Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History—Warren G. Harding
Updated: Oct 1, 2020
Warren G. Harding has the dubious distinction of being known as “America’s horniest president,” and with good reason, as I discuss in my forthcoming book, Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History. This is quite an accomplishment in a crowded field that includes Honorable Mentions such as John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump.
History has not been kind to Harding, but it did not start out that way. During his brief tenure as the nation’s chief magistrate from March 4, 1921, until his sudden death on August 2, 1923, he was popular with the American people. He certainly looked the part of an American president. He was six feet tall with a full head of silver hair, a barrel chest, broad shoulders, a brooding countenance, and a booming, commanding voice. Aside from his physical attributes, many American admired his politics. He promised a “return to normalcy” following the horrors and bloodshed of the Great War in Europe. He championed policies to slash tax rates, and he appeared to be a model of stability in an unstable world where a global war, a Spanish flu pandemic, and the rise of Bolshevism and anarchism left citizens longing for quiet days ahead.
It was only after his death that Harding’s reputation plummeted, although he knew that his secrets might soon be revealed. “It is my friends, my goddamned friends, who are keeping me awake nights,” he once lamented. After he fell dead, the public came to see the wisdom in the comment.
His administration was rife with political corruption, most notably the Teapot Dome scandal, where Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall accepted bribes to lease federal oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming, as well as two sites in California to private oil companies at low rates without the required competitive bidding. Harding’s sexual affairs came to light much later, indicating that he was hardly the buttoned-down family man he was supposed to be. Harding once said, “I am not fit for this job and never should have been here,” and subsequent historians and a skeptical public tended to agree.
This blog focuses on Harding’s affairs with two women, Carrie Phillips and Nan Britton. Much of the historical ridicule heaped on Harding’s legacy is the result of these two dalliances (among others) as well as his relationship with his ambitious, domineering wife.
Harding met Florence Kling, the woman who became Mrs. Harding, in their hometown of Marion, Ohio, in 1886. She was five years his senior, and she had been married before. By all accounts, Florence was a forceful personality. One writer described her as “a shrill, dowdy harridan who had relentlessly pursued him.” She was the eldest child of Amos Kling, a prominent Marion businessman who had longed for a son. Although Kling eventually had a son, he raised Florence to be as assertive and outspoken as any man. Perhaps because of these expectations, Florence became strong-willed and pushy. She knew what she wanted, and she usually got it.
At age 19, Florence eloped with Henry “Pete” deWolfe, against her father’s wishes. Amos Kling was upset because deWolfe’s father was a rival and because Florence was too young to be married. In due course, the couple produced a son. When the boy was six years old, deWolfe deserted his wife, and the couple divorced. If Amos Kling hoped that his daughter would settle down and attempt to please him, he soon learned otherwise.
Almost immediately following her divorce, Florence began dating a local journalist, Warren G. Harding, who had attacked her father in print. Perhaps the relationship was a defiant gesture toward her father. In any case, Amos Kling took it that way. No matter. Florence and Warren married over his objections.
Harding recognized that he needed the forceful Florence as his wife to fulfill his ambitions, but his passions lay elsewhere. Of all the women with whom he was linked during his life, Carrie Fulton Phillips became the one most strongly associated with him. She was 10 years younger, but from the same small Ohio town as he. She was considered quite a beauty in Marion, typically described as statuesque with red hair, the epitome of the Gibson Girl in vogue during that era. Virtually everyone was captivated with her vivaciousness, her quick wit, and her charming manner.
When they met, both Carrie Phillips and Warren G. Harding were already married to other people. He was 40 years old and well-established in business and politics. She was a primary school teacher in a nearby town, married to Jim Phillips, a man who doted on her. The couples became best friends. They frequently dined together and even enjoyed joint vacations.
