Warren G. Harding
Warren G. Harding; drawing by David Levine

By general consent Warren Gamaliel Harding has come to be considered the sorriest of our presidents, remembered chiefly for the scandals that came out after his death and for the mysteries that continue to surround his life. Yet other presidents have tolerated scandals without being branded by them, and one can scarcely maintain that Harding’s administration was shot through with scandal when it included such men as Charles Evans Hughes, Herbert Hoover, and the elder Henry Wallace in the Cabinet, and the Harding-appointed chief justice William Howard Taft.

Franklin Roosevelt’s reputation never suffered from his children’s marital vagaries or from their financial exploitation of his name. That Lucy Rutherfurd, for whom he once wanted to divorce his wife, was with him when he died did not discredit him when the knowledge of their affair leaked out two decades later. Truman’s “five-percenters” now require identification by footnotes, along with such egregious figures as General Vaughan, the lachrymose future convict Assistant Attorney General T. Lamarr Caudle, and the exconvict White House intimate John Maragon. Nor has Truman’s close association with Kansas City Boss Pendergast remained held against him, any more than Sherman Adams’s debacle has left its mark on Eisenhower.

That Kennedy owed his election to fraudulent vote counts in Texas and Illinois has been as little unsettling to the Thousand Days saga as has been the belated knowledge of his casual amours. The roguery of Jesse Smith, hanger-on of Harding’s attorney general Harry Daugherty, was small-scale compared to that of Johnson’s Bobby Baker, and Harding at least repudiated Smith. Watergate seems to have branded Nixon more than it has affected him, but the outlines fade. Carter’s Atlanta cronies and his relations—his beer-swilling brother and two sisters, one a faith healer and the other a blue-jeaned motorcycle-rider with a jailbird son—are as bizarre as any of Harding’s intimates.

Yet the ad hominem argument that Harding was not the only president touched by scandal fails to explain why the lapses of others have been shrugged away and forgotten, while his remain a lasting reproach. Were there more scandals under Harding? Their number can be exaggerated, but I think the real answer is that they lasted for so long. The various fraud and conspiracy trials went on for years after his death.

In 1926 Harding’s attorney general Harry Daugherty had gone on trial charged with conspiracy to defraud the government. He refused to testify on the grounds that, as former attorney for Harding, he might give self-incriminating testimony. The implication of his refusal was that he was shielding Harding. That same year Samuel Hopkins Adams published his roman à clef, Revelry, in which Harding, under the transparent pseudonym of “Willis Markham,” was depicted as a good-natured sloven surrounded by conniving hangers-on, grafters, and thieves. Adams had his fictional president, finally aware of his gross betrayal by his intimates, commit suicide. The book gave wider currency to long-circulating rumors that Harding’s death had not been a natural one. Revelry was made into a play and later into a moving picture.

After Revelry Harding’s image was further fouled by three ghost-written books: The President’s Daughter, by Harding’s girl-mistress Nan Britton; the psychotic swindler Gaston Means’s The Strange Death of President Harding; and Harry Daugherty’s The Inside Story of the Harding Tragedy.1 Nan—assisted by an astute press agent—told in schoolgirl prose the story of her affair with Harding—their rendezvous in third-rate hotels, and the child she bore him that she claimed was conceived in the Senate Office Building. Daugherty’s turgid apologia, actually written by the Rev. Thomas Dixon, the author of The Klansman (later made into the first film epic, The Birth of a Nation), compared Harding to Lincoln, while at the same time Daugherty claimed that he had formed him from the Ohio mud. The Rev. Dixon’s sister, May Dixon Thacker, a True Confessions writer and wife of a Southern evangelist, was responsible for Means’s book, a book she later repudiated. In it Means topped Revelry with a detailed account of how Mrs. Harding had poisoned her husband to save his reputation from impending ruin. Then as a postscript Samuel Hopkins Adams published his Incredible Era, 2 a lively journalistic account of sundry Harding scandals which expanded the old Ohio rumor of the Hardings having Negro blood in their veins.

