No doubt about it, Warren G. Harding liked the fillies, but his taste was more toward fast trotters than thoroughbreds.
Warren G. Harding and his Duchess
Historians have always wondered why Warren G. Harding (1865-1923) married Florence Kling DeWolfe in the first place. She was five years Harding’s senior and a divorcée in a time when divorce was stigmatic. She wasn’t bad looking, but she was no beauty either, and said to have had a whining and unpleasant voice.
It is much easier to understand her attraction to him. Harding was not only a good looking, well-built fellow of twenty-five, but he was also one of the most popular men in town. He had an outgoing personality, and made friends easily. His father once remarked that “it was a good thing Warren wasn’t a woman or he would always be in the family way.” He couldn’t say no. Florence pursued. He couldn’t say no. Or if he could, he didn’t.
It was a mismatch from the beginning. She was nagging and domineering by nature, and Harding’s friends said Florence ran everything but the family car. He nicknamed her “Duchess,” and it stuck. Their marriage was also complicated by Florence’s serious kidney ailment, which would flare up from time to time, and keep her bedridden for weeks and even months, sometimes near death. Given the nature of her disease, the marital side of their marriage was curtailed. They would share a room, but not a bed.
Warren Harding had been a ladies’ man long before Florence was in the picture, but now became a chronic philanderer. They may have stayed together for thirty years, but it was a difficult union for both parties. As President, he once confided to a friend that his life “had been hell.” White House staff would recall their shouting matches.
Warren Harding and Mrs. Phillips
Jim and Carrie Phillips were Harding neighbors in Marion, Ohio. Carrie and the Duchess had become good friends. Jim owned a local dry-goods store and advertised in the newspaper that Harding owned. The two couples socialized frequently, and even traveled to Europe together. Unbeknownst to Jim Phillips (and to Florence – at least for a long time), Warren and Carrie Phillips were carrying on a steamy love affair. The journalistically inclined Harding exchanged dozens of surprisingly graphic letters with Mrs. Phillips.
Years passed before the Duchess learned of this knife-in-her-heart and dagger-in-her-back. After the “great row,” Harding promised he would not see Carrie again, but he did anyway. The romance would subside somewhat, but the relationship would last more than fifteen years; most of the time with Harding still swearing his eternal love, and Carrie carping about something.
Carrie Phillips was no prize. True, she was younger and better looking than Florence Harding, but she also had a shrewish and demanding disposition. Having become a great admirer of Kaiser Wilhelm II, her outspoken enthusiasm of all things Teutonic did not abate, despite the hostilities of the First World War. Harding, by this time a U.S. Senator, cautioned her more than once to quiet her overt semi-fascistic passion, but it fell on deaf ears. By the time Harding was a candidate for President in 1920, the Republican Party had to cough up a large sum of money to send Jim Phillips and his German-loving wife out of the country. The politicians were afraid that Harding’s private letters would fall into public hands and embarrass everyone.
Warren Harding and Nan Britton
With the Phillipses safely spirited away, and with other romantic letters ransomed from various other Harding mini-amours, Warren and Florence Harding were on their way to the White House. But again unbeknownst to just about everyone except the intimately concerned, Senator Harding had become involved with a young woman who had lived down the street from them in Marion.
Somewhat of a Lolita-type, Nan Britton had had a crush on the handsome middle-aged Harding since she was a child. Now as a young woman of nineteen, she wrote the Senator for help obtaining a secretarial position in New York. He obliged with a letter of recommendation – and an offer to take her to lunch next time he was in New York. That opportunity soon presented itself, and lunch became a “matinee.” A few more matinees became a baby. And the matinees continued into the White House anteroom.
None of this however, was made public, nor did Florence learn about it until after Harding died and Britton came looking for child support. (Harding had been slipping her funds for several years.) The Duchess insisted that some young fellow was responsible, and that Miss Britton was only after their money – like all the others. (And the Hardings never had that much money to begin with!) DNA and paternity tests were long in the future. A few years later, she wrote a tell-all book about their affair.
Florence died a year after her husband. Carrie Phillips lived to be a somewhat demented old lady, financially supported by a stipend from the Republicans. The Harding-Phillips letters were tied up in estate-legalistics for more than fifty years, and have only recently been made available to historians. Nan Britton lived to be ninety-five and remained true to the memory of Warren G. Harding.
· Anthony, Carl Sferrazza –First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990
· Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – Florence Harding: The First Lady, the Jazz Age, and the Death of America’s Most Scandalous President – William Morrow & Co., 1998
· Britton, Nan – The President’s Daughter, Elizabeth Ann Guild, 1927
· Irwin Hood Hoover – Forty-Two Years in the White House – Greenwood Press (reprint,) 1974
· Robenalt, James David – The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage During the Great War – Palgrave Macmillan, 2011