Fearing revelations about his illicit affair with a young campaign volunteer which included sex in an Oval Office hideaway while under the guard of Secret Service agents the president realized that stonewalling was ultimately futile. He stunned a private party of reporters at the National Press Club by confessing his carnal desires.
"It's a good thing I am not a woman," the president said. "I would always be pregnant. I can't say no."
In this administration, the scandals never seemed to end. There was the strange suicide of an administration official, made even more mysterious by a note that disappeared. Then came an investigation into payoffs and coverups connected to a notorious land deal. The president's friends launched smear campaigns against his perceived foes. Dossiers were compiled; private eyes and snitches deployed. Affidavits were drafted in which various women denied liaisons with the president. Jobs were arranged to keep people quiet.
Through it all, a steel-willed first lady kept the press at bay and did whatever was necessary to defend her husband's reputation even if it meant destroying evidence.
The scandals erupted at a time when technological advances in communication were feeding a nation hungry for distraction, and the economy was booming. Sex sold and the ravenous press corps was all too happy to name names and offer seamy details. The president and his wife boosted their public image by bringing Hollywood stars to the White House; they knew the value of glamour and the power of celebrity. It also helped that he was a genial populist and inveterate shaker of hands, fond of golf and cards, a man of the people.
Ladies thought him virile and handsome; he photographed well.
For some reason, all of this seems familiar. Whatever else may be said of Warren Gamaliel Harding whose tenure as 29th president ended with his peculiar, premature death in 1923 he was a truly modern politician. His administration, which reeked of corruption, offers a prototype for Washington scandals. Whitewater, Iran-contra and Watergate are better known today, but the granddaddy of them all was Teapot Dome, a political maelstrom that broke 75 years ago this month and is still hard to top in terms of sheer outrageousness.
Harding, a small-town Ohio newspaper publisher, was uniquely unsuited for the job of president and he knew it. "I am not fit for this office and never should have been here," he once said. But he "looked like a president," as one major backer put it, and his wife, Florence, was instrumental in shepherding his political career. (The press considered Florence, known as the Duchess, to be the power behind the throne; one cartoon depicted the couple as "The Chief Executive and Mr. Harding.") Harding, a one-term Republican senator, won the job by promising Americans a "return to normalcy" after World War I.
Though his legacy was soiled, his domestic achievements were substantial: the 40-hour work week, improved health care for new mothers, the first balanced-budget bureau, a focus on technology. And we have to give Harding credit for establishing a venerable institution: the Washington gossip mill. Based on new documentation, here's a reprise of the Harding era.
I love your back, I love your breastsNo president had more "women scrapes," as his attorney general put it, than Warren G. His first affair, three years into his marriage to Florence, was with Susie Hodder his wife's best friend from childhood resulting in the birth of a daughter. His second affair was with Florence's closest adult friend, Carrie Fulton Phillips. It lasted 15 years. His third enduring mistress was his Senate aide, Grace Cross.
Number four was the most infamous and the first presidential mistress to write a memoir: In the large Oval Office closet, the president had at least one tryst with Nan Britton,
It was in Harding's Senate office, late one night in the winter of 1919, that Britton claimed she conceived their daughter, Elizabeth Ann. They disrobed because Harding wanted to "visualize" her while he worked there during the day. Britton worried that they lacked the "usual paraphernalia which we always took to the hotels . . . and of course, the Senate Offices do not provide preventive facilities for use in such emergencies."
He had assorted other flings, including one with Rosa Hoyle, said to have conceived his only illegitimate son, and one with Augusta Cole, whose pregnancy by Harding was terminated. He bedded a Washington Post employee known as Miss Allicott, and former chorus girls Maize Haywood and Blossom Jones all procured by Harding's crony, Washington Post publisher and owner Ned McLean. And then there's the string of "New York women" including one who committed suicide after Harding wouldn't marry her, and another who had a stash of incriminating love letters purchased by Harding loyalists.
The president even publicly ogled Margaret Gorman, the first Miss America, in Atlantic City, days after her crowning.
