Who knew that former US First Lady Rose Cleveland moved to the Tuscan town of Bagni di Lucca, Italy? Or that she lived there with Evangeline Whipple, the widow of an Episcopal Bishop?
Historians Tilly Laskey and Lizzie Ehrenhalt’s new book, “Precious and Adored,” tells the story through the women’s letters. And the authors provide a contextualizing introduction and notes that assist readers with these sometimes ambiguous communications, which began in 1890 and continued through their departure from the US in 1910. Available now for pre-order through Amazon, “Precious and Adored” also includes historian of sexuality Lillian Faderman’s Foreward to the volume.
Here is yet another account of two women of more than a century ago who followed “later vocations”–paths neither one anticipated when younger. These callings urged them to step beyond the typical and predicted.
Granted, their earlier lives were not the norm for white, middle-class nineteenth-century women. Cleveland, a single woman, became First Lady when her unmarried brother, Grover Cleveland, became President. Whipple, whom some might consider a gold digger, had been married twice to older men before being widowed the second time. The two women had met in Florida prior to Evangeline’s second marriage. Then, after Bishop Whipple’s death, they reconnected–making plans through letters for their future in Italy.
Once in Italy Whipple continued her labors as a social activist. (She had labored for Native American rights and education in Minnesota). Cleveland joined her in new efforts in Tuscany. There, the two served people victimized by World War I–especially refugees from northern provinces who arrived in the small town. They provided assistance with food, clothing and education, and they nursed the sick through the 1918 flu epidemic. Cleveland, however, succumbed late that year, just after the war ended. The women were buried side-by-side in the English Cemetery at Bagni di Lucca.
Bagni di Lucca: A Thermal Magnet
I first learned about these fascinating women’s relationship at a conference, hosted by Bagni di Lucca’s Montaigne Society. Known for its “baths,” or hot springs, located in the hills above Lucca, the town has long been a magnet for Anglo expatriates, such as Percy and Mary Shelley and other travelers, including the French essayist Montaigne.
The Montaigne Society’s annual conference which first attracted me focused on Anglo-Italian relations. I presented on Nelly Erichsen, an English visual artist and travel writer. That same year Laskey, now curator with the Maine Historical Society, enticed conference goers with her story of Whipple’s life. And Sirpa Salenius, an American literature professor with a long history in Tuscany, engaged us with an account of Cleveland. Salenius, now at the University of Eastern Finland, has since written and published a biography of Cleveland, placing her within the context of literary women and activists.
Erichsen: A Third Wheel?
Active as an illustrator from 1884 through 1914, Erichsen briefly lived and worked with Cleveland and Whipple in the last years before her death. She, too, died in the 1918 flu epidemic and was buried by them in the English Cemetery. In her last publication–a poignant one–she referred to herself, Cleveland and Whipple as “jetsam of the war too.” In short, she connected the three women’s dislocated status to those of the refugees. Certainly, some today would contest that similarity–especially when considering how Cleveland and Whipple planned their “later vocations.” My presentation on Erichsen as a travel writer became an essay co-authored with Sarah Harkness, who has since published a biography of Erichsen (available from Encanta Publishing).
The essay on Erichsen, along with Laskey’s and Salenius’s conference accounts, all appeared in an issue of Anglistica Pisana on Anglo-Italian relations, published by the University of Pisa. And now Laskey’s and Ehrenhalt’s volume brings another layer of these women’s lives to the public.
Follow “Later Vocations”
These women’s lives clearly connect to my “later vocations” project, in which I feature interesting paths people have followed after their early years. Sometimes I write about people of the past, but I am equally interested in the present.
My next posts, for example, feature Paul Green and Tina Moore, who recently set their regular routines aside in order to follow their spiritual seeking at 17 Trappist monasteries in the US. What did they find? My interviews with them provide some insights. As you might imagine, they’re not simple answers.
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