I’ve just learned some amazing facts. Warren G. Harding, the former U.S. President who died in office, and I have a lot in common. We both were born in Ohio. We both were Ohio newspapermen. And we were both were elected to the nation’s highest… whoops, I guess we don’t have all that much in common.
I’ve always had a fondness for President Harding, who suffered heart failure while in San Francisco on August 2, 1923, while on a campaign swing through the West Coast. I’d been 11 for about a month when Grandpa Frog and Grandma Mid Franks took the train from Akron, Ohio, to spend Christmas 1962 with us in Rialto, California. He shared some memories of his time in the Ohio National Guard in the 1920s including when he was a member of the Honor Guard for Harding’s funeral in Marion, Ohio. I’m a little foggy on whether he stood guard near the casket during the funeral or during the public viewing when thousands paid their final respects. I know Grandpa Frog told me, but that was a long time ago. He’s been gone since January 1987.
In less than a year, I’d sit with rest of my family and watch President Kennedy’s state funeral and think on the words my grandfather told me about President Harding. Just last month the Library of Congress unsealed a collection of sultry love letter penned by Harding and his 15-year mistress Carrie Phillips, a fellow Ohioan. Watching a video overview and then reading some of the letters resurrected those Christmas days in 1962 when Grandpa Frog told me about his time as an Honor Guard member for Harding’s funeral.
While I don’t want to excuse his roving eye, I do think the letters show Harding as a tarnished but decent man, a contrast to what many of us learned in history class. Up until Nixon and Watergate, Harding’s administration was the most corrupt in American history, victimized by his “Ohio Gang” in what became known as the Teapot Dome financial scandal. Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall had leased Navy petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome in Wyoming and two other locations in California to private oil companies at low rates without competitive bidding. Fall was convicted of accepting bribes from the oil companies and became the first Cabinet member to go to prison.
Sometimes Harding’s letters meander for 60 or 70 pages. That’s devotion. And some were quite salacious. They had a pet name for a particular part of his anatomy used for reproduction… Jerry. In a Christmas Eve note to Carrie in 1918, he wrote, “Jerry sends Christmas greetings! He would come too, if I might: would he be welcomed cordially?” That Christmas Eve note to her made clear they’d begun their affair in 1905 and consummated it three years later. His poetry was heartfelt, although trashy. “I love your poise, your perfect thighs when they hold me in paradise. I love you garb’d, but naked more. I love you when you open your eyes, and mouth and arms, and cradling thighs.”
Harding did have a true romantic side, a yearning soul that wanted to share a tender love with a soul mate. In 1913, when Harding lived in Marion and Carrie had moved across the Atlantic to Berlin, he mailed these words to her: “There, I have replied to your note and answered every suggestion therein, save one, which I reserved for the last. You wonder about genuine love, and say it doesn’t require propinquity to keep it aflame. Perhaps not, but you will agree that someday that propinquity will work wonders. I am not sure whether you were questioning the genuineness of my love or not.
“Of course, I may be mistaken about it myself, but if I am fooled, no man ever truly loved. I have studied it a lot and scrutinized myself. If it isn’t love, it is an alarming course of permanent infatuation. Where a man can think of no one else, worship nothing else, and craves nothing else than the one woman he adores, though he hasn’t seen her in nine or ten months, and she is four thousand miles away, and can’t possibly be possessed, it seems more than infatuation.”
Harding concluded the 1913 introspection with some final thoughts on romance: “I am ever wanting to kiss and fondle, to embrace and caress, to adore and possess. I can’t help it. That is not spiritual, I grant, but very real. It may be only a symptom of the greater love, or it may be a factor in the greater love’s awakening. I do not know. But this I do know. My greater admiration, adoration and worship have been inseparable from this experience. And it all endures.”
Keep in mind Carrie was the wife of another man, a man Harding called friend. And Harding was married as well… to Florence Kling, daughter of a prominent Marion banker who didn’t like Harding. Historians describe his marriage as a business relationship, which slowly lost intimacy as his wife became ill from kidney disease. Apparently the affair with Carrie began while Florence recovered from kidney-related surgery. Through the years the affair as well as other dalliances were kept hidden, although the couple’s spouses knew as did Harding’s political advisers. The historians say Florence considered divorce, but never pursued it.
