Without a doubt, they were the most bizarre dog days of August that Washington had seen since the British burned the town in 1814. That year, 1923, however, it was the first lady who was burning the public property. And her best friend was helping.
They were the oddest couple, sharing a friendship that endured adultery, forays into the occult, political intrigue, betrayal and an element of the macabre. To the unknowing observer they might have appeared to be mother and daughter. One had power, the other had money, and together they became notorious.
At 63, Florence Kling Harding was the ambitious, successful and suspicious first lady of the land. She was a clever politician and bragged about getting her husband into the Oval Office. Warren Gamaliel Harding had called her "the Duchess" for years.
She didn't ever fritter away money. When she ran their Ohio newspaper's finances, she ended the day with a march to the bank to deposit a huge jar of pennies. She wore her tightly marcelled gray hair under large feathered hats, veiled her face and placed her pince-nez over the veil, while covering her neck wrinkles with a black velvet band, brightened by a diamond sunburst. Ever conscious of her public image, "come hell or high water" she made the president attend Calvary Baptist Church every Sunday.
"Warren does well when he listens to me and badly when he does not," Florence said regularly. "I have only one real hobby," she told a group of reporters at the 1920 convention, and "its name is Warren Harding."
Evalyn Walsh McLean, 30 years her junior, was the scatterbrained millionaire who owned the fabulous but supposedly cursed Hope Diamond and kept her monkey in the bathroom, llamas on the lawn and a cursing parrot in the hall. She bought a yellow gown with diamonds to match her yellow Fiat, dyed her hair blond, then red, then pink, and had a dinner for 48 in 1912 that cost $40,000, including, by her accounting, "4,000 $2 yellow lilies imported from London." Such minutia is chronicled in Evalyn's massive collection of papers, memos and drafts of her autobiography, "Father Struck It Rich."
She owned 2020 Massachusetts Ave. NW, the ornate mansion built by her father that is now the Indonesian Embassy. When it came to religion, she was indifferent. "Well, if I was not a good Catholic, at least I was never a very good Protestant."
When her husband, millionaire Ned McLean, proposed to her, Evalyn accepted because she wanted to "control him completely. Hell! The cards are stacked against us women in any other field we tackle."
When Ned was a child, his parents bribed his friends to let him win at parcheesi. He owned The Washington Post. And The Cincinnati Enquirer. And his father's I Street mansion decorated by Elsie deWolfe. An alcoholic, he would ended his life in an insane asylum, running around in pajamas. When fellow patients called him by his correct name, Ned cried.
With Evalyn he jointly owned a vast in-town country estate (a corner of which is now McLean Gardens). It was Florence's haven away from the White House. Here she relaxed with Evalyn. Just girlfriends.
The estate was called Friendship.
Genial and well loved, President Harding died in San Francisco on Aug. 2, 1923, under "sudden, violent and peculiar" circumstances, just as his wife Florence's secret White House fortuneteller, Madame Marcia, had predicted. Rumors circulated before the funeral train even got to Washington that the Duchess had poisoned him because of any number of whispered motives -- ranging from the political corruption in his Cabinet that exploded as the Teapot Dome scandal, to his adulterous relationship with nubile Nan Britton, a hometown Marion, Ohio, groupie with whom, as Nan herself confirmed, he made love in an Oval Office closet. The official cause of death was listed as cerebral hemorrhage.
One day the Duchess was tipped off about Nan's presence and rushed to confront the mistress and the president. Delayed only by quick-thinking assistants, the shouting first lady nearly broke in on them. Another time, in front of servants, she shrieked an ultimatum to Warren, warning him not to leave the house that night.
So the president needed to make other arrangements for his assignations. Evalyn and Ned had three houses, and they always loved pleasing the president. After all, the McLeans were the Hardings' closest friends.
The oddest thing about it, the late Alice Roosevelt Longworth once said, was that when she introduced Evalyn and Florence "I never suspected those two characters' egos would allow them to get on as they did. Vinegar and oil. Vinegar and oil."
It was 1916. Alice's husband Nick Longworth was an Ohio congressman, Warren Harding an Ohio senator. Ned was an Ohio playboy. They all adored poker. So did Alice and Evalyn. Alice invited Florence because she couldn't avoid it. Privately she despised her.
