Warren Harding’s wife was difficult, but his paramours were no picnics either!
Warren the Romeo
Most citizens of Marion, Ohio in the late-1880s considered Warren Gamaleil Harding one of the handsomest young men in town, plus affable and easy-to-like.
When he first appeared on the Marion scene, he was somewhat at a loss of vocation. Having spent a little time working for a printer and finding the work pleasant, he bought into The Marion Star, a small weekly newspaper. In time, it would become a major Ohio daily.
The handsome young fellow had his choice of female companions, but always gravitated to the fast lane. A local divorcee five years his senior chose him. Florence Kling DeWolfe was the daughter of a rich-but-tyrannical father, average looking, and tough as nails. She was the ardent pursuer in the relationship. When they married he was 25, she was 30.
It was never a happy marriage, but each brought something the other needed. She needed renewed respectability following her disastrous first marriage, suspected to be common-law. He needed constant prodding to achieve any kind of success.
Her new mother-in-law advised Florence to “keep the icebox full, and keep a sharp eye on Warren.” It was sage advice. The bride learned early on that her husband had a wandering eye, and the rest of him usually followed. There were rows. There were promises. And nothing ever changed.
Even before the serious nephritis that claimed one of Florence’s kidneys, and cost their marriage bed, Warren was eyeing the local ladies. It was rumored that he fathered a child with an old friend of the “Duchess”, as he called his wife. And that was not the only amour.
But as her kidney ailment, complicated by heart problems, became serious, there was a gradual tacit understanding. As long as WH was discreet and only casually involved, FH could turn a blind eye.
Jim and Carrie Phillips
Around the turn of the 20th century, Jim and Carrie Phillips moved to Marion. She was an attractive woman in her late 20s; he owned a successful dry goods store. They became socially active, and in due course met their near-neighbors, Warren and Florence Harding. Having joined the same civic-business associations as the now-successful newspaper publisher, Jim Phillips became a major advertiser in The Marion Star. Florence Harding became pleasantly acquainted with Carrie.
By 1905, Harding had also become active in Ohio Republican politics, served as a state legislator, and then a term as Lt. Governor. Also around 1905, Carrie and Jim lost a baby son. It is believed that in consoling the bereaved mother, the relationship between the handsome newspaperman and the pretty housewife changed. Unbeknownst to Mr. Phillips and Mrs. Harding, Carrie and Warren began a steamy and passionate love affair. It was fairly discreet, but definitely not casual. Most historians consider her the love of his life. It went on for the better part of ten years, and then some, substantiated more than half a century later by hundreds of explicit and erotic love letters he wrote her.
The Dagger in her Heart
Despite a 13-year difference in their ages, the friendship between Florence and Carrie had become strong, filling an important gap in the Duchess’ life. She never had many friends, and now she had someone to enjoy “girl” things with. Exchanging recipes, going shopping or to the hairdresser.
For a decade, the two couples were dear friends, having dinners, going to parties and civic events – and even vacationing abroad together. There is one story that en route to Europe, Harding and Carrie waited until their spouses were soundly sleeping, and then slipped off for a secret tryst.
Carrie Phillips, in her own way, was just as tough as The Duchess. Self-centered and confident of her sexuality, she not only carried on with Warren, but with other lovers (and let Warren know about it), all the while demanding that Harding divorce his wife and marry her. She also wanted him to forego politics, which she hated. She claimed it took up too much of his time. Warren Harding, who seldom could say no to anyone, waffled and said nothing, except that his wife was a very sick woman, and likely to die. If that happened, he would gladly marry Carrie. Foregoing politics was something else.
It was Carrie who was believed to be responsible for deliberately letting the long-time affair come to Florence’s attention. As might be expected, The Duchess went ballistic, and seriously considered divorce. After all, she was the injured party. But after a few days, her rage turned to ice. She had already been divorced and had worked hard to redeem her reputation. A second divorce would ruin her forever. Where would she go? What would she do? How would she live, especially with poor health? Besides, she enjoyed her active role in the newspaper business, and she loved politics as much as her husband. There would be no divorce. Warren Harding also seemed disinclined to pursue it.
Florence never spoke to Carrie Phillips again – at least not intentionally. One embarrassing story claims the two women met by accident in a public place, and they went at it like cats in the back alley.
Florence Harding had lost her best friend. Now she had no one to talk with or to confide in. She had no shopping companion, lunch-buddy and chit-chatter about girl-stuff. The scars from her husband’s repeated infidelities had toughened the already tough woman, and she was used to it. But this injury was traumatic.
She would never let anything or anyone hurt her again.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – The First Lady, the Jazz Age, and the Death of America’s Most Scandalous President – William Morrow, 1998
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza –First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990
Robenalt, James David – The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage During the Great War – Palgrave Macmillan, 2011
Russell, Francis – The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times – McGraw Hill, 1968