and take it all in,” said caretaker Sharon Farrell.
Located at 207 Bloomfield Ave., the Grover Cleveland Birthplace museum is where the president was born in 1837 and spent the first four years of his life. He was the fifth of nine children. After his father died, Cleveland left school and worked to support his family. He later became a lawyer and began working in public office, launching his political career after the Civil War.
Alice Gibson of the Grover Cleveland Birthplace Memorial Association said money raised from the gala will be used to educate the public, especially younger generations.
“The Birthplace Museum needs a visitor center with a room for students to come and learn about presidential history and civics,” Gibson said.
Montclair Orchestra violinist Robin Harris Lee said she was honored to be part of the celebration. “Events like this keep history alive and it’s interesting, festive and informative,” she said.
French horn player and Montclair State student Emma Wahlstrom added, “I’m from Sweden and through my work with the orchestra, I’m learning about American history.”