"She was a nervous, rather excitable woman whose voice easily became a little high-pitched, strident. It is odd to have seen so much of people whom I never liked," Alice wrote. "The Hardings never liked me, and I can hardly blame them . . . The fact was that though they came continuously to our house, I never happened to go to theirs." Alice resented Warren for speaking against her father, President Theodore Roosevelt, for splitting the Republican Party in 1912. And she would soon have great reason to resent Florence.
With Evalyn, Alice Longworth had a friendly rivalry. Both were intelligent and had unusual ideas about what was fun. (Alice recalled a snowy night they had both gone in search of hungry street people and found none.) Evalyn had been secretly envious of the graceful "Princess Alice" ever since the White House deb had come to a party at Evalyn's parents' home. Hiding in her mother's closet, Evalyn watched the 16-year-old Alice powder her nose and smoke a cigarette. "For many years we have been about together," Evalyn McLean later wrote, but "that night I was just another Carmen willing to pull her hair or fight with other weapons." Evalyn also remembered something else important. One of Alice's "favorite beaus was Ned McLean."
Princess Evalyn one-upped Princess Alice when it came to rich husbands.
The night they were introduced at the Longworths', Evalyn was fascinated by Florence, "whose chin was lifted haughtily each time she scented challenge" and who "served all our drinks and did not play." They were set to play poker again in two weeks. But next time, Florence wasn't there.
Evalyn questioned Alice. "She is desperately ill, and it is a question of whether she will live," remarked Longworth flippantly.
The next day Evalyn rushed to Florence's bedside at her rented home, 2314 Wyoming Ave. NW. Florence, who was suffering from a kidney infection, was overwhelmed by this crazy but kindhearted Irish girl. She confided her life story to Evalyn. She told of her prosperous father's arguments with her over the boys she played with. And of her teen-age pregnancy. And her marriage to the town's ne'er-do-well alcoholic who abandoned her and their infant son on a Christmas night. And of her midnight ride back to her home town, as she begged the trainmaster to let her ride free, then breaking into an empty house to keep her baby warm. And giving her son to her parents to adopt. And getting a divorce and making her own living as a piano teacher. And falling deeply in love with Warren Harding, whom her father threatened to shoot if they married. She spoke of marrying Warren, and of her father's not speaking to her for 12 years, and of her son's death as an alcoholic.
Evalyn had her own tales of growing up poor in a mining town with "heroes and homicidal maniacs, nice women and prostitutes," and living in hotels where "the sheets were not always clean, but the guests were not particular." Her father struck gold and they became millionaires overnight, moving to Washington where, at age 13, in their home at LeRoy and Phelps places, she began a serious bout with alcoholism by secretly sneaking into the liquor cabinet. As a teen-ager she developed a taste for fast sports cars. "Dosed with laudanum and whiskey, I did not care about the risk so long as we were not riding in the other fellow's dust." Then her brother was crushed to death in an accident, and her leg was smashed, which led to a severe addiction to morphine -- 10 grams a day, usually kept in hideaways cut in her antique sofa cushions, on and off for nearly a decade. Every time she read about criminal drug addicts she had "a throb of pity. I know that aching hunger. I know how cunningly it magnifies the slightest twitching of a nerve into a pounding, crushing all-pervading sense of pain."
So it was pain that brought them together.
And an obsession with the occult.
By 1920 Florence and Evalyn were best friends, shopping, lunching, gossiping together. Florence, a Leo born on Aug. 15, revealed that she never made a move without "always first consulting the stars." Soon, Evalyn, also a Leo, born on Aug. 1, introduced Florence to Washington society's favorite fortuneteller, Madame Marcia, who had once worked Coney Island's boardwalk as a "gypsy."
On her initial visit with three other Senate wives, Florence didn't identify herself. Soon she was asking for the readings of a man born Nov. 2, 1865. Among the revelations came the embarrassing one of "many clandestine love affairs." Mrs. Harding didn't flinch. Would he be president in 1921, she asked? Yes, said Marcia, but she warned the Duchess that "the House of Death" appeared in his charts. If elected, Marcia predicted, he would die in office.
It was with this news that the superstitious Mrs. Harding went to the 1920 Republican convention, where her husband was nominated. "I can see only one word written over his head," she repeated over and over again. "Tragedy, tragedy."
Florence believed in hexes and was very disturbed by Evalyn's insistence on wearing the Hope Diamond so casually. Hundreds of years of legends surrounded the curse of the diamond. Evalyn felt she had "developed immunity to it," but "never let friends or children touch it." Evalyn went so far as to have it exorcised in a church as "lightning flashed . . . and thunder shook the church," but Florence Harding forever remained frightened around the diamond.
