Presidential Scandals: The Affairs of Warren G. Harding

“It’s a good thing I’m not a woman. I would always be pregnant. I can’t say no,” President Warren G. Harding speaking to a group of reporters at a private party at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

I’m a little obsessed with the TV show Scandal on ABC, a captivating saga of illicit relationships, unchecked power, and shocking political intrigue in the administration of President Fitzgerald Grant. Grant had been having an illicit affair with Olivia Pope who not only worked on his campaign but also in the White House as his press secretary. Now she’s a crisis management consultant whose job frequently involves the White House. Grant is married to Mellie, the ice-queen who would stop at nothing, even faking a miscarriage to get her husband elected. And then there is Cyrus, the Machiavellian chief of Staff who also happens to be gay, and Hollis Doyle, the Texas oilman who has a stake in the Grant Presidency. Oh, and did I mention that Fitzgerald Grant is a Republican? Although the show is of course fictional, looking back at past occupants of the White House, it’s clear that Shonda Rhimes has a lot of material to work with.

It wouldn’t be President’s Day without talking about one of the most Scandalous Presidents in U.S. History. No, I’m not talking about JFK or Bill Clinton. I’m not even talking about LBJ or Richard Nixon. No the vote for most Scandalous President in more than two hundred years goes to another Republican Warren Gamaliel Harding, our 29th President. The Rodney Dangerfield of politics, he can’t get no respect. Poor Warren was only President for twenty-nine months before dying mysteriously on a trip out West (it was rumored that his wife Florence had poisoned him because of his adulteries). Like another reviled public figure, Marie Antoinette, he was also born on November 2 in 1865. In 2010 He was ranked #2 on a list of the 10 worst Presidents in US History in US News and World Report but at the time of his death, it was a different story.

He was the poor boy who made good; a self-made newspaper publisher from America’s heartland, one of 8 U.S. Presidents from Ohio. He was not only the first incumbent United States Senator to be elected President but also the first newspaper publisher. It was Harding who first coined the phrase “Founding Fathers” including it in his keynote speech to the 1916 Republican convention. Harding won the Presidency by promising Americans a ‘return to normalcy’ after World War I. His affable manner as well as his conservatism made him the compromise choice at the 1920 convention. He just looked presidential. In the election that year he won the popular vote by a whopping 60%. Everything seemed to be coming up roses for Harding. African-Americans loved him because he openly advocated African-American political, education, and economic equality, especially in the South, and sponsored an anti-lynching bill. Women loved him because he supported their right to the vote, improved health care for mothers, and he enacted the first child welfare program. The country’s unemployment rate dropped in half during his administration. When he died, millions lined the tracks to pay their respects as the funeral train moved through the small towns and cities on its way to Washington. It was the first such procession since Lincoln died.

After his death, the floodgates opened, and all sorts of nasty goings on came out in the press. Anyone remember learning about the Teapot Dome Scandal in school? That was just the tip of the iceberg. Like most incoming presidents, he rewarded friends and political allies with powerful positions in the government but Harding’s friends turned out to be a bunch of crooks for the most part. There were scandals involving the Justice Department, the Veterans bureau, the shipping department and the Prohibition bureau (Harding served liquor in the White House to guests despite Prohibition). “I have no trouble with my enemies,” Harding once said. It was his friends who “keep me walking the floor nights.” There was a rumor that not only was he part African-American, but also that he was a member of the Klu Klux Klan.

And then there were the scandals of a more intimate nature. It appears that long before JFK was sneaking women into the White House behind Jackie’s back; good ole Warren was having an illicit affair with not only a young campaign volunteer but there were other women as well. Two of the women were personal friends of his wife Florence, and the campaign volunteer was a young woman named Nan Britton who developed a big honking crush on the President when he was still a mere congressman and was determined to make him hers.

Like JFK and Lyndon Johnson, Harding was an unrestrained womanizer. The ladies thought him virile and handsome, plus he photographed well. “I cannot hope to be one of the great Presidents, “ he once said, “but perhaps I may be remembered as one of the best loved.” From Ohio, Harding had been a small-town newspaper publisher, two term state senator and lieutenant Governor, before he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Although he considered himself to be uniquely unsuited for the job of President, he had actually had more experience in government than Obama and George W. Bush combined. However, he looked presidential, and that was good enough back in the 1920’s. Like Mellie on Scandal, his wife Florence, known as the Duchess, was the power behind the throne. Five years older than her husband, Florence married Harding against her wealthy father Amos Kling’s wishes. Her first husband had been the ne’er do well son of a wealthy family. As far as Kling was concerned, Harding was cut from the same cloth. But Florence saw a diamond in the rough and was determined to polish him up. Their marriage was a solid business partnership, not a love match. She brought drive and money to the table, and Warren brought her political opportunity.

