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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
Many such primrose detours from Main Street were reputed to have taken place in Harding’s life. And although his affair with Nan Britton could not be documented to the satisfaction of Dr. George Harding, nevertheless the gushing, redundant pages of her book ring true. Such an enthusiastic artlessness could hardly be counterfeited. Subsequently the Secret Service chief, Colonel Edward Starling, who was then in charge of White House security, confirmed in his memoirs that one of the Secret Service detail had, as Nan alleged, carried letters between the President and “a certain young lady, unnamed, in New York,” and once brought her to the White House. “This, I suppose,” he wrote, “was Nan Britton.”
For several years Nan’s book engendered flourishing support to the Elizabeth Ann Guild. At one point the Guild employed eight staff members to deal with the flood of letters pouring in from unwed mothers from all over the country. Boni & Liveright undertook to publish a second edition of The President’s Daughter . It was for a time Gertrude Stein’s favorite reading.
Nan wrote various follow-up articles, gave interviews, and compiled comparative photographs of Harding and Elizabeth Ann. In a 1928 piece for the Haldeman-Julius Monthly she explained: I based my decision to give my book to the world on a platform of faith built on the eternal rock of Love, a higher love than mother-love when mother-love is narrow, fearful and absorbing. Never for a moment have I had the slightest doubt of the Tightness of my decision in its relationship to my darling child and Warren Harding’s.
In October, 1930, an independent film company was planning to make what Nan called a “picturization” of her book, until film czar Will Hays—who had also been Harding’s Postmaster General—squelched it. In 1932 Nan published her second book, Honesty or Politics , more interesting for its assorted pictures of herself, Elizabeth Ann, and Harding than for the 374 rambling pages in which she wrote about her difficulties with the surviving Hardings and with getting The President’s Daughter into print.
No bills were tucked into stocking tops in Honesty or Politics . Lacking the scandal value of its predecessor, the book had only a modest sale. After its publication no more was heard of Nan. If she is still alive today, she will be sixty-seven years old in November, 1963, and Elizabeth Ann forty-four. But mother and daughter and the Elizabeth Ann Guild have long since disappeared into obscurity.
It was Harding’s good fortune to die when he did, for the scandals of his administration—as he probably knew—could not have remained hidden much longer. He had meant well. With naïve sincerity he had hoped to be America’s “best-loved” President. He had not consciously sullied his office; indeed his Cabinet contained men of unquestioned honor and ability like Herbert Hoover and Charles Evans Hughes. But his closest friend and associate was still Harry Daugherty; his convivial companions, the Ohio politicians who had trailed him to Washington. With Harding in the White House, with Daugherty attached by a private line, the Ohio gang was all there. Alice Longworth described the presidential poker parties that were an evening feature early in the Harding administration: No rumor could have exceeded the reality; the study was filled with cronies … the air heavy with tobacco smoke, trays with bottles containing every imaginable brand of whiskey stood about, cards and poker chips ready at hand—a general atmosphere of waistcoat unbuttoned, feet on desk, and spittoons alongside.
If Harding had lived, it is at least possible that he might have been impeached. By the middle of his term the vultures were beginning to come home to roost. Early in 1923 he discovered that one of his closest poker cronies, Charles R. Forbes, whom he had enthusiastically made director of the Veterans’ Bureau, had rigged his department and had robbed the government and the veterans of an estimated two hundred million dollars. It was Harding’s first experience of treachery. A visitor to the White House, misdirected to the second floor, was appalled as he passed the Red Room to find the President shaking the cowering Forbes by the neck and shouting: “You yellow rat! You double-crossing bastard!” Shielded by both his office and his incapacity, the last to learn what had long been Washington gossip, he became by 1923 vaguely but increasingly aware of the other leeches about him. There was Daugherty’s loose-lipped Jess Smith, master of the revels at the Little Green House on K Street where, it was whispered, appointments and pardons were sold, liquor permits farmed out, and political deals arranged amidst a profusion of poker chips, bootleg liquor, and accommodating women. There was William J. Burns, who, as head of the government Bureau of Investigation, was using his bureau as a private detective agency to harass the critics of Daugherty and the Ohio gang. There was Secretary of the Interior Fall, suddenly affluent after leasing government oil properties at Teapot Dome to the Sinclair interests. But even as Harding tardily learned the truth, disaster was rushing toward him.