Nevertheless, Florence went ahead as self-appointed public relations adviser to Harding's famous "Front Porch" campaign for the presidency, staged at their home in Marion, Ohio. By phone and mail she kept in close contact with Evalyn, ending her letters with "We're going to Win and WIN BIG!" The Hardings entered the White House in March 1921.
By March 1923, the sand castle was crumbling. Not only was the first lady still very weak from a near-fatal kidney infection, but according to several staff members, the president's blatant adultery was getting out of control. And Evalyn was helping Harding by allowing him to use her house for his rendezvous.
Evalyn had reason to be nervous, for she knew social Washington and the way things circulated. "My habit is to tell things first in preference to letting the gossips make exciting discoveries," she once said. This time, however, Evalyn was evidently not telling, even though she must have realized it was inevitable that Florence would find out. " . . . as a Washington hostess," she wrote in her memoirs, "I learned it's next to impossible to cover up anything, no matter how much you might like to keep a few secrets." About Nan, she only dropped hints.
Whether the Duchess learned of Evalyn's betrayal remains uncertain, but it's likely. Judging from the type of classified and confidential information the first lady managed to obtain, little slipped by Florence Harding, particularly items of such a personal nature.
And then there was the matter of Alice.
Longworth was known for her honesty and the crisp manner in which she delivered her opinions. When she learned of Harding's closet escapades with Nan, she couldn't help observing, "My God, we have a president of the United States who doesn't even know beds were invented -- and his campaign slogan was 'Back to Normalcy.' " sk,2
And when, in 1977, she was asked by a reporter if Florence Harding was told that Evalyn McLean allowed the president to use Friendship for his trysts with Nan Britton, she hedged a bit, then later casually admitted, "I can't remember personally getting the word around to Mrs. Harding, though if I did, I'm quite certain I wasn't the first to tell her."
In January 1923, Nan had a final meeting with her lover in the White House. By March, Florence was well enough to join the president and the McLeans for a houseboat trip to Florida. But the beginning of the end was at hand for Harding and his administration. Charles Cramer, who had resigned as general counsel for the Veterans Bureau and was under investigation for participating in mammoth bribery, shot himself in the Hardings' old Wyoming Avenue home.
Then there was Jesse Smith, the effeminate companion of and assistant to Attorney General Harry Daugherty, who served as Florence's fashion coordinator and regular escort of both the Duchess and Evalyn to capital lunches. He also ran a bootleg liquor, pardoning and permit-fixing ring from his Justice Department office. Smith blew his brains out in the Wardman Park Hotel suite he shared with the attorney general. Evalyn was the last person to speak with him. "There was no post-mortem examination of the body," she wrote. "I have often wondered why."
Assuming there was a strain in the friendship would help explain more clearly why Evalyn didn't join Florence on the cross-country "Voyage of Understanding" that the Hardings took to rally public support in June. Though she claims it was because her doctors said she shouldn't travel so soon after her goiter operation, Evalyn had frolicked regularly in worse health and felt free to journey with the Hardings under worse conditions. She noted that "few of the old crowd" were going. Instead she and Ned decided to head to Briarcliffe, their Bar Harbor, Maine, estate.
On Aug. 3, however, she was speeding back down to Washington. To be with her best friend, the president's widow.
In those first few hours together, Evalyn's gentle understanding of what Florence had been through -- not just her husband's death, but her entire married life -- was magnanimous. Many later suggested the first lady had suffered some form of nervous collapse. At 1:30 a.m., in the humid, dark August night, Florence couldn't sleep. She told Evalyn she wanted to see her husband. In the East Room. Downstairs, in his coffin.
"I held her arm, soft and dropsical, as we descended the curving white marble staircase. She was being game with all her might. Through all that time I never saw her shed a tear."
Evalyn watched "for any sign of weakness, of collapse; there was no such sign."
*Florence ordered the casket lid opened, sat down on a chair and began to chatter loudly and incessantly to the rouged and lipsticked corpse, which Evalyn thought looked "quite alive" in the night's glow. She shivered as Florence "kept right on talking, as if she could not bear to hear the silence," and was sickened by the cloying smell of "those stupid fabrications that the florists make, and then buy back, withered, from cemeteries for further use." From these oversized flower embankments, the Duchess scooped up a modest bouquet and placed it on the coffin. It was 3 a.m. when the two women went back upstairs. Evalyn remained attentive and protective.