Warren Harding and Carrie Phillips started a sexual affair in 1905 during a time when their respective spouses were undergoing medical procedures. Florence Harding was in Chicago seeking treatment for a kidney ailment. Jim Phillips was grieving the death of his and Carrie’s son. Warren suggested that the depressed man commit himself to a Michigan sanatorium, and Jim Phillips took his advice. In the absence of the spouses, Warren Harding visited Carrie Phillips and they found each other’s arms as well as the bedroom. Their torrid affair continued for 15 years. At Christmas 1907, they even acknowledged their love for one another, pledging to be together at some indeterminate future date.
Much is known of the relationship because the lovers were prodigious letter writers. It is amazing that they continued the affair undetected for years. According to the letters, they met frequently, sometimes daily, and often in places where they might be compromised. The assignations ran the gamut from the Phillips home, to out-of-town hotels, to automobiles, and even in the shrubbery in Carrie’s garden.
Harding’s letters were unambiguous professions of his love for Carrie and odes to his libido. He often penned them while his wife was in the house. One little ditty he wrote was a typical expression of soft-core pornography:
I love your back, I love your breasts
Darling to feel, where my face rests,
I love your skin, so soft and white,
So dear to feel and sweet to bite. . . .
I love your poise of perfect thighs,
When they hold me in paradise. . . .
He nicknamed his penis “Jerry,” and he wrote about the appendage in the third person in numerous letters that he sent. For her part, Carrie eagerly read the florid professions of love and devotion before tucking them away for safekeeping. She threw nothing away. Thrilled with the illicit romance, she counted the days until she and her true love could be together. Jerry, no doubt, was a welcome guest as well.
She eventually grew weary of waiting. Sometime in 1909, she expressed her frustration to Warren. He continually promised to leave Florence, but he never carried through with his promises. Harding was a public man, and he knew that if he divorced his wife to carry on with a younger woman, his political career would abruptly end.
By 1909, he had already served as a state senator and lieutenant governor of Ohio, with his eyes set on higher office. He had narrowly lost a gubernatorial bid, but he had emerged from the ranks as a man to watch. Against this backdrop, Carrie recognized that he was stuck. She repeatedly broke off the affair, only to return when he sent a fresh love letter vowing to change his ways.
Incredibly, the two couples continued to travel together, even embarking on an extended tour of Europe and Egypt. Warren and Carrie found time to steal away for quick kisses and lovemaking on board the ship that snaked its way toward their destination. Jim Phillips and Florence Harding either remained blissfully ignorant of their spouses’ activities or they deliberately turned a blind eye to the shenanigans.
The affair continued as the years passed, and Harding was satisfied with the status quo. His wife directed his budding political career while his mistress attended to his other needs. Despite the seemingly placid situation, all was not well. Carrie grew increasingly restless with Warren’s vague, unfulfilled promises even as he was becoming nationally prominent in the Republican Party. In 1912, Harding nominated President William Howard Taft for a second term at the party’s national convention, a high honor typically awarded to an up-and-comer. Two years later, Harding won a seat in the United States Senate representing Ohio.
Carrie Phillips knew that her lover’s ascent into national office would carry him away to Washington, D.C. With his departure, he would become less available to her, and he would be less likely to honor his numerous promises to leave his domineering wife. She opposed his decision to campaign for the Senate, and she mourned his victory.
In 1915, Carrie Phillips resolved to end the stalemate. She sent all the love letters that Warren Harding had written back to him. A wiser man with an eye on his political career would have burned the correspondence. Instead, he inexplicably returned the letters to her and asked that she destroy them. He came to regret his impetuosity.
If Warren would not confront his wife about the affair, Carrie would do so. She wrote a love letter to Warren and sent it to his house. In the past, she had been careful to avoid sending letters there. Florence Harding cared for the household, opening the mail and attending to personal affairs in her husband’s absence. Not only would she probably open the letter, but, undoubtedly, she would recognize the scented stationary.
Florence opened the letter, precisely as Carrie had foreseen. Unfortunately for Carrie, the aggrieved wife did not immediately head to the courthouse to file for divorce. Florence Harding was not young, nor was she a beauty. She knew that her options for finding a replacement husband were limited. If she had not known of her husband’s infidelity, she certainly knew that he was not passionately attached to her. Their relationship was first and foremost a business arrangement. Like so many women tied to philandering husbands before and since her time, she had made a clear-eyed assessment of her circumstances. Warren G. Harding was going places, and she would propel him there. Florence did not intend to give up without a fight.
