… And Some Were Saved

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In his somewhat sardonic book of political sketches, Masks in a Pageant, William Allen White had a chapter on Warren Gamaliel Harding in which he recorded incidentally one of Harding’s “primrose detours from Main Street.” It had come to garish light in the summer of 1920, when the Republican presidential candidate returned to Marion from his nomination at the convention in Chicago. Local pride had laid out a triumphal way from the railroad station through the town center to the Harding house on Mt. Vernon Street with its bandstandlike front porch that was to serve as the motif of the coming campaign. White columns topped by gilt eagles lined the route at regular intervals, and every storefront bloomed with red, white, and blue bunting—every storefront but one. That uncompromisingly bare building belonged to a merchant of the town with whose wife Harding had had an affair some years earlier. The merchant—unnamed by White—had found out, and though he had condoned the relationship, the absence of decoration was his mute revenge.

That liaison was one of the many things I had marked in my notebook to ask about when I first arrived in Marion on a late October afternoon in 1963 to begin work on a biography of President Harding. Marion is a small city with nothing to distinguish it from any other town in the central Ohio plain but the columned marble drum of Alexandrian immensity at its outskirts that is the Harding Memorial; that, and the mystery still attaching to the name of the most disparaged of American Presidents. To see the cylindrical white marble bulk looming out of the flatness at the end of a long day’s drive I found a little disconcerting. It had been raining all along the die-straight road from Columbus, but the rain had stopped as I reached the Marion limits and the cloud rack was breaking up in a violent-hued sunset in the west. I stopped at a parking inlet in the road and walked up the long macadam walk to the memorial, its marble still glistening in the wet. Curious an architectural amalgam as it was, it managed somehow to be harmonious. An outer ring of columns without fluting was what I suppose would be called Tuscan. This was balanced by an inner ring of smaller Ionic columns, and within that inner ring an unroofed garden area spread out, with two polished dark granite slabs marking the graves of Harding and his wife, whom he called “the Duchess.” The combined columns represented the then forty-eight states of the Union, but as I walked round the colonnade I could count only forty-six, f counted them twice to be sure. Later I was told that the Harding Memorial Association had run short of money before the memorial drum was completed and had skipped the last two columns, hoping that no one would notice.

The Hotel Harding—another memorial of sorts a mile beyond in the center of the city—seemed almost empty. In the lobby there were only two people: a drowsy, middle-aged bellhop tilted back on a chair near the deserted reception desk, and a travelling man sprawled just under an oleographic portrait of Harding. A bent, silent woman ran one of the twin elevators still in operation.

The next morning I met my first Marionite, a lawyer connected with the entrenched older circle that controls the affairs and social life of any such small city. When 1 mentioned the undecorated storefront of 1920, he knew the answer at once.

“That was Uhler’s,” he said, “that department store just three blocks from the hotel on the other side of Center Street. Only then it was Uhler-Phillips. Harding had a love affair that went on for years with Jim Phillips’ wife, Carrie. Almost everybody in town knew about it before it was over. Carrie Phillips is supposed to have been the most beautiful woman in Marion when she was young. 1 remember seeing her when she was an old woman, and even then she had a way of carrying herself that made you look twice. She only died in 1960, but in her last years she was half-crazy—no money and living on welfare. Just before the First World War she lived a couple of years in Berlin while her daughter went to school there.”

“Did people know about her and Harding in the 1920 campaign?” I asked him.

“Oh, most people,” he said. “Anybody who’tl been around a little. Too many, finally. When Harding was running his front-porch campaign, they had to get her out of town. Hoke Donithen, Harding’s lawyer, is supposed to have arranged for the Republican National Committee to pay her off, although someone else, they say, gave her the money. Some say twenty-five thousand, some fifty. Nobody really knows. The story is that she and Jim were sent on a trip to the Orient to get them out of sight until after the election.”

“Come to think of it,” he said suddenly, “there’s a lawyer here, Don Williamson, who was her guardian the last years of her life. He’s still supposed to have some letters Harding wrote her. I’ll take you over to him. I don’t know whether you can persuade him to let you see them or not, but there’s no harm trying.”

Williamson had an old-fashioned office in an old building, camouflaged by a modernistic grill, next to the silver-domed courthouse. A chunky, pleasant man in his middle forties, he seemed more generally interested in sports than in history. Four years before Carrie Phillips died he had been appointed her guardian, and he had made the arrangements to have her taken to the Willetts Home for the Elderly. Up until then she had been living as a recluse in a disintegrating house with over a dozen unhousebroken German shepherd dogs.