On Aug. 10, the president was buried in Ohio. Many people commented on the first lady's unusual behavior. Col. Edmund Starling, chief of the Secret Service, noticed that after a few minutes alone in the burial vault, the Duchess emerged with her veil lifted.
"She came out," he wrote. "She was not weeping. Her face was lifted and her eyes shone with a light I had not seen in them before. She walked away and the others followed." Florence immediately headed back to Washington, murmuring that there was "much work to be done." She arrived the next day and met with Evalyn over lunch at Friendship, then returned to the White House. Evalyn never revealed what they discussed.
With the help of her secretary and two of the president's most faithful assistants, the Duchess began sorting Warren's personal correspondence and possessions. She burned certain papers immediately, standing over them with a poker to make sure they were thoroughly destroyed. "We must be loyal to Warren and preserve his memory," she told those with her. Whatever reservations they may have had about the fact that she was tampering with public papers of historical value were unspoken. They obeyed.
She soon may have realized that combing through the voluminous private papers would take weeks. Her lingering at the White House while the new first family, the Calvin Coolidges, patiently waited in their Willard Hotel suite was already causing comment. Also, there was an intense public focus on the White House. If exactly what she was up to was known, there might be an attempt to stop her. Mrs. Harding sent five 10-foot-long wooden crates of personal presidential papers to Ohio, but reserved material she considered most harmful for priority destruction. She needed a safe haven.
On Aug. 17, the former first lady was driven through the darkening skies to Evalyn and Friendship. The limousine wound down the crescent drive passing through the heavy iron gates, and she was out of the White House forever. And so were those presidential papers. Together Evalyn and Florence dined in a summer evening's atmosphere of post-thunderstorm calm. After the meal, they chatted, strolling across the expansive manicured lawn, under the huge trees, as the cicadas sang in the night air.
If Florence had not forgiven Evalyn before for her role in the president's liaison, she certainly had reason to now. Evalyn may have let the president use Friendship for his illicit purposes, but now, like a true friend, she would let Florence use it for hers. Here, on the lawn at Friendship, Florence spent the next 18 days -- until Sept. 4 -- culling and burning those things she wanted to remain private.
As chronicled by Francis Russell in his 1968 best-seller "Shadow of Blooming Grove," one morning she built a great bonfire on the lawn and threw on a closed suitcase full of papers. Another day the contents of a Washington bank safe deposit box were tossed onto the flames. Yet another sultry morning it was copies of a suppressed anti-Harding book.
Evalyn delayed her return to Maine to keep company with Florence, who left on Sept. 5. As her work at Friendship came to a close, Florence sighed with relief to Evalyn, "Now that it is all over, I am beginning to feel it is for the best."
It was a year later that the friends next saw each other. By the fall of 1924, however, Florence was slowly deteriorating and living in an Ohio sanitarium. Evalyn was shocked. She persuaded the old Duchess to have dinner with her in the McLeans' private car in the railroad yard. As she prepared to leave, Florence turned to Evalyn.
"I will never see you again. Goodbye."
"Now, now," Evalyn, trying to lift her friend's spirits, hushed her, "you are going to get better and visit me."
"Evalyn, this is the end."
Within a month, Florence was dead.
In happier times, when a luncheon was given in honor of the wife of the president-elect by the Senate wives in December 1920, Mrs. Warren G. Harding chose Mrs. Edward B. McLean to sit next to her as a special guest. Evalyn's presence truly moved the publicly unemotional Duchess, who wrote, "It was a rare treat to me. The manifestations of genuine friendship . . . the kindness showered upon me brought to me a sense of security, and a comfort that nothing else has approached in my recent experiences. My heart is very full. After all, about the best thing there is in all of us is the real human part."
For her part, Evalyn concurred. "Money is lovely to have, but it does not bring the big things of life -- friends, health, respect -- and it is apt to make one soft and selfish."
Evalyn McLean was wild to the end, living until 1948, still wearing the Hope Diamond, still chatting easily. She demurred, however, on the subject of one particular friendship. Perhaps from embarrassment. Perhaps from pain.
"All of us," she wrote, "forget much more than we remember, and that's a blessing."
Carl Anthony Sferrazza is researching the life of Florence Harding for a biography.