Nothing more appeared about Harding for almost a generation. His presidency was pushed aside as an insignificant if disreputable interlude, with Harding himself not worth the attention of a serious biographer. Even his presidential papers remained inaccessible, locked up in Ohio under the care of the son of Harding’s White House physician, Dr. Carl Sawyer, president of the Harding Memorial Association.

The decades after World War II brought a certain renewed, almost nostalgic concern with the Twenties, and as Harding’s hundredth birthday approached, interest in him revived. He was, after all, the first president born after the Civil War, the first president after World War I, and he took office at a dividing point in history as the United States emerged belatedly into the twentieth century.


“If ever there was a he-barlot, it was this same Warren G. Harding,” William Allen White wrote in embittered retrospect about the president whose first year in office he had actually praised. Such a harsh judgment may have appealed to White’s contemporaries, but it does not stand up. There is something to be said for Harding beyond the scandals. Personally he was completely honest. Neither as senator nor as president did he ever use his official position for his own financial benefit. The more solid accomplishments of his White House years are too easily overlooked.

Harding’s most cherished wish was to be remembered for the naval disarmament conference that he called in November 1921. Though the war he hoped to avoid was not avoided, his conference did stop the construction of capital ships by the United States, England, and Japan for ten years and scrapped a number of warships already built or under construction. Harding, putting aside his usual phatic rhetoric, told the delegates of Britain, Japan, China, France, the Netherlands, Italy, and Portugal that “one hundred million, frankly, want less of armament and none of war.” It was his shining hour.

Harding’s administration was the first to adopt a formal budgetary system, something the United States had lacked from Washington to Wilson. In a special message to Congress, Harding demanded and received authorization for a Bureau of the Budget. Though he had been elected on an anti-League of Nations platform, he sent a bombshell message to Congress demanding—if vainly—that the United States join the World Court. After inviting forty-one steel industry leaders to a White House dinner, he informed them bluntly that the twelve-hour day for steelworkers must go. When the leaders objected that it would dislocate the industry, raise costs, and require 60,000 unavailable additional employees, Harding insisted, and they were forced reluctantly to agree to an eight-hour day.

Wilson, a Southerner, had done his best to segregate the Civil Service, even to having separate drinking fountains installed in government buildings. Harding reopened jobs and offices that had been barred to blacks. Though long forgotten, his speech in Birmingham, Alabama, at the city’s semi-centennial celebration, to an audience of 20,000 whites and 10,000 blacks was the boldest defense of civil rights made by an American president since the Civil War. There in the Southern heartland he told his strictly segregated audience that democracy in the United States was a lie until the Negro was granted political, economic, and educational equality. The massed whites listened in disbelieving silence while the black section shouted approval. “I want to see the time coming,’ Harding concluded, “when black men will regard themselves as full participants in the benefits and duties of American citizenship…. We cannot go on as we have gone on for almost half a century.”

Harding was born on November 2, 1865. In preparation for his hundredth anniversary Dr. Sawyer agreed to turn over the Harding papers to the Ohio Historical Society. Late in October 1963 a moving van carried some 300,000 documents from Marion to the Historical Society building in Columbus. Because of Dr. Sawyer’s fear of a possible hijacking by “those Teapot Dome people,” armed state troopers accompanied the van.

During the winter the papers were sorted and classified, and at the annual meeting of the Historical Society in April they were officially opened to the public. It was a festive all-day occasion with a buffet lunch. Four prospective Harding biographers were present. Former Presidents Hoover, Truman, and Eisenhower sent their congratulations. Now, the trustees of the society felt, Harding could at last be viewed in perspective, and more adequate documentation would give him a presidential stature worthy of Ohio. Yet for the trustees the brightness of the day was suddenly darkened when their president, Fred J. Milligan, a Columbus lawyer, told them in an angry voice that the papers released that day were not all. The Society was also the unwilling repository of some extraordinary private correspondence. After sending the stenographer from the room, the trustees went into executive session. Milligan then informed them that about a hundred love letters written by Harding to a Marion woman, Carrie Phillips, wife of the owner of a Main Street department store, were now in the possession of the Society.

