Nan Britton: Harding’s “Lolita”

Warren Harding

Warren G. Harding

This is Part One of a very nifty story!

The Marion Publisher

Warren G. Harding (1865-1923) was a rural Ohio fellow, who, following a mediocre education, gravitated to Marion, Ohio where he purchased an interest in The Marion Star, a small weekly newspaper, married a divorcee five years his senior, and became one of the most affable men in town. He was also good looking and grew even handsomer as he aged.

The Hardings

The Hardings in Marion, Ohio. It was a less-than-blissful marriage.

His marriage was flawed on many fronts, with more than enough failings to go around. Those failings were further exacerbated by his wife’s serious health issues, curtailing their marital intimacy, and leading the virile and attractive Harding into serious philandering. Nevertheless, the marriage continued; Florence Harding had already been divorced and had worked hard to redeem her reputation. A second divorce would ruin her forever.

But the Marion Star thrived, and despite their mutual incompatibilities, neither ever actively pursued divorce.

Nan Britton, Neighbor

Young Nan Britton.

Nanna Popham Britton (1896-1991) was the daughter of one Harding’s neighbors. At an early age, Nan developed a crush on the handsome publisher, some thirty years her senior, and a natural father figure.

Warren looks llike a President

Warren Harding reading the paper on his porch.

The pre-pubescent crush became an obsession as time went on and Nan approached high school age. She made a point of walking past the Marion Star office on the way home from school. She kept an eye peeled for his automobile. She passed his house regularly, hoping to see him reading the paper on his front porch and be invited to “come on up.” When Warren Harding ran for elective office, she clipped his photographs from the newspapers and pasted them on the walls of her room. At one point, at the specific behest of her father, Harding gently counseled the lovestruck-teenager that one day she would find a nice fellow her own age and fall in love.

When Harding was elected US Senator in 1914, he spent most of his time in Washington, but Nan still clung to whatever adolescent dreams she had, like an adoring fan.

Nan Britton Grows Up

nan the siren

Nan Britton had become a sultry femme fatale when her affair with Harding began.

Once graduated from high school, Nan moved to New York. She wrote to now-Senator Harding, hoping he would remember her, and help her find a secretarial position. Harding replied, assuring her that he remembered, and was pleased to enclose a letter of reference. He added that the next time he was in New York, he might buy her a cup of coffee or lunch.

He made a trip to New York soon thereafter, and the “cup of coffee” started a passionate six-year affair.

According to Nan, she kept him physically at bay for quite some time, despite his lustful pleading. She teased and he begged. And finally she acquiesced. His trips to New York became more frequent and matinee-driven.

Sometime in 1919, Nan told Senator Harding he was going to be a father. This was a surprise to the fifty-something man, since (at least according to his family) he believed that a childhood case of mumps had made him sterile. Nevertheless (according to Nan), he seemed genuinely pleased at the impending situation, and was generous in providing for her comfort and care. And, knowing that Harding was a) extremely unhappy in his marriage and b) that Florence Harding was a seriously sick woman whose death was always considered likely, she firmly believed that once Mrs. Harding died, she would become the Next Mrs. Harding. Senator Harding gave her no reason to believe otherwise.

Nan Britton, Mother

Nan Britton was secreted away in a private residence in Asbury Park, New Jersey during her pregnancy, claiming (to the snoopy landlady) that her “husband had been killed in the War.” Elizabeth Ann Britton (Harding) was born on October 22, 1919. Again, Nan claims that the Senator was always financially generous with child care costs… However…

During the remaining four years of his life, Senator-and-President Harding made no effort to see his daughter, nor did he ever publicly acknowledge the paternity.

Nan was now the beggar, imploring him to see the baby, and even suggesting casual wheel-a-baby-carriage/pass-by situations where they might meet “by accident.” Harding was now the tease, assuring her of his interest and care, peeling off wads of bills, and ducking all opportunities to see his baby daughter in person.

Nan could not manage a job, care for her child, avoid the stigma of the unwed mother, and continue her relationship with Harding, so she semi-gave Elizabeth Ann to her married sister to raise. Nan would be the doting “Aunt.”  At least for a while.

Meanwhile Harding…

The election of 1920 was a peculiar one. Both Presidential candidates, James Cox (D-OH) and Warren Harding (R-OH) were Ohio newspaper publishers and very dark horses for the office.

It is said that when Senator Harding was finally summoned to the “smoke-filled room” to discuss his possible nomination, he was asked to take a few minutes in private to decide if there were any personal reasons that might impede his candidacy. The politicians were well aware of his amorous reputation.

young carrie

Fascist-leaning Carrie Phillips was a Marion neighbor and Harding’s long-time paramour.

Whether he thought about his new baby-out-of-wedlock can only be conjectured. Whether he thought about the long-term affair he had enjoyed with another Marion neighbor who made no secret of her infatuation with Kaiser Wilhelm is another possibility – and another story! Then, of course, there were conceivably many other peccadilloes that could arise.

But he said no. There was nothing in his background to preclude his being a viable and electable candidate.

Nan Britton and Elizabeth Ann, the Senator’s daughter, was not even on the radar.

In those days, a man’s personal business remained his personal business.

Sources:

Anthony, Carl Sferrazza  –First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990

Britton, Nan – The President’s Daughter, Elizabeth Ann Guild, 1927

Russell, Francis – The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times – McGraw Hill, 1968

Sinclair, Andrew – The Available Man: Warren Gamaliel Harding – The Macmillan Co., 1965

https://millercenter.org/president/harding/family-life

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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