Carrie Phillips had been her friend and confidante throughout their long years of association. That friendship ended abruptly. Florence told Carrie that she must not pester the Harding family. In public, Florence denounced her husband’s mistress as a persona non grata.
Carrie was not content to let bygones be bygones. She, too, had invested much time and energy into Warren G. Harding. Now, however, her relationship with the senator entered a new and dangerous phase.
During a visit to Germany, Carrie became enamored of the country and its leadership. Her letters to Warren now contained “suggestions” about Senator Harding’s position toward Kaiser Wilhelm. A new member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Harding helped shape American foreign policy. Carrie’s letters implied that she might reveal the details of their affair if he did not do her bidding in favor of Germany.
In long, plaintive letters, the senator warned her that anti-German feeling was growing across the country. She must temper her public sentiments or risk triggering heightened scrutiny from government agents. The appeal did little to mute her pro-German public remarks. Harding even reached out to Jim Phillips for assistance. If anything, Carrie Phillips became more outrageous after the men in her life urged restraint, staging a one-woman protest, complete with signs on her lawn, while her patriotic neighbors marveled at her audacity.
Just as Carrie had constantly nagged her paramour to leave his wife and make a life with her, she nagged him to embrace her politics. As always, he mostly ignored her. Harding voted in favor of the United States entering the Great War despite her veiled threat that he must oppose the war or face the consequences. Following the November 1918 armistice, she bitterly complained to anyone who would listen, and more than a few who would not, that Germany had been treated unfairly.
Even with this potential scandal brewing, the senator's political career advanced. Warren G. Harding initially was no one’s choice for president of the United States in 1920. He had been a mediocre United States senator at best. He missed two-thirds of the floor votes, and he could always be counted on to be among the least well-informed legislators on any issue. Every Congress invariably has a handful of so-called backbenchers, non-entities who are satisfied to sit in the back, enjoy the perquisites of high office, and try to avoid ruffling the feathers of the more talented and hard-working members. Harding was just such a man. He poured his energies, such as they were, into writing love letters and reveling in his position as a man of influence.
He had three things in his favor that ultimately propelled him into the White House. First, because he was an inoffensive non-entity, Harding had amassed few political enemies. He was a pleasant-enough fellow who simply glided through a room without leaving angry political opponents in his wake. Second, he looked the part of a president. His impressive physique, silver hair, and booming voice reminded more than a few people of Hollywood’s idea of how a president should appear. It may have been one of the first times that media stereotypes helped to elect a candidate to high office, but it would not be the last.
The third and arguably most important factor in his favor was Harry Micajah Daugherty. A politically well-connected Ohio Republican, Daugherty was a shrewd behind-the-scenes operator who understood the emerging brand of politics as few others of his generation did. Daugherty proposed Harding as a compromise candidate. If no one else could secure enough ballots to capture the prize, perhaps Senator Harding would emerge as a suitable Dark Horse.
Harding was as astonished as anyone at this strategy. He had never harbored serious presidential ambitions. “You know I am unsuited for this high office even if it were possible for me to attain it,” he told Daugherty. For all his many faults, a lack of self-awareness when it came to his statesmanship was not one of Harding’s failings. Despite this blunt self-appraisal, Harding could not dissuade his would-be manager. Daugherty was determined to serve as a kingmaker whether the object of his labors desired it or not.
Daugherty had one other person to persuade, and she was not as pliable as her husband. Florence Harding had hoped that Warren would continue serving in the United States Senate. If he remained in Washington away from Marion, he would not be around that horrid floozy who had stolen away his affections and, more importantly, his attention. Florence Harding was as astonished as her husband that he might be a suitable presidential candidate--she knew he was a walking haircut with an overactive friend named "Jerry," and little else--but she eventually allowed him to be nominated.