Follow the Money
Just weeks after his inauguration in 1921, Harding approved Interior Secretary Albert Fall's request to transfer oil reserves from the Navy Department to Fall's control. Fall then secretly leased the reserve at Elks Hills, Calif., to oilman Edward Doheny and the one at Teapot Dome, Wyo., to Harry Sinclair in exchange for a "loan" of cash and stock worth nearly $400,000, delivered in a small black satchel, and a "gift" of $100,000 from Doheny. Fall became the first Cabinet member to be thrown in prison.
Col. Charles Forbes, the first director of the U.S. Veterans Bureau, created by Harding, was particularly close to the first lady. She saw to his appointment, and entrusted him with $450 million to build hospitals and provide decent medical care for the thousands of disabled veterans of World War I, on whose behalf the Duchess was a national activist. Instead, he bilked tens of thousands out of building contractors and medical supply companies. He was eventually imprisoned but not before Harding personally throttled him against the Red Room wall in the White House.
Although Attorney General Harry Daugherty, a Harding crony and campaign manager, eluded conviction on a variety of pardon-selling and influence-peddling charges, his Justice Department was riddled with malfeasance, kickbacks and payoffs. One of the department's central tasks was to intimidate any Harding mistress who threatened the president with blackmail.
Evalyn McLean, the Post publisher's wife, was a confidante of Mrs. Harding and an admitted intermittent morphine
The president served liquor freely in the present-day Yellow Oval Room to his guests. Alice Longworth a regular at poker recalled that the first lady mixed the drinks. "No rumor could have exceeded the truth. . . . [T]rays with bottles containing every imaginable brand of whiskey stood about," she remembered. And, according to recently declassified FBI reports, Harding was drunk on whiskey during an Oval Office confrontation with railroad union leaders during their 1922 strike.
At the center of the capital's most elite bootlegging service was Jess Smith who, even though never an employee or even a volunteer at the Justice Department, used official letterhead, cars and staff, and sat in on private meetings with FBI Director Billy Burns. Smith enjoyed these perks as the bachelor companion of the attorney general. Smith also served as the first lady's favorite escort and arbiter of her jaunty '20s fashions.
Through the Justice Department, Smith had access to whiskey supplies confiscated by Prohibition agents, and some of the booze went directly to the White House, and to the McLeans, while the rest was kept for parties at the "Love Nest," the small house shared by Smith and Daugherty, complete with a pink taffeta bedroom.
Working closely with Republican National Committee Chairman Will Hays during the 1920 campaign, Florence Harding conceived of recruiting Hollywood movie stars to support her husband. Al Jolson was drafted to head the Harding-Coolidge Theatrical League, and on Aug. 24, 1920, the marriage of politics and entertainment was forged forever when Jolson brought 40 movie stars to the Harding home for a campaign rally.
The White House became a little Hollywood. On any given day, D.W. Griffith, the Gish sisters or Tom Mix might pose for newsreel cameras with the Hardings. When Hays left his job as postmaster general to become president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, he developed a "project to link the White House with the motion picture industry" by providing a movie library. All of this was nothing short of immoral to old society. The religious press took even greater offense to Florence's ringing the stately halls with jazz for the first time. The Biblical Recorder excoriated the Hardings for "setting a bad example by joining in the modern dance with its 'jazz' music."
Squelching the Bimbos
There was a good reason for Jess Smith having a vaguely defined association with the Justice Department. In this way, he was able to act at the implicit direction of the attorney general and FBI director and carry out a systematic intimidation of Harding mistresses who threatened to do as Carrie Phillips did and demand blackmail for their love
In April 1921, Ned McLean officially became an agent of the FBI, and did his utterly unethical best to destroy any anti-Harding efforts he heard about as publisher of The Post. Such responsibilities included ripping the blouse of Nan Britton to try to snatch letters she claimed to be carrying in the privacy of his editorial office.
