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4 real presidential marriages that make House of Cards look completely normal

"Warren, make sure to look vaguely evil for this photo."
"Warren, make sure to look vaguely evil for this photo."
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Each season of House of Cards has an insane plot — and crazy relationships to match. Frank and Claire Underwood are obsessed with power, only loosely monogamous, and bond by scheming against their enemies.

But compared with some real-life presidential relationships, Frank and Claire seem downright wholesome. These bizarre tales of historical White House romances make House of Cards seem almost corny.

(Warning: There are spoilers for seasons one and two of House of Cards and the past 239 years of American history.)

1) Warren G. Harding's wife played kingmaker while her husband got drunk, played poker, and sold the country

When he wasn't taking bribes from oil companies or getting drunk before meetings, Warren G. Harding had lurid affairs and wrote lengthy love letters to his mistresses.

But Florence Harding kept up. As told in Carl Anthony's biography, she managed to both wield power and present a perfectly domestic image of the first lady. She regularly attended cabinet meetings, but she also showed off her hit waffle recipe for reporters. Together, she and Warren played the media — and the country — better than Frank and Claire ever could.

And Florence seems like she was the brains behind the operation. Nicknamed "The Duchess," Florence said she "only had one real hobby — my husband." Later, she revealed her more Machiavellian tendencies when she was quoted as saying, "I know what's best for the President; I put him in the White House."

The couple even had an Underwoodian current of distrust. When Warren suddenly died in 1923, people were more than willing to believe rumors that Florence had poisoned him (she didn't ... probably).

2) Woodrow Wilson's wife, Edith Galt, secretly ran the White House for months

Wilson and Galt

Wilson and Galt in 1919, after the beard disappeared. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Frank and Claire may lust for power, but Edith Galt got to be president without the public even knowing.

Woodrow Wilson's presidency didn't start that way — originally, the relationship between Galt and Wilson was more The American President than House of Cards. Wilson's first wife died in 1914, his second year as president. After a short mourning period, he got right back into dating and married Galt in December, 1915.

It was a storybook romance — until Wilson had a debilitating stroke in October 1919. As recalled in A. Scott Berg's Wilson, Galt and Wilson's doctor, Cary Grayson, kept the whole thing a secret from the public. Galt and Grayson handled important national issues on their own for more than a month, and they didn't even let the vice president in on the secret. Meanwhile, Wilson stayed in bed, grew a big white beard, and was almost completely isolated from the public or any other advisers.

Even before his worst stroke, Wilson was hobbled by his health. During League of Nations negotiations in April 1919, he imagined that furniture was fighting, which makes Frank Underwood's random soliloquies seem realistic by comparison. The public didn't find out what happened until years later.

3) Andrew Jackson married a married woman — and killed a guy who made fun of her

Andrew Jackson, looking evil.

"Indeed, I killed a man. Do you have a problem with that?" (Universal Image Archive/Getty Images)

Yes, Claire and Frank were in a three-way with their Secret Service guard. But at least they didn't marry him. Andrew Jackson, by contrast, really did get hitched to a married woman. And if anyone made fun of the situation, Jackson got violent.

As told in Jon Meacham's American Lion, a woman named Rachel Donelson got married at the age 17, but she wasn't happy with her first husband. Jackson courted her and they ended living together before getting married in 1791. The only problem? Donelson's divorce didn't officially happen until September, 1793 — which meant Rachel was married to two men for a couple of years, and one of them was the future president of the United States.

Jackson didn't react well to jokes about the situation. When Tennessee Governor John Sevier made a joke about the whole marrying-another-guy's-wife thing, gunshots cleared the streets within minutes (it's unclear who fired first). And in 1806, after arguing about a horse race and his wife's honor, Jackson got shot in a duel with a guy named Charles Dickinson. Jackson still managed to kill him.

Eventually, Rachel crumbled under pressure, dying in December, 1828 — probably from the stress of her husband's just-concluded presidential campaign. That didn't stop Jackson from continuing to have scandals, however — the subsequent Petticoat affair was a lurid marriage-related affair that tore apart Jackson's administration.

4) Grover Cleveland married the woman who was basically his goddaughter, while he was in the White House

Mr. and Mrs. Cleveland

"Remember when I used to tuck you in? Now we're married! Neat, right?" (PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

By all reports, Grover Cleveland had a good reputation as a politician. But his White House marriage would have made even Frank Underwood squirm.

At first, it sounds romantic and cute: marriage in the White House, a guy named Grover, and a wife named Frances, all in the quaint summer of 1886. They even had fruitcake as their wedding cake, which is sort of endearing.

Then you realize that Grover was 49, Frances was 21, and he'd known her for her whole life.

Frances wasn't just some random youngster. As the White House website notes, Cleveland knew her when she was a baby and even bought her an infant carriage. Yes, the 1800s were different, but Grover and Frances were especially ... unique. This anecdote about his proposal might be romantic if it didn't involve an 8-year-old child and a grown man. Here it is in all its cringe-worthy glory:

When little Frances was eight years old she was sitting on "Uncle Grover's" lap one day entertaining him with childish prattle of what she should do when she grew up into "a big lady." It was about the time of Nelly Grant's marriage in the White House, which had formed a topic of family talk.

"I'm going to have a nice white satin dress and get married in the White House, too," she lisped.

"But I thought you were going to marry me, and I should wait for you," laughingly returned Mr. Cleveland.

"Of course it will be for you, for you will grow up to be president then," said the child, knowingly.

When Cleveland was elected Mrs. Folsom and her daughter were preparing to go to Europe, and on calling to say good-bye, Mr. Cleveland claimed from Miss Folsom the fulfillment, on her return, of the promise made when a child.

When Frances's dad died, Grover became her guardian. Once she entered college, the two began writing letters to each other, resulting in their marriage. Nobody in the country seemed to mind and, when the couple had a baby, Ruth, the entire country celebrated.

Even though it may not involve manipulating Congress into a key vote, that public reception may be more impressive than anything Frank Underwood's ever done. Grover Cleveland tricked people into thinking his marriage was normal. The Underwoods will have to try harder.