After World War I, thousands of wounded soldiers were crowding into Washington hospitals. Florence Harding would be a regular visitor.
Florence Kling Harding: Lonely Wife
Florence Harding never had a strong maternal instinct. An early and disastrous elopement left her a divorcee with a son, but her tyrannical father made her a devil’s offer: he would raise the boy as his own, provided she gave up parental rights. If it bothered her, it is unrecorded. Her ties to her son, while not severed, were more like a distant aunt, rather than a mother.
A few years later, she married Warren Harding. He was five years her junior, handsome and affable, with a lifelong wandering eye. She was relatively plain, domineering, and plagued with a chronic and serious kidney ailment. By the time they had been married for ten years, one of her kidneys had been removed, and while the couple would share a room, they would not share a bed. There were no Harding children together. Harding’s eye, and the rest of him, continued to wander. It was not a happy marriage.
With little to keep her at home, Florence Harding gravitated to working at the Marion Star, the small-town weekly newspaper her husband had purchased some years earlier and helped build it into a strong Ohio daily. Nicknamed “Duchess” by her husband (in part because of her imperious manners and bossy disposition), Florence carved a niche for herself in the circulation department of the paper. While Warren set the policy of the paper and wrote the editorials, she ran a fleet of newspaper delivery boys, and saw to it that both the subscribers and the advertisers paid their bills on time.
The consensus among “her boys” was that Mrs. H. was an exacting taskmistress, but was always kindly toward them. She would have their respect – and even some grudging affection.
Florence Harding: Political Wife
Partly due to the Duchess’ administrative skills and attention to detail, the newspaper flourished and ran smoothly. Warren Harding now had time on his hands. In between regular bouts of infidelity, he found a niche for himself as well: as a popular guest speaker at various civic and political functions. He was good at it. He was invited to speak all around the state.
The Duchess was not a naïve woman, nor was she acquiescent. She went with him whenever she could. Politics appealed to her. The hard-driving forceful men who populated that arena appealed to her. It was not considered an appropriate venue for women at that time, but Florence was an exception. The Ohio politicians who gravitated to Harding began to realize that a) she was the power behind the throne as it were, and also b) she made pretty good sense. They began to give the Duchess due respect, and a seat at their counsel table. She wore her nickname with pride, and gained their grudging affection. She was “one of the boys.”
Florence Harding Discovers More “Boys”
In 1914, Warren Harding was elected Senator from Ohio. The good-looking man was now a distinguished middle-aged man of fifty, with a shock of snow-white hair that made him look like a matinee idol. The Duchess, partly due to genetics and a failing kidney, looked old and frumpy.
While she had looked forward to starting a new life in Washington, she was lonely, and had few friends. Even though she left her card everywhere, she was invited only to the large affairs, where everyone was invited. She had not found her niche.
But by a rare stroke of good fortune, she had become acquainted with the wealthy Evalyn Walsh McLean. Her husband owned the Washington Post. She owned the Hope Diamond. Even though Evalyn was twenty-five years younger than Florence, a strong and sincere friendship was formed. Under Evalyn’s guidance, the Duchess purchased more fashionable clothing, went to more fashionable parties, and began to support more fashionable causes.
It was Evalyn who suggested that Florence visit the area’s veterans’ hospitals. The Great War, as World War I was called then, had left thousands of American servicemen permanently wounded. The two women began dropping in at the hospitals once or twice a week to spend a couple of hours talking to the veterans, reading to them, playing cards with them, and otherwise being good company. More often than not, they brought flowers or treats. Florence’s interest in them was sincere, and she would remain engaged with their cause for the rest of her life. They were “Her Boys,” with capital letters!
First Lady Florence Kling Harding
When Warren Harding became President in 1921, the Duchess had no intention of staying in the background. She wanted to be accessible. Folksy. One of the people. So did he.
Perhaps the one act that gave her the most pleasure was opening the White House grounds for a garden party for wounded veterans. Notices went out to all the veterans’ hospitals in the area, and disabled soldiers came in droves. They came in wheelchairs and on crutches. They came on litters, and with canes. They came bandaged, they came blinded, they came leaning on others. They were treated to sandwiches and cakes and lemonade and fruit punch. First Lady “Duchess” was delighted to circulate among them, shaking as many hands as she could and offering a kind and heartfelt welcome.
It was such a hit, that she made the affair an annual event, and held them three times – until her husband’s early death.
At least at the veterans’ garden party Florence Harding was not only respected, but the affection was not grudging. She was loved.
- Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – The First Lady, the Jazz Age, and the Death of America’s Most Scandalous President – William Morrow, 1998