Even on the eve of his inauguration, Harding was providing more trouble for his troubleshooters. He had arranged a late-night rendezvous with Grace Cross, his Senate aide, in a Willard Hotel room. Some of his friends, recalled Olive Clapper, a reporter's wife, "ordered her to pack and get out of town, threatening to put the FBI on her trail if she didn't go at once. She was so frightened she left immediately."
Mrs. Harding's diary, discovered last year at an Ohio barn auction, revealed her to be a true believer in crystal ball readings, the zodiac and clairvoyance. In February 1920, as a Senate wife, she had her first consultation with capital society's seer, "Madame Marcia." The psychic predicted that if Harding ran for president that year, he would be nominated but that if he won the election, he would not live through his full term and instead die of "sudden, peculiar, violent . . . death by poison."
Knowing that the blackmail price of $25,000 demanded by Carrie Phillips for the love letters could never be met unless her husband became a presidential nominee, Florence pushed him through the primaries on to the nomination, ignoring the ominous prediction. During the Harding presidency, Madame Marcia was regularly fetched by the first lady's Secret Service agent, brought through the back entrance and escorted to the presidential bedroom for zodiac updates. Madame Marcia also did horoscopes for the president's public appearances; the first lady was trying to protect him from numerous assassination and bomb threats.
When Florence got early inklings of the Teapot Dome, Veteran's Bureau and Justice Department scandals, she asked Marcia to do astrological charts of Cabinet members and used the results as evidence to remove some of the crooks from the administration.
Newly discovered documents now prove that Harding was the only president successfully blackmailed by a mistress. Once he was nominated as the Republican candidate, the national GOP committee paid off Carrie Phillips's lump-sum demand of $25,000 and monthly stipend of $2,000, funneled through a secret bank account kept, apparently, under Jess Smith's name (the records were burned by Attorney General Daugherty).
Once Harding became president, Phillips returned from an all-expense-paid trip abroad and demanded that her brother and son-in-law be given federal posts. It was done. Harding even circulated the name of Phillips's husband to be ambassador to Japan before word got out why he thought a dry-goods salesman from Marion, Ohio, deserved the post and the idea was quashed.
One night, when he was a senator, Harding had such a row with aide Grace Cross that she cut his back and the police were called. Thereafter, Cross went around town talking about a "birthmark" on the president's back that she could identify undoubtedly the wound which became part of her arsenal in unsuccessful attempts to get blackmail money. However, former Democratic attorney general Mitchell Palmer would later use his knowledge of the Cross affair to force Harding to drop a Justice Department prosecution against him.
Crossing a Friend
After a failed attempt to frame Cross with a phony affidavit claiming she was a liar and blackmailer, Smith approached Bertha Martin a friend of Cross's to try to get possession of the aide's love letters from Harding. Martin said she would turn on her friend on the condition that she was given the job of society editor at The Post. Smith went to McLean, who gave his nod. Martin took Cross to lunch, asked to see the letters, snatched them away and bolted out of the restaurant. She was made society editor and still managed to stay friends with Cross, taking her on a European vacation, courtesy of the secret blackmail fund.
During a party at Smith and Daugherty's "Love Nest," some New York chorus girls were brought down to entertain a stag party. In attendance was the president. When glasses and bottles were being flung off the table so the dancing girls could perform, one Washington prostitute, identified only as a Miss Walsh, was knocked unconscious. Harding was hustled out. The woman died and was buried in a potter's field.
In recently discovered transcripts of her taped revelations, Evalyn McLean recalled that the FBI director "railroaded" the woman's brother into St. Elizabeths mental hospital when he suggested a blackmail payment.
Censorship by Book Burning
"The Strange Death of President Harding," written in 1930 by the notorious perjurer and former FBI agent Gaston Means, implied that Florence Harding poisoned her husband in retaliation for his adultery, but the book has long been dismissed as a fabrication. New evidence shows that while Means lied in details, he told general truths. He said that he was part of an FBI effort to seize and destroy a small, privately printed book, "The Illustrated Life of Warren Gamaliel Harding," that revealed Harding's affair with Carrie Phillips, the RNC blackmail payoff and Florence's out-of-wedlock child by a common-law first husband.
