The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A century before Trump’s term, a president paid a mistress to stay silent

President Warren G. Harding throws out the first ball to open the Washington Senators' baseball season on April 13, 1921. (AP)
7 min

Donald Trump is not the only candidate who won the presidency while allegedly paying for a former sexual partner to stay quiet.

Warren G. Harding became the nation’s 29th president in 1921 while paying not one, but two women to keep affairs he had with them secret.

Harding’s situation was exponentially more complicated than the alleged affair that Trump had with Stormy Daniels years before running for president — an entanglement that probably led to his indictment by a New York grand jury on Thursday.

One of Harding’s paramours was a woman who had been followed during World War I as a likely German spy. The other, a much younger woman, had given birth to Harding’s child in 1919 while he was serving as a U.S. senator from Ohio.

Harding’s payments to these women probably did not violate the campaign finance laws of the time, but certainly had these affairs been exposed to the public, he would not have obtained the Republican nomination for president in the summer of 1920, nor could he have survived a revelation during the campaign that fall. So secrecy was paramount.

One of them, with his neighbor Carrie Phillips, lasted 15 years.

It started in 1905 in Marion, Ohio, when Harding was the editor of the local newspaper, the Marion Star, and Carrie was married to his friend Jim Phillips, who ran a dry goods store. It continued as Harding campaigned for and served as a U.S. senator and, eventually, ran for president. Through it all, Harding wrote love letters to Carrie, long missives filled with moony sentiment, erotic longing and sometimes despair.

Yes, Trump could run for president from prison. This candidate did it in 1920.

Five years into the affair, Carrie began collecting the letters, some of them 40 pages long and some written on U.S. Senate stationery. The 900 pages in her trove revealed a torrid affair but also tracked tumultuous and tragic world events as the European powers drifted toward war.

Because of an intense whispering campaign in Marion, Carrie took her only child, a daughter named Isabelle, to Berlin in September 1911 for schooling. Twice during her stay in Berlin, she traveled back to the United States to meet secretly with Harding. In 1911, the couple made their way to Montreal for several days of reverie until Carrie returned to Germany. They repeated a transatlantic rendezvous at the end of 1912, this time Carrie traveling on the RMS Mauretania, a sister ship of the famous Lusitania.

By 1913, the relationship was in crisis. Carrie let it be known she was seeing another man in Europe, and Harding concluded he had lost her for good. He decided to run for the Senate in 1914.

When war broke out in Europe in the summer of 1914, Carrie and Isabelle fled Berlin and returned to Marion. That fall, Harding won the election by a handsome margin and was instantly talked about as a leading candidate for president, in large part because he was from Ohio, the birthplace of so many presidents following the Civil War.

Teddy Roosevelt, however, seemed like the prohibitive favorite for the Republican nomination after he made amends within the party following his damaging split to form the Bull Moose Party. And then TR died unexpectedly in January 1919. Suddenly, Harding had a real chance to win the presidency.

By this time, Harding had two major problems. Carrie and Isabelle had returned from Berlin smitten with all things German, and they sided with Germany in the war. It did not take long for agents of the Bureau of Investigation and members of the citizen-police organization known as the American Protective League to begin following Carrie and Isabelle as suspected German spies.

The two women showed up just outside a major training camp on Long Island in the late summer of 1917, when the United States finally entered the war and began training its army. Isabelle was engaged to an officer whose family included a baroness who was arrested for espionage in Chattanooga, Tenn., while surveilling a training camp there.

The postmaster in Marion noticed the letters from Isabelle’s fiance and investigators concluded Carrie and Isabelle were part of a German spy ring run out of New York City.

Carrie had pressured Harding to vote against the war with Germany, but the senator balked, believing it was his duty to vote for war to defend America. During the resulting frigid period in the relationship, a young woman named Nan Britton, also from Marion, sought out Harding for assistance in finding a job after high school. The two became lovers. Then Nan became pregnant.

Carrie and Harding reconnected at times, but everything came to a head in February 1920 when he had to decide whether to run for president. Carrie, who may have been on the German payroll during the war, began to blackmail Harding with his letters.

On Feb. 2, 1920, Harding penned a desperate letter to Carrie. He described the pressure he had been under to declare for the presidency.

“I drifted in unwillingly,” he wrote, “and then found myself pleased to be well esteemed.”

Carrie, thinking Harding would leave politics, divorce and marry her, was furious.

Harding was despondent over the tension, writing that at times he “wished the final end for myself.” But, he went on, “normal beings can not command it,” and “we must make the best amends we can.”

Harding decided to put it to Carrie: She could decide his fate. “To avoid disgrace in the public eye,” he wrote, “to escape ruin in the eyes of those who have trusted me in public life — where I have never betrayed — I will, if you demand it as the price — retire at the end of my term, and never come back to M[arion] to reside. I will avoid any elevation but retire completely to obscurity.”

On the other hand, if Carrie believed he could “be more helpful by having a public position and influence … I will pay you $5000 per year in March each year, so long as I am in public service.”

“I will, I must abide by your decision,” he concluded. “If neither appeals to you, I await the tragic revealment,” he wrote in resignation. “I am helpless to hinder.”

Carrie did not reveal the relationship or publish the letters. Harding paid her as agreed, and the Republican National Committee probably paid for Carrie and Jim to travel to the Far East during the campaign.

Nan Britton, with her 1-year-old, Elizabeth Ann, also was in need of support. In the weeks after Harding’s election, Nan’s sister Elizabeth visited Harding in Marion to discuss what to do about Nan’s situation. Elizabeth and her husband had agreed to adopt the baby, but Elizabeth would need money. Harding offered her $300 per month. Nan was resistant to the adoption, but it was finally arranged.

Just before Harding left for his final trip in the summer of 1923 — a cross-country excursion through the West and into Alaska — Elizabeth came to the White House. According to a document Elizabeth dictated to her mother, Harding gave her $3,000.

With Harding’s sudden death on Aug. 2, 1923, Nan Britton found herself without money to raise her daughter. After unsuccessfully seeking money from the Harding family, an embittered Nan wrote the book “The President’s Daughter,” which became a bestseller in 1927. Harding’s reputation, already being battered by the Teapot Dome scandal, never recovered.

James David Robenalt is a lawyer and the author of four nonfiction books, including “The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage During the Great War.”