By a combination of luck and the right small-town connections I had come across those letters the previous October while in Marion preparing to write my own Harding biography.3 Through one of Marion’s past Rotary Club presidents I was introduced to a local lawyer, Don Williamson, who had been appointed Carrie Phillips’s guardian. Nine years previously he had gone through her decayed and ramshackle house and had discovered the letters in a locked closet. For Williamson many of them were embarrassingly erotic. “I don’t know what to do with them,” he told me. “I haven’t even read them, just glanced at them. But I know if the Hardings or the Memorial Association ever got hold of them, they’d go up in smoke. That’s what I’ve been afraid of. After all, they were written by a president, and that makes them history no matter how you look at it.”


When I read the letters in Williamson’s office, I realized that he had got hold of a tiger’s tail. I told him he had better hand them over to the Ohio Historical Society. He agreed, and I telephoned the society’s curator of documents. Kenneth Duckett. He came up to Marion that afternoon. Together we took the letters back to Columbus.

I had thought I was doing the Society a rare favor. Duckett was not so sure. Before informing the trustees, he made several microfilm copies of the letters in case anything might happen to the originals. On learning about the letters, several of the trustees were for destroying them. But a lawyer-trustee warned them that this would no longer be possible. Milligan himself went to the Marion Probate Court’s judge Edward Ruzzo and begged him to relieve the Society of its troubling acquisition. “Don’t worry,” Ruzzo is said to have told him. “We’ll get them back and then we’ll burn them.”

Meanwhile, as this latest Harding scandal simmered below the surface, biographers, in not too friendly competition, ensconced themselves in a back section of the Historical Society building that I labeled Harding Alley. Andrew Sinclair, a young English protégé of D.W. Brogan, who had already written a book on Prohibition, was the only biographer to make the deadline of the Harding centennial year. He spent a few weeks in Harding Alley and left with a trunkful of photostats. Quick, clear, and superficial, he belonged to the Xerox-and-run school. His book, The Available Man, hastily prepared, thinly researched, and lacking in feeling for the times or the landscape, was at least the first real political biography.4 Though he adopted the unfounded conclusion that the lethargic Harding had plotted since 1912 to become president, he did lay to rest the myth that Harding was nominated by a cabal of reactionary senators in a smoke-filled room. Harding was, as Sinclair indicated in his title, nominated by the 1920 convention after the front-runners had canceled each other out. When the weary convention deadlocked, he was—as Daugherty had foreseen—amiably available, everybody’s second or third choice.

If Sinclair strode lightly through the Harding underbrush, Professor Randolph Downes of the University of Toledo plodded along with leaden feet. He had spent fifteen years on what he considered his magnum opus, The Rise and Fall of Warren Gamaliel Harding, the Rise being the first volume—the only one he could finish in his lifetime—the Fall a second. Downes did not complete the Rise until 1968. Even that volume, carrying Harding merely to the threshold of the White House, was over a quarter of a million words long. Downes’s research was all-encompassing, his patience endless, but he became bogged down in trivia that had assumed for him a factitious importance. No commercial publisher would consider the Rise. Finally the Ohio University Press agreed to publish it though only if the manuscript first met the approval of the Harding family.

Weldon Kefauver, the director of the press, sent the manuscript to Harding’s nephew, Dr. George Harding, who sat on it for nine months, then ordered Kefauver to eliminate “all offensive and absolutely irresponsible statements.” A chapter Downes had called “The Muck Fest,” which he had intended as a defense of Harding, had to be eliminated as well as all references to Harding’s extramarital activities. Downes was forced to submit. Only after his book’s publication in 1970 was he able publicly to express his “outrage” at Dr. George Harding and at Kefauver. In reply Kefauver said it was untrue that he had censored Downes’s book. “It was simply told him that unless certain changes were made it wasn’t going to be approved.”