Before Harding was officially nominated, Republican Party operatives sought assurances that the candidate would not embarrass the party. George Harvey, a former Democratic Party supporter of Woodrow Wilson who had become a political conservative after falling out with Wilson, vetted Harding.
“We think you may be nominated tomorrow,” Harvey told the would-be nominee. “Before acting finally, we think you should tell us…whether there is anything that might be brought against you or make you inexpedient.”
Harding reflected on the question for a few minutes. No, he told Harvey. He could not think of anything that would disqualify him from accepting his party’s nomination for president.
Exactly as Harry Daugherty had foreseen, the Republican National Convention in Chicago was deadlocked. With few options, the delegates turned to Harding on the tenth ballot. One disappointed Republican acquiesced to the choice, referring to the Ohio senator as the “best of the second raters.”
It was far from a ringing endorsement, but the assessment mattered little. Warren G. Harding, the weak, compliant, philandering Senate backbencher became the Republican nominee for president of the United States in 1920. It was almost too shocking to believe. “Now what do you think of that,” he mused. “I have been nominated for president! I can’t believe it!”
After he won the nomination and Carrie Phillips threatened to go public, Harding’s problems became the Republican Party’s problems. Albert Lasker, a Republican “fixer” serving as the party treasurer, met with Carrie Phillips, and offered her a deal. The party would meet her demands for $25,000, and she would receive $2,000 a month for as long as Harding served as president. She and her husband would be dispatched on a year-long trip around the world, ostensibly for Jim Phillips, a merchant, to purchase silk in China and Japan. In return, she must remain silent about the affair.
Carrie knew a good deal when she saw it. She immediately accepted the offer. Harding went on to win the 1920 general election by a landslide, capturing over 16 million popular votes (as well as 404 electoral votes and 37 states) to nine million popular votes (along with 127 electoral votes and 11 states) for his opponent, Ohio Governor James M. Cox. The party’s money was well spent. The public would not learn of Harding’s relationship with Carrie Phillips until many decades after his death. In fact, they would learn of his affair with another young woman, Nan Britton, long before they learned the details of the Carrie Phillips liaison.
Nanna “Nan” Popham Britton was 31 years younger than Harding. She was born in Marion, Ohio, in 1896. Marion was a small town where everyone invariably knew everyone else. Nan’s father, Dr. Samuel H. Britton, was Harding’s friend. Harding’s sister taught school, and Nan was her student.
As a young girl, Nan became obsessed with Harding. He was married, as everyone knew, but he had no children. He cut a dashing figure about town as he walked to and from work, conversing with his neighbors and enjoying the conviviality of the town's movers and shakers.
At the age of 15, Nan did not hide her obsession. She hung photographs of the man on her bedroom walls. She lingered around the offices of the Marion Daily Star, which Harding owned and edited at the time, so she could glimpse him walking home from work. She found excuses to talk with him whenever she could.
Dr. Britton was concerned enough about his daughter’s infatuation that he spoke to Harding about it. At the doctor’s request, Harding met with the young woman and told her that she would find a man closer to her age someday. The meeting did not have the desired effect. She continued to bump into him around town. The term “stalker” was not common parlance at the time, but it certainly is the term that would be used to describe Nan Britton today.
She graduated from high school in 1914, just as Harding was campaigning for a seat in the United States Senate. After she moved to New York, she continued reaching out to him. According to Nan, she was 20 years old in July 1917 when the senator finally reciprocated her attention and, in her words, she “became Mr. Harding’s bride.”
They began a secret affair that lasted for six-and-a-half years. As he had with Carrie Phillips, Harding would find time to slip away from his duties for a short tryst. Sometimes the assignations occurred in his Senate office and, later, in the White House. According to Nan, one notorious episode occurred in a White House coat closet that measured no more than “five feet square.” The Secret Service detail, as helpful as always, knocked on the door when Florence Harding approached, a signal that the president had better finish up so he could elude detection.
As the result of one encounter, apparently on the couch in the senator’s office, Nan Britton became pregnant. Her daughter, Elizabeth Ann, was born on October 22, 1919. Although Harding never met his daughter, he provided financial support. The affair continued until his unexpected death on August 2, 1923.
