CLOSE
Getty Images
Getty Images

Grover Cleveland’s Deadly Secret

Getty Images
Getty Images

By Matthew Algeo

In early June of 1893, President Grover Cleveland—who was born on March 18, 1837—discovered a large tumor on the roof of his mouth. The cancer was progressing quickly. Doctors determined that if the president was to survive, the growth had to be removed. But the procedure was complicated, and Cleveland’s doctors feared that the surgery could trigger a stroke. There was also a 15 percent chance in those days that the president could die under the knife. After weighing his options, Cleveland chose to have the tumor removed, under one condition: The operation had to be conducted in total secrecy. The president feared that Wall Street—already reeling from falling stock prices in the midst of a depression—would panic if news of his illness leaked. Even his vice president, Adlai Stevenson, was to be kept in the dark.

On the morning of June 30, President Cleveland and six of the nation’s finest physicians assembled on board the Oneida, a yacht anchored in New York Harbor. Sitting in a deck chair, the president smoked cigars and chatted amiably with the men as the boat set sail for Long Island Sound. The following morning, the doctors scrambled below deck to prepare for the surgery. In lieu of an operating table, a large chair was bound to the mast in the yacht’s parlor. A single light bulb, connected to a portable battery, would provide all of the light. The doctors boiled their instruments and pulled crisp white aprons over their dark suits. Shortly after noon, the president entered the parlor and took his seat.

Using nitrous oxide and ether as anesthetics, the doctors removed the tumor, along with five teeth and much of Cleveland’s upper left palate and jawbone. The procedure lasted 90 minutes. It also took place wholly within the patient’s mouth, so that no external scars would betray the clandestine operation.

On July 5, Cleveland was dropped off at his summer home on Cape Cod. He healed remarkably fast. By the middle of July, he was fitted with a vulcanized rubber prosthesis that plugged the hole in his mouth and restored his normal speaking voice. All the while, the public was told that the president had merely suffered a toothache.

On August 29, The Philadelphia Press published an exposé by Elisha Jay Edwards. The headline read, “The President A Very Sick Man.” Edwards, the paper’s Manhattan correspondent, had been tipped off by a New York doctor who’d heard rumors of the secret surgery. After some additional digging, Edwards located Ferdinand Hasbrouck, the dentist who had administered the anesthesia to Cleveland, and verified the details.

The Philadelphia Press story was remarkably accurate. In fact, it still stands as one of the great scoops in the history of American journalism. But it wasn’t perceived that way by the public. The Cleveland administration categorically denied the charges and launched a smear campaign to discredit and embarrass the reporter. Newspapers denounced Edwards as a “disgrace to journalism” and a “calamity liar.” The tactics were effective. The public sided with Cleveland, who’d built his reputation as the “Honest President.” Meanwhile, Edwards’ career was effectively ruined. For the next 15 years, the veteran reporter could barely find work. In 1909, he landed a job as a columnist for a struggling young newspaper called The Wall Street Journal. But Edwards’ career was still tainted by the allegations that he’d faked the story about Grover Cleveland.

One of the doctors who performed the surgery, W.W. Keen, always regretted how Edwards had been so unjustly maligned. In 1917, a quarter-century after the operation and a decade after Cleveland’s death, Keen finally decided to do something about it. He published a confessional in The Saturday Evening Post, hoping to “vindicate Mr. Edwards’ character as a truthful correspondent.” The admission was successful. The old newspaperman was inundated with congratulatory letters and telegrams, and the outpouring deeply moved him. Edwards even wrote to Keen to thank him for restoring his reputation. 

Executive Disorders

Grover Cleveland was hardly the only president to conceal a major medical crisis from the public. On October 2, 1919, Woodrow Wilson suffered a massive stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body and incapacitated him so completely—physically and mentally—that, in the words of one historian, “The president should have resigned immediately.” Instead, the White House physician, Dr. Cary Grayson, announced that President Wilson was merely suffering from “nervous exhaustion.”

Wilson’s successor, Warren Harding, wasn’t exactly the picture of health, either. His heart was so weak that he had to sleep propped up with pillows. If he slept lying down, blood would pool in his lungs, making it difficult for him to breathe. On July 27, 1923, Harding suffered what was almost certainly a heart attack, but his doctor—a homeopath who liked to prescribe pills by color (pink was a favorite)—insisted it was simply food poisoning. Harding died in office six days later.