Even before Downes’s book appeared. Professor Robert Murray of Pennsylvania State University produced his Harding Era.5 Adequate in a desiccated way, with a dust jacket of Harding blue (a tactless combination of blue and black), the book was approved by the Harding family. It is marred, if not vitiated, by Murray’s revisionist thesis that Harding—all evidence to the contrary—was really a hard-working president. More realistically Harding’s old friend Senator Jim Watson of Indiana had said of him: “The simple fact is my dear old friend just did not like to work.”

My own Harding biography, The Shadow of Blooming Grove, was held up for several years by a million-dollar lawsuit brought against me and my publishers by the Harding family. A restraining order issued by the Court of Common Pleas in Columbus, Ohio, on a motion by Dr. George Harding, forbade the “publication, production, copying, exhibition or making any use whatsoever” of Harding’s letters to Mrs. Phillips. After news of the sequestered letters began to leak out in Ohio in the summer of 1964, I released the story to The New York Times along with the text of several of the letters and a sample of Harding’s amorous verse. The lawsuit followed. Although the extracts were reprinted in papers across the country, my publishers, McGraw-Hill, on the advice of their lawyers would not allow even these to appear in my book. When The Shadow of Blooming Grove was at last published the extracts—about 2,500 words that had appeared in the galleys—were excised, leaving blank spaces behind. I believed, and still believe, that under the terms of Mrs. Harding’s will the letters are in the public domain and that I had the right to use them, for she had stated that:

I also give to said Harding Memorial Association all books, writings and manuscripts of every description, belonging to me, or which came to me under the terms of the will of my late husband, including all his public letters…and all other articles, writings and manuscripts and letters of historical interest,…it being my intention…that of the same of every description, shall be forever preserved to the public, for the benefit of posterity. [My italics.]

The McGraw-Hill lawyers, however, did not choose to challenge the Ohio court ruling.

The four biographies that appeared between 1965 and 1970 would seem to have exhausted the genre. Dean Albertson, biographer of Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of agriculture Claude Wickard, and a particular favorite of Dr. George Harding, gave up on a fifth biography. Harding seemed more than adequately provided for. Appearing a dozen years later, Charles L. Mee, Jr.’s The Ohio Gang: The World of Warren G. Harding holds no surprises. Mr. Mee admits that his book is not “a work of scholarly history” but rather “a consideration, or essay with a little of the old soft shoe.” The description on the cover, “An historical entertainment,” sums up The Ohio Gang, more entertaining than historical, a light impressionistic survey updating Samuel Hopkins Adams. Incidentally, there never was a cohesive gang, merely an assortment of Ohio reprobates. In the idiom of its period the Mee book is “peppy,” sparklingly readable, amusingly inaccurate, a small Twenties album lavishly illustrated with vintage photos. The author quotes at length from Gaston Means while admitting that such a pathological liar preferred his vivid imaginings to truth, excusing himself by remarking that “a fable such as this can be held less strictly accountable for the historical facts, providing it has got its moral right.” I am not sure just what the moral is, but the book itself is diverting.

Mr. Mee writes in a footnote that Harding’s letters to Carrie Phillips are sealed by court order and may not be quoted directly or even seen. Yet the fact remains that a number of people have seen copies of them and apparently are still seeing them. A lengthy account of the finding of the letters first appeared in American Heritage Magazine in 1965.6

By the law of copyright, letters belong to the recipients but the contents belong to the writer. The Harding heirs were able to gain physical possession of the Phillips letters by purchasing them from Carrie’s daughter. In 1971 the heirs, after payment of $10,000 by American Heritage, donated the letters to the Library of Congress on condition that they remain sealed until 2014. Under the agreement, signed by McGraw-Hill, American Heritage, and other defendants, the signers agreed not to “publish, quote from, display or exhibit such letters or any portions or copies thereof.”

Yet so many people in so many places had by this time read the letters that the contents were bound to leak out before 2014. The Hardings allowed several friendly biographers as well as various others in Marion to go through them. How many microfilm copies there were and how widely they circulated is also not known. The galleys of my book, undeleted, were sent to a number of editors and book clubs. Who may have read the letters while they were in Williamson’s care is also not known.

