For fifty years, Florence Kling Harding was a lonely woman, with few, if any, real friends.
The Embattled Duchess
Florence Kling (1860-1924) was the daughter of Marion, Ohio’s wealthiest and nastiest businessmen. His tyrannical ways resulted in Florence’s youthful escape into a disastrous first marriage (if indeed there was an actual marriage). As expected, it did not last.
Her second mismatched marriage, to Warren Harding was more like an armed truce: occasional pitched battles, regular skirmishes, and long cooling-off periods.
Her health, however, was a prolonged siege. A chronic kidney dysfunction always loomed, with occasional bouts to the near-death, leaving “the Duchess,” as Warren Harding called her, completely exhausted.
Her one close friendship with a neighbor woman, Carrie Phillips, ended in armageddon, once it became known that Mrs. Phillips was carrying on a torrid romance with Mr. Harding. The two women never spoke again.
Thus in 1914, when Warren Harding was elected to the United States Senate, a lonely middle-aged Florence was looking forward to a brand new life.
Evalyn Walsh McLean
Evalyn Walsh McLean (1886-1947) was a fabulously wealthy woman. Her father, Thomas Walsh, had made a fortune in mining. Evalyn cemented her vast wealth by marriage to Edward (Ned) McLean, also wealthy by huge inheritance, which included ownership of the Washington Post. Evalyn owned the Hope Diamond.
Mrs. McLean was twenty-five years younger than the Duchess, and her marriage was just as flawed. Ned McLean and Warren Harding were “good ol’ boys” who liked their cigars, poker games, booze and broads.
Mrs. Duchess and Mrs. Hope Diamond
If Florence Harding hoped that a good life would start anew for her in Washington, she was sadly disappointed. She was older than most of the congressional wives and looked it. Poor health takes a sorry toll on beauty. Her clothes, no doubt the best to be had in Ohio, were considered dowdy in the sophisticated capital, ditto her social manners. Her calls went unreturned. Her invitations were only to the large events where everyone was invited. The smaller groups shunned her. She was lonelier than ever.
When she was attacked again by kidney blockage, her imminent death was expected. She was bedridden for weeks.
Into this depressed atmosphere came the kind-hearted Evalyn McLean, who had become casually acquainted with the Duchess. Having learned that Mrs. H. was seriously ill, she paid a courtesy call, and the two women bonded.
One never knows exactly what transpired between Evalyn and the Duchess that touched the younger woman’s heart. Perhaps Evalyn sympathized with a sick woman whose philandering husband gave her grief. Perhaps she sensed the Duchess’ loneliness.
Nevertheless, it was a strong bond. It lasted. Florence recovered.
If Ned McLean, errant husband, heavy drinker and poker player had a large circle of friends, so did Evalyn. Being young, attractive, and phenomenally wealthy only helped and added to her draw. Her closest friend at the time was Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Teddy, wife of Ohio Congressman and Speaker-to-be Nick Longworth, another good ol’ boy.
Friendship itself was obviously important to both McLeans, since they named their huge Georgetown estate “Friendship.” It would become a second home to both Hardings.
Warren Harding fit into this mix hand-in-glove. His good looks and charm, coupled with an easy-going nature made him personally popular throughout his life.
Now, under Evalyn’s tutelage, Florence bought more fashionable clothes. She went to more fashionable hairdressers. She was invited to more fashionable parties, including the A-listed “poker games” hosted by Alice Longworth. Alice couldn’t stand either of the Hardings, but Nick liked Warren – an Ohioan – and they had been pals with the McLeans for years. If Evalyn wanted Florence invited, sobeit.
Evalyn also introduced the Duchess to one of the most fashionable “good causes” of that era: wounded World War I veterans. Florence started visiting VA hospitals regularly, bringing flowers or cookies. She spent afternoons reading or playing cards with them, keeping them company.
Of course, this new lease on life was a blessing to all. With Florence happily distracted and occupied, Warren Harding could breathe a sigh of good ol’ relief.
The Duchess, Evalyn and Madame Marcia
One of the “fashionable” doors that opened to Florence was that of Madame Marcia, a Washington fortune-teller, who had become popular among the society-set.
Florence had always been a superstitious woman, and the new bond she would now form with Madame Marcia would be prophetic. The psychic predicted that Warren Harding would become president, but would not survive his term in office. This, of course, was ludicrous. Harding was only a mediocre first-term Senator with little national presence. How could he possibly become President of the United States?
But Madame Marcia predicted and the Duchess believed. If she feared for her husband’s early demise, it did not stop her from encouraging his nomination.
First Lady Duchess and Her Best Friend
Warren Harding was elected President in 1920, and the new First Lady’s best friend, Evalyn Walsh McLean, was a frequent White House visitor. The doormen knew to admit her whenever she showed up.
When Florence suffered another near-fatal kidney blockage, her distraught husband, who had come to depend heavily on his politically-savvy wife, sent for Evalyn, who had been vacationing in Bar Harbor, Maine. She took the next train to Washington to be near her dear friend. The Duchess recovered.
Meanwhile, the President was besieged and beset by impending knowledge that some of his good ol’ buddies he had put in public office were engaged in gross misconduct, if not out-and-out illegal activities. Harding’s misdiagnosed heart condition could not take the strain, and he died – exactly as Madame Marcia had predicted.
The Duchess went to the McLean estate for consolation after the funeral. And it was in the “Friendship” fireplace that she burned hundreds of Harding documents. We can only guess what they contained.
Florence Harding survived her husband by less than a year. Her failing kidney now failed permanently. But her friendship with Evalyn Walsh McLean had held firm.
- 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