In the early 1960s, John F. Kennedy concealed the fact that he suffered from a debilitating condition called Addison’s disease during his presidency. And more recently, Ronald Reagan’s staff covered up the fact that the president showed signs of dementia in the White House. Of course, on the order of presidential secrets, it’s difficult to know what’s more disturbing: the cover-ups that go on inside the Oval Office, or the ones that originate in the doctor’s office.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Lionsgate Home Entertainment
arrow
entertainment
13 Great Facts About Bad Lieutenant
Lionsgate Home Entertainment
Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Bad Lieutenant can be accused of many things, but one charge you can't level against it is false advertising. Harvey Keitel's title character, whose name is never given, is indeed a bad, bad lieutenant: corrupt, sleazy, drug-addled, irresponsible, and lascivious, all while he's on the job. (Imagine what his weekends must be like!)

Abel Ferrara's nightmarish character study was controversial when it was released 25 years ago today, and rated NC-17 for its graphic nudity (including a famous glimpse at Lil’ Harvey), unsettling sexual violence, and frank depiction of drug use. The film packs a wallop, no doubt. Here's some behind-the-scenes info to help you cope with it.

1. THE PLACID WOMAN WHO HELPS THE LIEUTENANT FREEBASE HEROIN WROTE THE MOVIE.

That's Zoë Tamerlis Lund, who starred in Abel Ferrara's revenge-exploitation thriller Ms. 45 (1981) more than a decade earlier, when she was 17 years old. She and Ferrara are credited together for writing Bad Lieutenant, though she always insisted that wasn't the case. "I wrote this alone," she said. "Abel is a wonderful director, but he's not a screenwriter. She said elsewhere that she "wrote every word of that screenplay," though everyone agrees the finished movie included a lot of improvisation. Lund was a fascinating, tragic character herself—a musical prodigy who became an enthusiastic and unapologetic user of heroin before switching to cocaine in the mid-1990s. She died of heart failure in 1999 at age 37.

2. CHRISTOPHER WALKEN WAS SUPPOSED TO STAR IN IT.

Christopher Walken had starred in Ferrara's previous film, King of New York (1990), and was set to play the lead in Bad Lieutenant before pulling out at almost the last minute. Ferrara was shocked. "[Walken] says, 'You know, I don't think I'm right for it.' Which is, you know, a fine thing to say, unless it's three weeks from when you're supposed to start shooting," Ferrara said. "It definitely caught me by surprise. It put me in terminal shock, actually." Harvey Keitel replaced him (though not without difficulty; see below), and the film's editor, Anthony Redman, thought Keitel was a better choice anyway. "Chris is too elegant for the part," he said. "Harvey is not elegant." 

3. HARVEY KEITEL'S INITIAL REACTION TO THE SCRIPT WAS NOT PROMISING.

"When we gave [Keitel] the script the first time, he read about five pages and threw it in the garbage," Ferrara said. Keitel's recollection was a little more diplomatic. As he told Roger Ebert, "I read a certain amount of pages and I put it down. I said, 'There's no way I'm gonna make this movie.' And then I asked myself, 'How often am I a lead in a movie? Read it, maybe I can salvage something from it …' When I read the part about the nun, I understood why Abel wanted to make it."

4. IT WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO BE FUNNY.


Lionsgate Home Entertainment

"It was always, in my mind, a comedy," Ferrara said. He cited the scene where the Lieutenant pulls the teenage girls over as a specific example of how Christopher Walken would have played it, and how Harvey Keitel changed it. "The lieutenant was going to end up dancing in the streets with the girls as the sun came up. They'd be wearing his gun belt and hat, and they'd have the radio on, you know what I mean? But oh my God, Harvey, he turned it into this whole other thing." Boy, did he. 

5. THAT SCENE WITH THE TEENAGE GIRLS HAD A REAL-LIFE ELEMENT THAT MADE IT EVEN CREEPIER.

One of the young women was Keitel's nanny. Ferrara: "I said, 'You sure you want to do this with your babysitter?' He says, 'Yeah, I want to try something.'"

6. MUCH OF IT WAS FILMED GUERRILLA-STYLE.

Like many indie-minded directors of low-budget films, Ferrara didn't bother with permits most of the time. "We weren't permitted on any of this stuff," editor Anthony Redman admitted. "We just walked on and started shooting." For the scene where a strung-out Lieutenant walks through a bumpin' nightclub, they sent Keitel through an actual, functioning club during peak operating hours.

