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Five things you need to know about President Warren G. Harding’s steamy love letters

The most hotly anticipated literary event of the year has finally arrived! It doesn't involve Harry Potter or Hunger Games or vampires or James Franco's short fiction, but it does involve the steamy prose of an American president regularly deemed one of the worst. Scintillating!

Love letters between the 29th U.S. President Warren Harding and his mistress were released by the Library of Congress after the expiration of a 50-year court seal. (Reuters)

The letters between Harding and his mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips, were written mostly while he was in the Senate -- prior to his presidency and the scandals that engulfed it.

Why are they worth reading? Well, there are code words involved, for starters. Also, the New York Times called the correspondence "perhaps the most sexually explicit ever by an American president."

Even in the age of Anthony Weiner sexts and John Edwards revelations, it still has the power to astonish. In 106 letters, many written on official Senate stationery, Harding alternates between Victorian declarations of love and unabashedly carnal descriptions. (While Phillips’s notes and some drafts of her letters have been preserved, her actual replies were not.) The president often wrote in code, in case the letters were discovered, referring to his penis as Jerry and devising nicknames, like Mrs. Pouterson, for Phillips.

Harding had wanted Phillips to burn the letters, but she didn't. She even saved the 41-page-long letter. Thanks Carrie!

Why are the letters only open to the public now, when Harding has been dead for more than 90 years? The Library of Congress made a deal with the Harding family that has kept them locked up for the past 50 years, to protect Harding's immediate offspring from embarrassment. Jim Robenalt, a historian who wrote a book about Hardin's affair with Phillips, managed to track down the letters before they were released to the public, thanks to Dick Cheney. (Here he explains his find to NPR reporter Scott Simon.)

If you're really interested in the letters, you can listen to presidential love experts discuss the archive in a Library of Congress symposium held last week. Otherwise, here's a link to the letters.

Here are some quick things that stood out to us.

1. Warren G. Harding had atrocious handwriting.

Phillips might never have been able to read the senator's letters.

Source: The Library of Congress
Source: The Library of Congress

Curiously, presidents higher on presidential rankings list have far more legible handwriting, as this handwriting expert writing for can attest.

It is also far easier to read our current president's handwritten letters.

What does it mean?

2. Harding sent Phillips newspaper clippings of mushy articles he found.

Source: The Library of Congress

3. Also, annotated poetry. Lots of it.


"Thus I love you! I do, lots!"

4. Sen. Warren Harding once voted in support of state's rights for Washington, D.C.

In January 1917, when Congress was deciding whether prohibition of alcohol consumption should be legislated in D.C., Harding voted, "nay." They should decide for themselves, he figured. Harding told Phillips, "Just now I am catching the very devil by mail for my attitude on prohibition in the district. I hope you do not wholly disapprove. I voted as I said I would when asking for my election and have kept the faith."

One wonders what he would have though of the D.C. Council's efforts to rename the street outside the White House to “DC Statehood Now Way.”

5. Harding might have the most illicit presidential love letters, but he definitely isn't the only president to write love letters.

President John Adams wrote love letters to Abigail Adams, or "Miss Adorable."

Source: The Massachusetts Historical Society
Source: The Massachusetts Historical Society

In one letter from October 1762, he told Abigail, "I have good Right to draw upon you for the Kisses as I have given two or three Millions at least, when one has been received, and of Consequence the Account between us is immensely in favour of yours."

Presidential love letters have lost some of their fire in the 21st century.

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.



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