Warren Harding: Love overshadows presidency

Warren Harding's love life draws more attention than his presidency. Illustration taken from the White House.gov portrait.
Warren Harding's love life draws more attention than his presidency. Illustration taken from the White House.gov portrait.
If not for his love life, many would have trouble remembering that the 29th president of the United States was an Ohioan named Warren G. Harding. 

     But last week, genetic testing confirmed the obvious: The lovechild of Nan Britton was indeed fathered by Harding.
     As a result of the tests, some members of the Harding family told The New York Times that they were thoroughly convinced that Harding fathered Britton’s daughter, Elizabeth Ann Blaesing. But others still have doubts.
     Harding (1865-1923), a Republican, became president March 4, 1921, and held office until his death on Aug. 2, 1923. During that time, his administration was rocked by serious political scandals. In particular, it was revealed that Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall had sold national oil reserves at Wyoming's Teapot Dome. (See: What was the Teapot Dome Scandal?) When historians rank presidents, they often place Harding near the bottom.
     But recent headlines have revolved not around the scandals of his administration or his policies, but his love life. Beyond the first lady, two women were known to have had relationships with Harding. And, as mentioned, one had a child by him.
     So is this important or just salacious? Are the stories simply gossip, or do they also offer an unflattering snapshot of the man who once led the country? Here is the background:

     Warren Gamaliel Harding: The 29th president had been a newspaper publisher in Marion, Ohio. He was 6 feet tall and described in “The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents” (Barricade Books; 2013), by William A. DeGregorio, as “darkly handsome with a thick head of gleaming white hair, bushy black eyebrows above soft, gray eyes, a classic Roman nose and a rich, pleasant voice.” The National Archives website offers this quote from Harding: “It’s a good thing I’m not a woman. I would always be pregnant. I can’t say no.”  

     The first lady: In 1891, Harding, then 25, married Florence “Flossie” Kling DeWolfe, 30, who was divorced and had a son. The White House biography recounts that she was “the daughter of the richest man in a small town.” DeGregorio describes her as “dowdy” and “somewhat masculine in manner with a piercing voice.”

     Nan Britton: Harding was actually involved in another affair with the wife of a friend (see Carrie Phillips below) when he became interested in Britton. The affair began in 1917, while Harding was a U.S. senator. He was 52; she was 20.
     Photographs attest to Britton's classic beauty -- wavy blond hair cut in a bob, down-sloped eyes and broad lips. Unlike Harding’s other mistress, who kept the affair secret, Britton wrote a book after Harding’s death, The President’s Daughter (1927, available through Ishi Press; 2008 ).
     In the book, she describes how she first took note of Harding in 1910 (she would have been 14). He was then making an unsuccessful bid for governor of Ohio. Like Harding, Britton was from Marion, Ohio, and her English teacher was Harding’s sister, Abigail Victoria Harding.  
     Britton wrote that she developed a crush on Harding and had his campaign posters hung up in her bedroom. At one point, she was introduced to him.
     After high school, she worked in stores and, in 1916, attended a secretarial school in New York. When graduation approached, she recalled, “I decided I might now safely appeal to Warren Harding to help me to a position in the business world.” Harding responded that if a position was open in his office he would "gladly tender it to me." He even added that there was “every probability” that he would visit New York in the following week.
     Harding made an appointment to meet her at the Madison Hotel on Madison Avenue. As rooms were scarce, Harding explained, he was obliged to take the bridal chamber. He asked Britton to accompany him there so that they could talk without interruption, according to Britton’s book. As soon as the door closed, he kissed her. She makes clear that the kisses were as far as it went during the first meeting.
      Harding was able to get a position for Britton at U.S. Steel Corporation. They began seeing each other. While visiting Chicago, she ran low on money and sent Harding a note. He returned a $42 money order -- made to appear as if in payment for secretarial work.
      In Britton’s telling, she lost her virginity to Harding. At one point, the couple was detained at a hotel by two men who questioned Britton’s age and threatened to call the police. When one of the men saw the name “W.G. Harding,” in gold lettering inside Harding’s hat, they backed off. On his way out of the hotel, Harding gave one of them a $20 bill. Britton writes that he remarked, "Gee, Nan, I thought I wouldn't get out of that under $1,000!"
      Later, after Harding was president, Britton visited him at the White House, where, she writes, the two of them made love “in the darkness of a space not more than five feet square.”
      After having the baby, Britton showed photographs of the girl to the president. Harding gave her money -- at one point several $500 bills. As depicted by Britton, Harding wished to parent the child after his years in the presidency. She quotes him as saying, "Well, just wait, dearie. Some of these days I'll take her myself."
      Their final tryst was in January 1923, according to DeGregorio, roughly eight months before Harding’s death.  
      Four years later, Britton’s tell-all was a bestseller. Because it was published after his death, there were questions about the veracity of her account. In 1964, The New York Times reported that Britton lived quietly in the Chicago suburb of Evanston. The president’s daughter, Elizabeth Ann, was married to Henry Blaesing and lived in California. 

     Carrie Phillips (1873-1960): Nan Britton wasn’t Harding’s only extramarital affair. She wasn’t even his first.  
     Harding had a relationship with Carrie Phillips from 1905 until 1920, according to the Library of Congress.  Their affair began when her husband was at the Battle Creek sanitarium and Florence Harding was undergoing treatment for a kidney ailment, DeGregorio explains.
    Harding would have been outgoing lieutenant governor of Ohio at the beginning of the affair. When it ended, he was a U.S. senator. 
     Phillips was also an attractive woman -- indeed, Harding addressed her as “Precious, my Beautiful Goddess…”  But she had problematic political views. 
     Phillips had spent time in Germany and had grown to respect German culture. During the build-up to the U.S. entrance into World War I, she supported Germany and opposed the U.S. entry into the war, recounts the National Archives website:
    “An intelligence report that month cites accusations that Mrs. Phillips ‘has made many unpatriotic statements,’ ‘is a traitor to her country,’ and is ‘receiving money from German Government.’ Department of Justice records show that officials there were tracking her visits to Senator Harding.”
     When the Harding-Phillips letters were released in 2014, Phillips's great-grandchildren, the Mathée family, issued a statement asking historians to be “cognizant of the extent of misinformation, distortions and speculation paraded as fact surrounding this woman and this subject. A prime example of this is the theory that not only Carrie but her daughter Isabelle were involved in espionage under the direction of the German government. To our knowledge, there is no proof of this. Further, this subject was investigated and/or researched by two United States government agencies finding no evidence of collusion, merely two women vocal in expressing their pro-German sentiment.”



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