This turned out to be the only book suppressed by the government in peacetime. The entire action was illegal, and thus the boxes of books and updated manuscript inserts were taken not to any government property but to the McLean estate, where they were all burned. Well, not all: An original with the author's notes sits with none other than Evalyn McLean's papers at the Library of Congress.
Among Gaston Means's other sensational charges was that he spied for the first lady on Nan Britton. In fact, it was probably Grace Cross for at least one letter sent to her from the president's office was purloined and found its way into the file on Cross in the McLeans' private papers. Post reporter Vylla Poe Wilson later admitted that both "Mrs. Harding and Mrs. McLean were very jealous women, and they hired Gaston Means to follow Harding and McLean and report on their actions." In congressional hearings on the Justice Department, it was confirmed that Agent Means not only spied on Cross but the president's physician, Charles Sawyer, and his mistress, the first lady's housekeeper.
Congress first heard tales of gross corruption at the Veterans Bureau in February 1923. Col. Forbes's colleague in kickbacks, Charles Cramer the bureau's chief counsel, and the purchaser of the Hardings' Senate home wrote out a letter to the president in his dining room, then stood before the bathroom mirror and shot himself. The letter mysteriously disappeared.
At the start of the summer, the first big Harding scandal broke with the news that Jess Smith was found in his room with his head in a trash can, and a bullet in his head. The official word went out that it was a suicide due to health and emotional problems. Bertha Martin of The Post recalled that it was "noised about" town that Smith was a known homosexual, and that he was heartbroken over Daugherty's sudden rejection of his friendship when the president learned of Smith's nefarious activities. Others, like Evalyn McLean, simply believed Daugherty, Means or Burns had Smith killed because he knew too much. As for Martin, after a second career bootlegging whiskey to embassies, she was found dressed in her fur coat, pearls and white gloves with her head on the gas range, another alleged suicide.
Beginning on June 20, 1923, the Hardings sought to escape the heat and scandal of Washington on a 15,000-mile transcontinental train trip and voyage to Alaska. The president was 57 at the time. The recently unsealed diary and notes of naval physician Joel Boone reveal Boone's grave concerns about the president's heart condition. The warnings were ignored by longtime Harding homeopath "Doc" Sawyer, who made no effort to stop Harding from speaking in the blistering heat, driving the golden spike to complete the Alaska Railroad, or doing other arduous tasks. In this Sawyer had the absolute approval of the first lady, who was now enjoying the height of her national popularity and didn't want the trip canceled. She viewed the incompetent Sawyer as her own Rasputin, who'd miraculously kept a chronic kidney ailment from killing her.
When Harding suffered a bout of food poisoning from tainted crab meat at Cordova, Alaska, Doc Sawyer ultimately weakened the president's sick heart by treating him with heavy doses of purgatives to flush out the toxins. On Aug. 2, 1923, when Boone was out of the sickroom in San Francisco's Palace Hotel, Sawyer plied one too many purgatives in Florence's presence and Harding died. There was a quick coverup regarding who was in the room and at precisely what time the president died. Mrs. Harding refused to permit an autopsy or a death mask, protecting her beloved Sawyer. "Now that is all over," she told Evalyn McLean after Harding's death, "I think it was all for the best."
At the McLean estate, aptly named Friendship, Evalyn permitted the widowed first lady to bring from the White House wood crates full of government documents (which may have been incriminating to Harding) and helped burn them. Even though Mrs. Harding was being spied on and her phone was tapped during the congressional investigations of the scandals, she was able to keep destroying documents within the privacy of her Willard Hotel suite.
Four months after leaving Washington, Florence died at age 64 in Marion, Ohio. She was staying in a cottage on the grounds of the Sawyer Sanitarium "for the treatment of nervous and mental diseases," amid signs that read: "Please do not stare at the Patients."
This article is adapted from Carl Sferrazza Anthony's just-published biography, "Florence Harding: The First Lady, the Jazz Age and the Death of America's Most Scandalous President" (Morrow).
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
Back to the top