Harding’s affair with Carrie Phillips lasted from 1905 to 1920. When they were apart, he was sometimes inspired to home-made poems that spilled from his pen in alliterative gusts of remembered passion. Recently a feature writer for the Detroit Free Press published one of those love poems and it was even reprinted in Harding’s old Marion paper, The Star. With Carrie, Harding’s sensuality struck depths he had been unaware of in himself. God, the whole immeasurable universe, he associated with her throbbing flesh. In the resurrection, in which he believed, he promised her in his artless verses that he would wake to immortality with her arms around him. For a 1914 Christmas present he sent her another poem:

I love you more than all the world,
Possession wholly imploring
Mid passion I am oftimes whirled
Oftimes admire—adoring.
Oh, God! If fate would only give
Us privilege to love and live!

By 1910, after five years of their liaison, Carrie was growing restive, troubled too by small-town gossip. Was he prepared to leave his wife and marry her? That was what she wanted to know. But for all his wife’s virago qualities Harding could never bring himself to break with her. Placatingly he sent Carrie his photograph at Christmas inscribed fulsomely.

The next year Carrie turned her back on Marion’s Main Street and left for Germany. She settled with her daughter in Berlin, where, sustained by her husband, she planned to stay permanently. Panicky at her willingness to accept an indefinite separation from him, Harding wrote her in explosive desperation that if she wanted him he was hers any time and for all time. She did make two brief surreptitious voyages to meet him, he giving out to his wife that he was going on a hunting trip to Texas. His most perfervid letters date from these years of separation, recalling past rendezvous in a frustration of longing. “Carrie Darling, Sweetheart Adorable,” he headed one letter dated only “Easter Morning.”7

Carrie’s replies were brief and infrequent, and Harding’s emotions stirred uneasily. Her growing independence wrung him with jealousy, sending him into frenzies. Compulsively he wrote her crudely amorous, flesh-gnawing letters thirty and forty and fifty pages long, scribbling the words largely (often in pencil) on a pad of newsmen’s copy paper that he carried in his pocket. Writing her sheet after frantic sheet, he lashed himself into a sexual rage, striving in his excitement to recapture the past erotic moment. In their private code he celebrated his membrum virile. Her labia he described in verse as sea-shell pink. Again and again he warned her not to keep what he had written, to be careful to destroy so that she would later not need to be careful.

The outbreak of the war in the summer of 1914 forced her home. She returned to Marion and its small ways reluctantly. If she had stayed in Berlin she would no doubt by this time have shaken loose from Harding. Once they were together again they quarreled, she sullenly unreconciled to the county center so far from the European metropolis, he abject in his uncertainty of her. Even his political career was a distraction when she seemed lost to him. Or so he said. And he tried to console himself with the thought that others must believe in him or he would not be in the Senate.

As America’s entry into the war became clearer, Carrie grew more and more strident in her support of the lost Fatherland. She threatened Harding that if war came and he voted for the declaration against Germany she would expose him, drive him from office. After the United States break in diplomatic relations, Harding did his best to warn her off indirectly in a formal letter on Senate stationery that he obviously intended her still-unsuspecting husband and his friends would also read.

After referring to a reception of hers that he was unable to attend, he asked her to congratulate her husband on the success of his fundraising drive for the YMCA. Then in curious double-talk he cautioned her about her pro-German attitude. The United States, he told her, could have taken no other course than to break off relations in the light of Germany’s renewed submarine threat. This might indeed mean war, although he still hoped not. Some of his fellow senators were pro-German—among them Gallinger, Townsend, Hoke Smith, Hitchcock, and Reed—but even they agreed that German actions had made the break unavoidable. He sympathized with her love and affection for Germany, but begged her not to say Nay to America. Relapsing into his customary floridity, he prayed that the trials to come might exalt the American soul and spirit. America, he hoped, would always be right, but right or wrong, America was HER COUNTRY.

Carrie did not carry out her threat, but her anger flared up, and July found him writing her as if for the last time. Yet within a few weeks he was again scrawling his long passionate letters. On New Year’s Day, 1918, he wrote her at compulsive length, recalling a rendezvous in Montreal six years before and lamenting that she was no longer his. She replied with scorn, belittling his hangdog passion. Again he wrote her on their sexual anniversary.