7. A GREAT DEAL OF THE DIALOGUE AND ACTION WERE MADE UP ON THE FLY.

The script was only about 65 pages at first, which would have made for about a 65-minute movie. "It left a lot of room for improvisation," producer Randy Sabusawa said, "but the ideas were pretty distilled. They were there."

Script supervisor Karen Kelsall said supervising the script was a challenge. "Abel didn't stick to a script," she said. "Abel used a script as a way to get the money to make a movie, and then the script was kind of—we called it the daily news. It changed every day. It changed in the middle of scenes." Ferrara was unapologetic about the script's brevity. "The idea of wanting 90 pages ... is ridiculous."

8. AND THERE WERE EVEN MORE IDEAS THAT THEY DIDN'T USE.

Ferrara said a scene that epitomized the movie for him—even though he never got around to filming it—was one where the Lieutenant robs an electronics store, leaves, then gets a call about a robbery at the electronics store. He responds in an official capacity (they don't recognize him), takes a statement, walks out, and throws the statement in the garbage. "And that to me is the Bad Lieutenant, you know?" Ferrara said. 

9. THE BASEBALL PLAYOFF SERIES IS FICTIONAL.

The Mets have battled the Dodgers for the National League championship once, in 1988. (The Dodgers beat 'em and went on to win the World Series.) For the narrative Ferrara wanted—the Mets coming back from a 3-0 deficit to win the pennant—he had to make it up. He used footage from real Mets-Dodgers games (including Darryl Strawberry's three-run homer from a game in July 1991) and added fictional play-by-play. But the statistics were accurate: no team had ever been down by three in a best-of-seven series and then come back to win. (It's happened once since then, when the 2004 Red Sox did it.)

10. THEY HAD HELP FROM THE COP WHO SOLVED A SIMILAR CASE.

The disgusting crime at the center of the film (we won't dwell on it) was inspired by a real-life incident from 1981, which mayor Ed Koch called "the most heinous crime in the history of New York City." The street cop who solved it, Bo Dietl, advised Ferrara on the film and had an on-screen role as one of the detectives in our Lieutenant's circle of friends.

11. THEY DESECRATED THE CHURCH AS RESPECTFULLY AS THEY COULD.

Production designer Charles Lagola had his team cover the church’s altar and other surfaces with plastic wrap, then painted the graffiti and other defacements on the plastic.

12. IT WAS RATED NC-17 IN THEATERS, WITH AN R-RATED VERSION FOR HOME VIDEO.

Blockbuster and some of the other retail chains wouldn't carry NC-17 or unrated films, so sometimes studios would produce edited versions. (See also: Requiem for a Dream.) The tamer version of Bad Lieutenant was five minutes and 19 seconds shorter, with parts of the rape scene, the drug-injecting scene, and much of the car interrogation scene excised.

13. THE "SEQUEL" HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT, NOR DID FERRARA APPROVE OF IT.


First Look International

Movie buffs were baffled in 2009, when Werner Herzog directed Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, starring Nicolas Cage. It sounds like a sequel (or a remake), but in fact had no connection at all to the earlier film except that both were produced by Edward R. Pressman. Herzog said he'd never seen Ferrara's movie and wanted to change the title (Pressman wouldn't let him); Ferrara, outspoken as always, initially wished fiery death on everyone involved. Ferrara and Herzog finally met at the 2013 Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, where Herzog initiated a conversation about the whole affair and Ferrara expressed his frustration cordially. 

Additional sources:
DVD interviews with Abel Ferrara, Anthony Redman, Randy Sabusawa, and Karen Kelsall.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Getty Images
arrow
Big Questions
How Are Balloons Chosen for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?
Getty Images
Getty Images

The balloons for this year's Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade range from the classics like Charlie Brown to more modern characters who have debuted in the past few years, including The Elf On The Shelf. New to the parade this year are Olaf from Disney's Frozen and Chase from Paw Patrol. does the retail giant choose which characters will appear in the lineup?

Balloon characters are chosen in different ways. For example, in 2011, Macy’s requested B. Boy after parade organizers saw the Tim Burton retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (The company had been adding a series of art balloons to the parade lineup since 2005, which it called the Blue Sky Gallery.) When it comes to commercial balloons, though, it appears to be all about the Benjamins.

First-time balloons cost at least $190,000—this covers admission into the parade and the cost of balloon construction. After the initial year, companies can expect to pay Macy’s about $90,000 to get a character into the parade lineup. If you consider that the balloons are out for only an hour or so, that’s about $1500 a minute.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios