4 pages | SMC 891
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.
all pages and transcript
July 1. 1894
My dear Doctor
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 [text is crossed out] one year ago to day [sic] – both feeling very different from what we do to-day and I guess you the most anxious of the two. The intervening time between that day and this is full of incidents filled with evidence of your kindness and devotion.
I must tell you another coincidence. Dr Keen called on me
and examined me with the greatest satisfaction. He took me by the hand and congratulated me with the greatest kindness and enthusiasm. He never tires of speaking of the splendor [text is crossed out] 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. Good bye
my dear fellow and in all your plans give the biggest chunk of time to Gray Gables.
Cal sits by me and is going to dine with me in about two minutes. I wish you were here.