Harding first cheated on Florence three years into the marriage with Susie Hodder, his wife’s best friend since childhood. Then he began a 15 year affair with another friend of the couple Carrie Fulton Phillips. Carrie was blonde and beautiful with the figure of a Gibson girl, tiny waist and a generous bosom. To make it even more complicated, Harding and Carrie’s husband were good friends. The affair started in 1905, a year after Carrie and her husband James lost their young son. James had a nervous breakdown and spent time at Dr. Kellogg’s sanitarium in Battle Creek. While he was a way, the grieving wife was comforted by Harding. Despite their respective marriages, Harding and Carrie found ample time for their trysts. They would sneak away when the two couples took joint vacations to Europe. Once they even managed to meet up in Montreal for New Year’s Eve.

Most historians consider Carrie to be the love of his life. More than 100 intimate letters were discovered in the 1960’s but publication of the letters has been enjoined by a court order until 2014. Historians who have seen them say that they are very touching in some ways and also very erotic. The relationship foundered when Carrie developed a passion for all things German, moving to Berlin in 1911, where she may or may not have become a spy for Germany during World War I. At the very least she was outspokenly pro-German. When Harding supported President Wilson’s aggressive response to the sinking of the Lusitania, Carrie was pissed. She threatened to reveal their affair if he voted for war with Germany, but she didn’t go through with her threat. Harding warned Carrie that if she kept it up she faced arrest. Still Carrie was such critic that the Bureau of Investigation put her under surveillance. The Bureau got wind of Harding’s affair but kept silent.

After fifteen years, Carrie was tired of being Harding’s mistress, she wanted to be his wife. Unlike President Grant on SCANDAL who was eager to divorce his wife despite the damage to his political career, Harding was not. While he had no passion for his wife, he did for politics. Carrie had had enough. During the presidential election of 1920, Carrie blackmailed Harding ending up with lump-sum of $25,000 and $2,000 a month for as long as Harding was in politics. She and her husband were also sent on an all expense paid trip to the Far East courtesy of the Republican party until the election was over.

There were minor flings with Augusta Cole, whom Harding impregnated and then forced to have an abortion; Rosa Hoyle, who gave birth to Harding's illegitimate son; a distraught New York woman who committed suicide when Harding refused to leave his wife. There is also some evidence that Harding may have been responsible for the accidental death of prostitute at one of the many wild parties he hosted. Apparently Hardings cronies had a secret bank account to buy the silence of his ex-flames.

His third mistress Grace Cross had been one of Harding's secretaries during his senate years, and received a substantial blackmail payment for the return of incredibly sappy and juvenile love letters Harding wrote her. But it was his fourth mistress who was the most infamous, a beautiful blonde named Nan Britton. Britton was a campaign volunteer began sleeping with Harding when she was 20 and he was 51. While other girls pasted photos of movie stars on their walls, Nan plastered his campaign photos on her bedroom walls. Harding and her father were friends, and he knew of her infatuation but pooh-poohed it at the time, insisting that she would meet someone her own age.

Harding helped her get a job in the newspaper business, and they began an affair that would last for six years. Nan allegedly lost her virginity to Harding in an New York hotel room but not before driving him into a frenzy of desire by coyly refusing to sleep with him. She followed him to Washington when he became a U.S. Senator, allegedly giving birth to a daughter named Elizabeth Ann in 1919 (concieved during a tryst in the Senate Office building). When Nan told Harding she was pregnant, he offered to pay for an abortion. Nan refused, moving to Chicago with the baby to live with her sister. She saw him secretly during the Republican convention, apparently he spent more time with Nan then he did attending to the business of the nomination.The affair continued even after Harding was in the White House, aided by two Secret Service Agents James Sloan and Walter Ferguson. According to Nan, Florence almost caught them in mid-tryst in one of the cloakrooms in the Oval Office after being tipped off by another agent.

After Harding’s death, Britton tried to get the Harding family to continue financial support for Elizabeth. While Harding was alive, he sent Nan money, $150 per week. Now Nan wanted part of Harding's estate, estimated at a half a million dollars. When no money was forthcoming, she wrote what many consider the first presidential kiss and tell book entitled The President’s Daughter. The book was so salacious, filled with titillating tidbits including a tryst in an Oval Office closet, that it was suppressed as obscene. Britton spent years arguing that her daughter was Harding’s heir before finally giving up. She busied herself with the Elizabeth Ann Guild, a foundation that provided legal aid for unwed mothers.

Some historians believe that Nan Britton's story of her affair with Harding was nothing but fiction.  There is no hard evidence one way or the other, no surving love letters.  Both Harding’s relatives and Elizabeth Ann’s descendents refuse to take a DNA test to prove conclusively one way or the other that Harding was her father.

It seems ironic that there was one ambition that Harding almost achieved. "I cannot hope to be one of the great Presidents, " he said, "but perhaps I may be remembered as one of the best loved."
For further reading:

James David Robenalt, The Harding Affair, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
Larry Flynt and David Eisenbach, PhD, One National Under Sex, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011
Michael Farquhar, A Treasury of Great American Scandals: Tantalizing True Tales of Historic Misbehavior by the Founding Fathers and Others Who Let Freedom Swing, Perigee, 2003


Unknown said…
Well, at long last, DNA evidence has confirmed that Nan Britton's daughter, Elizabeth Ann,' was the president's biological child. I have waited for this confirmation for well over four decades.

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