Before his liaison with Carrie Phillips, Harding had an affair with another Marion woman, Louise Hodder, the wife of a well-known local merchant. No letters of Harding’s to Mrs. Hodder are known to exist, but her granddaughter claims that Harding was the father of Louise’s daughter Marion, who was born in 1894 and died of tuberculosis in 1917. After Marion’s birth the Hodders separated.

Harding’s best-known mistress was Nan Britton, who began her affair with him when she was twenty. In The President’s Daughter, she told of Harding’s letters to her, often thirty or forty pages long, written in pencil on scratch-pad paper and enclosed in blue envelopes. I thought her story preposterous until I saw the Phillips letters. In blue envelopes, written in pencil on scratch-pad paper, they too were thirty and forty pages long, although the large scrawled words could have been contained in three or four typewritten pages. But the physical parallel confirmed Nan’s story as did the “Gee, dearie” phrases that Nan said he used to her. According to Nan, Harding had written her that “nowhere except in French had he ever read anything comparable to the love letters we used to write one another.”

Again and again he urged her to destroy what he had written, and this she said she had done. Yet in spite of her assurances some of his letters to her seem to have survived. The late Roger Ernst is said to have had several in his collection of such letters from notables. And a woman in Marion has recently let it be known that she has a packet of Harding’s letters to Nan, most of them erotic in the manner of the Phillips letters and one at least admitting that Harding had earlier had gonorrhea. While a senator, Harding had also written compulsively to an unidentified New York woman, but during his presidential campaign these letters were brought up and destroyed.

From 1917 on Harding carried on a dual correspondence with Carrie and Nan. Like a juggler he managed to keep the two women separate in a common orbit. In August 1918 he spent a weekend with Nan at Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain. But Nan’s easing of his physical desire seemed to turn him back to the older woman. Writing to Carrie with renewed fervor, begging her to see him when he returned to Ohio, he told her how that afternoon he had almost keeled over while speaking—the first indication of the heart trouble that would kill him five years later. While barn-stroming from state to state as one of the secondary candidates for the presidential nomination of 1920, he continued his letters to Carrie, but their tone had become somber, reproachful, unerotic.

Yet even as the two approached the breaking point, and she was writing letters ridiculing his political ambitions, accusing him of having affairs with other women, flaunting her own past, he found himself drawn back-to her. He protested that he did not really intend to be a candidate and added that he could not believe she would threaten him. He told her he was heartbroken over what she had told him at their last meeting and spoke of making amends.

Some time that spring Jim Phillips learned of his wife’s relations with Harding. Possibly he may have found out by himself, more probably she told him in her fury after Harding again refused to consider marrying her. The break was complete now, and she specified with cruel emphasis that Constant—her code name for him—would have to pay. When he delayed his answer, she wrote again. Finally he replied:

I can’t secure you the larger competence you have so frequently mentioned…. I can pay with life or reputation but I can’t command such a sum! To avoid disgrace…I will, if you demand it as THE PRICE, return back to Marion to reside…. If you think I can be more helpful by having a public position and influence,…I will pay you $5,000 per year, in March, each year, so long as I am in that public service.

This was Harding’s last letter to his beloved and adored Carrie.

When against all odds Harding received the Republican nomination for president, the stores and buildings along Marion’s Main Street were decked in red, white, and blue bunting for his homecoming, all except the Phillips store. And when reporters asked why, they were told, in William Allen White’s words, of a “primrose detour from Main Street” and they learned of Carrie Phillips. Before the scandal could spread further, the Republican National Committee sent the public relations expert Albert Lasker to Marion to take care of the Phillipses. After paying them $25,000 he sent them on an expense-paid trip to the Orient to “investigate the raw-silk trade,” a trip that would not bring them back until well after the election. The letters that Harding had begged Carrie to destroy, she kept. The two never saw each other again.

This Issue

June 24, 1982