Nan Britton took the news of his death especially hard. Not only was the man of her dreams unexpectedly gone, but he had not left a will or other instructions for the care and upkeep of his daughter. Nan approached his family for assistance but, predictably, Florence Harding refused to entertain a financial arrangement. Having lost the source of her power, the former first lady was fighting a losing rear-guard action to preserve her late husband’s legacy. She would never agree to care for the illegitimate offspring of his supposed young lover.
With no sure means of support, Britton worked as a secretary, barely eking out a living. In 1927, she produced a tell-all book, The President’s Daughter, about her relationship with the 29th president. By this time, Harding’s reputation had suffered immeasurably as news of the numerous financial improprieties in his administration became well known. The book was the latest revelation that this man who looked the part of a president had not been as well-suited for the post as the public had believed. Harding’s friends and family worried that this new development, coupled with the barrage of negative stories since the president’s death, would only serve to further blacken his name in the pages of history.
Britton experienced enormous difficulty finding a publisher. By the standards of the day, the material was considered prurient and unworthy of distribution. Britton founded an organization, the Elizabeth Ann Guild, that eventually printed and distributed the book.
Everything about The President’s Daughter came under attack. Arkansas Congressman John N. Tillman introduced a bill into the House of Representatives to ban the sale of the book, which he called "a blast from hell.” Aside from attacks on the veracity of the substance, critics posed questions about the style. The text may have been written by Richard Wightman, head of the Bible Corporation of America. Nan Britton worked for him at the time the book appeared in print, and much of the prose matched prose he had written in other works.
Long after the book appeared, Harding’s supporters vilified Nan Britton as a publicity-seeking gold-digger who had fabricated the affair so that she could force a payoff from his family. It was “slut-shaming” long before the term existed. Many decades later, a DNA test conclusively demonstrated that Elizabeth Ann was, in fact, Harding’s daughter. In the meantime, Nan received death threats and was denounced as “a degenerate pervert” for daring to accuse a great man of infidelity after he was dead and could not defend himself.
Throughout the rest of her life, Britton never retreated from her claim that Warren G. Harding had fathered her daughter. She did retreat from public view, however, afraid that Harding supporters and cranks would continue harassing her if she reiterated her story. She died in Sandy, Oregon, on March 21, 1991, at age 94.
Her daughter, whose married name was Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, lived briefly in Ohio with her aunt and uncle before rejoining her mother after The President’s Daughter appeared. She lived a long life, seldom referring to her supposed relationship with Harding. After she died at age 86 on November 17, 2005, DNA testing confirmed what her mother had said all along. Elizabeth was Harding’s biological daughter.
The Phillips and Britton affairs are well-documented and not easily discounted. Harding’s other alleged affairs are open to debate. He was thought to have had an affair with Grace Cross, his staff secretary. In one account, a young Warren Harding had an affair with Susie Hodder, Florence Harding’s best friend since childhood. Hodder gave birth to Harding’s daughter, Marion Louise. He reportedly had a son with Rosa Cecilia Hoyle, a maid from California. Harding’s affair with a woman named Augusta Cole resulted in an abortion as well as Ms. Cole’s confinement to a sanatorium. He also enjoyed the company of chorus girls, although not all their identities are known. Some chorus girls, such as Maizie Haywood and Blossom Jones, can be identified, as can a “Miss Allicott,” but the others are lost to history. A New York woman reputedly committed suicide after Harding bought her a house as a consolation prize when he seduced her but refused to marry her.
“It’s a good thing I’m not a woman,” he once told reporters. “I would always be pregnant. I can’t say no.” As presidential epitaphs, it does not rank with Washington’s farewell address or Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, but it is a fitting statement on the legacy of the 29th president of the United States. Harding’s escapades remind discerning students of history that sometimes the sex scandal is not a one-time aberration, a serious misstep in an otherwise wholesome, productive life. Sometimes the sex scandal is the life, and everything else is the aberration.