At the time of their marriage, Harding was the newspaper publisher of the Marion Star and was charting a course to make it the top newspaper in the county and the major editorial voice of the Republican Party there. He revamped the Star’s editorial platform to support Gov. “Fire Alarm” Foe Foraker, a move that put him at odds with those who controlled local politics. When Harding went to war against the Marion Independent, he found himself the enemy of the Republican establishment, men like Amos Hall Kling, one of Marion’s wealthiest real-estate speculator’s and Florence’s father. The editorial battle with the Independent became so heated that when the enemy newspaper mentioned Harding’s questionable bloodline, father and son brought a shotgun and demanded a retraction at gunpoint.
When Florence married Harding, she became the brains behind the publishing business. While Harding was up at the Battle Creek Sanitarium regaining his strength, she ran the Star as business manager. She organized a circulation department, trained newsboys, purchased equipment at reasonable prices and installed the first news-wire service. In March 1921, when Harding was sworn in as the 29th President of the United States, The Duchess – as she was known – took on the mantle of First Lady and gave elegant parties at the White House.
While Florence helped him rise in political ranks to the U.S. Senate in 1914 by managing his finances, social life and public image, Carrie’s support for Germany in World War I became a problem for Harding. She opposed U.S. involvement in the war, and continued to express her opposition even after the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany. In 1916, Carrie threatened to go public with their affair if Harding had entered the presidential race. As American troops embarked for Europe in 1917-18, Harding sent Carrie and her husband a letter warning them that she was being watched as a potential spy. Finally, she toned down her rhetoric.
Like a lot of political convention in that era, the 1920 Republican Convention became deadlocked, and Republicans turned to Harding as a safe alternative candidate. Suddenly, he was the Republican candidate for President of the United States. Famous for his promise of a “Return to Normalcy,” Harding called for an end to violence and radicalism, a strong economy and independence from European intrigues that, he said, led to World War I. As the flag bearer of the party’s conservative wing, he supported policies radically different from the progressives, the late Theodore Roosevelt and Sen. Robert M. Lafollette Sr. In the November election, he defeated Democrat and fellow Ohio newspaper publisher James M. Cox by a landslide, 60 percent to 34 percent.
With the White House as an achievable prize, Harding ended his affair with Carrie. He destroyed his love letters; she didn’t. Carrie kept them hidden in her closet for more than 30 years. They were discovered after her death by a lawyer in control of her estate. Such scandalous gossip couldn’t stay bottled up… the story of the affair emerged in the 1960s. Harding’s descendants took ownership of the letters and had the collection sealed at the Library of Congress on July 29, 1964 for fifty years.
Poor Florence couldn’t keep her husband’s image squeaky clean during the two years of his shortened presidency. With World War I barely over, Harding’s Administration became embroiled in multiple cases of corruption during his life and after his death, including the Teapot Dome scandal.
But in the decades since Harding’s death, historians have re-evaluated his short presidency and have seen some positives. He signed the first federal child welfare program. He dealt with striking mining and railroad workers in part by supporting an eight-hour workday. His newly formed Bureau of the Budget prepared the first U.S. federal budget. He pushed for an anti-lynching bill, but it failed to pass Congress. In foreign affairs, he turned his back on the League of Nations, but at the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-22 he cajoled the major naval powers to agree on a naval limitations program that somewhat worked until Nazi Germany rose from the ashes of the Weimar Republic.
When President Harding died in San Francisco in early August 1923, his just-completed life and 20-year-old Frog Frank’s barely started life briefly touched when my Grandpa Frog was asked to stand guard at his President’s casket. And when Frog told his story of his Ohio National Guard days to 11-year-old Mike Staton, it led in a roundabout way to this very story you’re reading. Harding and Florence are entombed in the Harding Memorial in Marion. With Harding’s reputation shattered by personal controversies and scandals, the Harding Memorial was not officially dedicated until 1931 in the midst of the Great Depression. It’s the last of the elaborate presidential tombs, a trend that began with the burial of Abraham Lincoln in his tomb in Springfield, Illinois.
Book 1 is my trilogy is The Emperor’s Mistress; book 2, Thief’s Coin. The first two links are Amazon; the next two links, Barnes and Noble; the final link, my publisher, Wings ePress.