Warren Harding… a good rogue but not-so-good president

head shotThis post by Mike Staton.

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.

Ohio's Warren Harding is famous for having a corrupt presidential administration. Now he's almost famous for his over-the-top love letters.
Ohio’s Warren Harding is famous for having a corrupt presidential administration. Now he’s almost famous for his over-the-top love letters.

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.

My Grandpa Frog Franks was one of the Ohio National Guard soldiers who stood guard at President Harding's funeral in the early 1920s. This is grandpa at a National Guard camp.
My Grandpa Frog Franks was one of the Ohio National Guard soldiers who stood guard at President Harding’s funeral in the early 1920s. This is grandpa at a National Guard camp.

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.

Carrie Phillips was one of President Harding's lovers. She kept all his love letters. They were released in July and show him to be a potential erotic author.
Carrie Phillips was one of President Harding’s lovers. She kept all his love letters. They were released in July and show him to be a potential erotic author.

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.

Pictured is Harding's casket at his funeral. A bad heart did him in while he was on a campaign trip through the West. He died in San Francisco.
Pictured is Harding’s casket at his funeral. A bad heart did him in while he was on a campaign trip through the West. He died in San Francisco.

“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.”

Harding's funeral train moves through Canton, Ohio. Seeing the train must have reminded some old-timers of Lincoln's train.
Harding’s funeral train moves through Canton, Ohio. Seeing the train must have reminded some old-timers of Lincoln’s train.

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.

President Harding's hearse carries his body as onlookers watch.
President Harding’s hearse carries his body as onlookers watch.

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.

This is President Harding's Ohio memorial. It's the last of the great presidential memorials.
This is President Harding’s Ohio memorial. It’s the last of the great presidential memorials.

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.

Here's an aerial view of Harding's funeral ceremonies.
Here’s an aerial view of Harding’s funeral ceremonies.

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.





21 thoughts on “Warren Harding… a good rogue but not-so-good president

  1. Mike,
    Told as only a newsman could, concise and full of intriguing information. I truly enjoyed this post and the way our own lives and history intertwine. Fascinating subject and now I have to go digging…maybe when I finish the other twenty projects on the table. (Grin). Thank you, I loved this. Doris


    1. I recall learning a bit about Harding in U.S. History class in high school. Maybe because I went to high school in Ohio. I do know the teacher never really adequately explained the Teapot Dome. I’m like “teapot,” Harding was selling poorly made teapots? 🙂


  2. Interesting, I suspect there ere a lot of cheating spouses back then. I believe people were a bit more discreet, and divorce was not as commonplace. I am surprised that her letters were never destroyed by either family.


  3. Very interesting. I knew nothing of Harding except “Teapot Dome,” “Senate cloakroom,” and “Maybe his wife poisoned him.” And my fourth-grade teacher said he was handsome (to emphasize that handsome men don’t necessarily make great presidents). It’s good to have some substantive information about him.

    (I don’t think my class thought he was as handsome as our teacher did.)


    1. Yea, the wife-poisoning thing was very nasty. I think she put up with a lot of crap through the years, yet was the brains that saved his publishing empire. I figure some of his male inner circle must have been mad at her because of the influence she had with Harding. And I agree with you… I don’t think he particularly looks handsome, but on the other hand what people in 1920 thought handsome vs. the ideal handsome man in 2014 are two entirely different visions, I expect.


  4. Very interesting post, Mike,with lots of information! I knew nothing about Harding, so all new to me. So interesting that your grandfather stood guard at the casket. One of the the plants I work for during my technical writer day job is in Marion, OH, and Battle Creek (where the sanitarium was) is about 30 minutes away from where I live. It really is a small world, isn’t it?


    1. I always found Grandpa Frog’s talks on his memories of the Harding funeral fascinating. I just wish I had written his words down. He lived until January 1987. I could have done an interview in the 1970s or ’80s and looked back at the interview to get some quotes for the blog post. Would have made it better. But like so much of how we live our lives, I got caught up in the moment and put off talking to the older generation for too long — and now they’re gone.


  5. wow – lots of history, my favorite thing. Love the blog. Like Stephanie, I didn’t know a lot about Harding, just a name on the list of Presidents of the United States, so I loved this post. Well told an fascinating story. Erin


    1. I’m with you, Erin. Nothing better than history. That’s why I loved re-enacting in a Confederate Civil War unit back in the late ’70s and early ’80s. It was a way for me to somewhat experience what life was like for a soldier in the 1860s, learn the marching and fighting tactics, smell gunpowder, enjoy life around the campfires (hear fiddles, fife and dulcimer music). Just before I moved to Vegas I did one of my best pieces on a small SW North Carolina town in July 1863 when a Union Cavalry raiding party paid a visit. I should run the piece as a blog post if I can get permission from the newspaper it appeared in.


  6. Thank you- that was a great post, Mike. Harding was only a name to me as in one of the US presidents around the time of WWI. You definitely brought him to life! We learn such a lot from a letter- don’t we? And ones sealed for fifty years have to be particularly juicy. 😉


    1. The mistress, Carrie Phillips, was quite a firecracker. As the story says, she was quite supportive of Germany in World War I, even after the U.S. entered the war. Her rabid mouth could have put Harding’s political future in jeopardy had she followed through with threats to make their “relationship” public. I understand Harding’s wife Florence talked off his ear to get him to keep Phillips under control. Florence stayed in the marriage to enjoy the fruits of Harding’s political successes.


  7. Interesting Post! I know vaguely of the Teapot Dome scandal as I live about 30 miles from Teapot Dome, which is eroding away. But didn’t know Harding well at all. Shows we are all good and bad potentials, and need to consider the consequences always…something I’m not always good at!


    1. Yep, when I was a kid, I was like “What the heck is a teapot dome?” I couldn’t imagine what a Teapot Dome could do to ruin a president. And when I read an explanation it went right over my head. But I didn’t think too long or hard on it; after all, I had a Little League baseball practice or game to go and a trip to the school library to check out a baseball player biographical or a SF book.


    1. I agree. Lots of good people came before me. I love the ones who have been born since and see how they’re making their way in the world. I especially love how Facebook allows me to watch my first great-nephew move toward his second year of life. His mother Quinn (my middle niece) and her husband Lance sure spoil him (in a good way, of course). But I do miss the loved ones who have gone onto Heaven. They really set a good example for us. I’m glad to see your grandson is back in the USA, and hope all the prayers sent your way are being answered for your family.


    1. Thanks. Glad I checked back to see if the post had any more comments. And I did it during a NFL football game. That doesn’t happen too often. I’m normally glued to the recliner in front of the TV. I have my laptop set up in the bedroom and am too lazy to bring it out into the living room and let it exist on battery power.


  8. Mike, thank you for such an interesting history lesson! I knew little about President Warren Harding and now I do. Your Grandpa Frog must have been elated to have been chosen to be part of the funeral. Love your stories of your family history. Keep ’em coming!


    1. I got a play rifle that Christmas he was out from Ohio to California to visit. He was teaching me how to drill with the gun, and that’s how the story of Harding came about.


  9. Fun post. I studied history and knew about Harding, Teapot Dome, his kitchen cabinet and even his “awful” wife. But I never heard about his mistress. That must have been quite an honor for your uncle.


    1. Grandpa Frog was pretty nonchalant about it. But then he wasn’t the bragging type. It took my Uncle Denny to tell me after Grandpa passed that he’d once been the Union president for Ohio for the union at all Morton Salt factories.


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