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The Four Mysteries Of Warren Harding
In the life a and death of a scandal-haunted President, some dark regions still remain
April 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 3
She was, she wrote, the daughter of a Marion physician. As a schoolgirl of fourteen she had become infatuated with the handsome editor of the Star . Since the Britton and Harding families were acquainted, she knew him to speak to. Often she used to wait across the street from the Star office just to catch a glimpse of him sitting in the chair with his feet on the desk. Or she would telephone the Harding house in the hope that he would answer so that she could hear his voice.
When he ran for governor of Ohio, she covered the walls of her room with his campaign photographs. Her infatuation was so open that it became a mild scandal. Harding was aware of it; so was Mrs. Harding. In 1916, when Nan was nineteen and the forty-nine-year-old Harding was a United States senator, she moved from Marion to New York and from there wrote him a letter asking for a job. He replied with eager cordiality, saying that he would see her on his next visit to the city. Their first meeting in the Hotel Manhattan was the beginning of their liaison. Before he left her, she wrote, “he tucked thirty dollars in my brand-new silk stocking and was sorry he had no more that time to give me.”
The gesture symbolized their relationship. For Harding, it would seem, Nan Britton was young, attractive, and available—a pleasure for which he was willing to pay. For her he was the sentimentalized passion of her lopsided life. They lived together off and on, according to Nan, from 1916 to 1922, registering as man and wife at hotels or sometimes staying in borrowed apartments. It was at a rendezvous in the Senate Office Building, she said, that their child, Elizabeth Ann, was conceived. Once Harding even took Nan on tour as his niece. She saw him secretly at the 1920 nominating convention. Even when he was President they managed to have occasional trysts in a White House cloakroom.
After Elizabeth Ann was born, Harding always sent Nan money, a hundred or a hundred and fifty dollars each week. At the time of his death she was visiting Europe at his expense. As a girl Nan had had Harding’s sister Daisy as a high-school teacher and, when she returned from Europe with her money gone, she went to Daisy in Marion and told her story. Daisy, believing it, sent her small sums of money from time to time—in all $890. But Harding’s sister Carolyn and his brother George were less sympathetic and more skeptical. Dr. George Harding in a cold, four-hour interview with Nan demanded specific dates, specific places—above all, letters. Nan had no more than a few impersonal notes. Her love letters—some of which she claimed ran to as long as sixty pages—she had destroyed at Harding’s request. She now asked for a tenth of Harding’s halfmillion-dollar estate—an amount which she claimed he had promised to settle on her and Elizabeth Ann.
When Dr. Harding refused any settlement, Nan brought an unsuccessful court action against the Hardings. It was in preparation for this suit, she claimed, that she began to write The President’s Daughter , intending it at first merely as background material for her lawyer. With its publication she made well over a hundred thousand dollars.
Following Harding’s death she married a Swedish sea captain, mostly with the intention of providing for Elizabeth Ann, but the captain was poorer than anticipated and the marriage lasted only a few weeks. Financially safe at last after her book was published, she founded and busied herself with the Elizabeth Ann Guild, the purpose of which was to provide legal aid for unmarried mothers.
Harding’s defenders—there were still some left in Ohio—attacked the book as a fraud, pointing out that for all its gossip no clinching evidence, such as a surviving love letter, was offered. Yet Nan Britton herself was no fiction. Her family was as well known in Marion as Harding’s. Her schoolgirl infatuation for the Star editor had been Main Street gossip. But beyond that everyone had thought well of her. When Samuel Hopkins Adams talked with some of her old highschool classmates, all of them spoke highly of her character and reputation.
It would have taken the most exact documentary proof to connect Harding’s successor, the taciturn Yankee Coolidge, with any “woman scandal.” But for Harding scarcely more proof seemed needed than his own personality. Ike Hoover, who had observed much in his decades as chief usher at the White House, noted tartly in his memoirs that whereas Taft was a ladies’ man, Harding was “a sporting ladies’ man.” When such a man is married to a shrill, nagging, older woman, a certain amount of dalliance may be expected. Even in Marion, there was much that the Duchess had had to overlook. Editor Harding had once had an affair with the wife of one of the town’s leading merchants. Years later when President-elect Harding returned to a Marion decked with flags and bunting, there was one large store front that remained uncompromisingly blank among the red, white, and blue decorations.