Grover Cleveland avoided the draft, hung two men, fathered a child out-of-wedlock, admitted all, and was elected, twice, to the presidency of the United States. Yet this most honest of presidents perpetrated one of the greatest deceptions in presidential history - and his secret, incredibly, held for a quarter of a century. What Cleveland hid from the American people was cancer, and the two operations he underwent to remove it.
With his huge bulk, pasty complexion, and gouty foot, Cleveland was never the picture of health. Everyone knew he ate too much, drank too much, smoked too much – had a pretty wife, too, more than half his age – and only moved to sit somewhere else. What no one could even guess, though, was that in June 1893, Cleveland discovered he had oral cancer. The malignancy, he was told, necessitated the removal of the greater part of his left upper jawbone – immediately. And, had the country not been plunged in the first violent throes of the great financial Panic of 1893, Cleveland could have announced his condition, and openly undergone its cure. But he feared news of a life-threatening operation would only exacerbate the crisis, and so decided to keep his cancer absolutely secret.
Waiting, then, until Congress recessed for the summer, Cleveland slipped out of the White House, boarded a private railway car, and removed himself to a friend’s yacht anchored in Long Island Sound. There he was strapped upright in a chair lashed to the mast, given anesthesia – a considerable risk, considering his obesity - and operated upon for forty-one minutes. After staying aboard the Oneida for five days – in, mostly, an opiate haze – he then repaired to his summer home, there to stay for five weeks, healing, while being fit with an artificial jaw prosthesis. During this time he had to return to the yacht for yet a second round of surgery, to remove more cancer. Finally, when he could speak well enough and looked normal, he went back to Washington, and work – no one the wiser. This letter, written to his surgeon, commemorates his momentous, and secret, surgery:
Perhaps it has not occurred to you that this is rather an interesting anniversary. I don’t know that it ought to occur to you with the same depth of feeling that it does to me. At any rate I want to remind you that you and I were on the Oneida one year ago today – both feeling very different from what we do today and I guess you the most anxious of the two... I must tell you another coincidence. Dr. Keen called on me and examined me with the greatest satisfaction… He never tires of speaking of the splendor and success of your job. He has really made me think that my very dear medical friend is a good deal of a chap. But I only want to remind you of the anniversary…
Cleveland died fourteen years later of heart failure. His cancer never returned, and no one involved in its removal spoke a word of it until 1917.
Autograph Letter Signed, as President, 4 pages, recto and verso, octavo, Executive Mansion, Washington, July 1, 1894. To Dr. Joseph D. Bryant.