Controversy, the inevitable result, of secrecy and suppression, still swirls about the life and Presidency of Warren Gamaliel Harding, who came to the White House in 1921 in the bright sunlight of landslide victory and left it in death, shadowed by scandal, less than three years later. Of how all these things happened, of what sort of man Harding really was, historians know much less than they would like to.
Tampering with his papers—even the outright burning of many of them—began almost with Harding’s funeral; the censorship has continued over the decades since. That story is told here by the curator of manuscripts at the Ohio Historical Society, Kenneth W. Duchett. In the article beginning directly below it, our frequent contributor Francis Russell gives his account of the recently publicized Harding-Phillips love letters; he found them in Marion, Ohio, and tried to place them in the custody of the Ohio Historical Society, with explosive results into which this magazine has been drawn.
AMERICAN HERITAGE has neither the desire nor the legal right to publish Harding’s occasionally heated but generally tiresome love letters. The fact is, however, that the correspondence concerns much more than romance. It furnishes insights into Harding’s character, his thoughts and motivations, and provides valuable clues to important actions and events in his public life, including the much-disputed circumstances of his nomination. It is considerations of this kind that make us and our sponsoring societies believe that these letters must he preserved. As part of the record of the Presidency they ought to be placed in a reputable library and, in good time, be available to serious scholars of American history.
The funeral was over. The heavily veiled widow, “bearing up courageously,” had arrived on the early train from Marion, Ohio. The city of Washington, hot and humid that mid-August morning in 1923, watched silently as ihe black limousine moved swiftly through the shaded streets from the station directly to the White House.
In the automobile with Florence Harding rode Dr. Charles E. Sawyer, While House physician, looking uncomfortable, as he always managed to do in his brigadier general’s uniform. Slight, shy, the eternal small-town practitioner, Sawyer had never accustomed himself to the attention attendant upon his appointment as President Harding’s U.S. Surgeon General.
At the widow’s other side sat George B. Christian, Jr., her late husband’s personal secretary, who had joined his staff almost a decade earlier when Harding had been elected to the U.S. Senate. Christian and his wife, Stella, perhaps the Hardings’ oldest and closest friends, had been neighbors on Mt. Vernon Avenue in Marion for a longer time than Mrs. Harding liked to recall.
The fourth passenger, younger than the other two men, sat stiff and sure in his major’s uniform, his red hair and cold blue eyes belied by his easy smile. Major Ora M. Baldinger, military aide to the late President, had first known the Hardings as a newsboy on their paper, the Marion Star. As a United States senator, Harding had secured the young man’s appointment to West Point and four years later had brought him to Washington as his military aide. After Harding’s death the young man shouldered the task of helping to destroy the papers of his late commander in chief. In the months ahead Mrs. Harding was to entrust assignments to “Reddy” Baldinger that she would give to no other.
As the limousine pulled slowly to a stop in front of the White House, Harry Barker, Mrs. Harding’s personal Secret Service agent, stepped forward to open the door. Awaiting her on the steps were President and Mrs. Coolidge. The two women embraced, turned, and walked haltingly into the foyer, where Mrs. Harding’s personal secretary, Laura Harlan, and the other members of the White House staff waited to offer their condolences. Mrs. Harding moved slowly from one to the next, until all had paid their respects. Then, turning to Major Baldinger, who had followed her respectfully at a distance, she pushed up the mourning veils from her lace. “Reddy,” she said, “come along. Bring Laura and Harry and let’s get to work. Everything has to be sorted and packed. The furniture, Warren’s clothes, his papers.” Thus began one of the great stories in American historiography: the censorship, suppression, and destruction of many of the important historical sources material to the Harding administration.
The lights burned late at the White House that evening, August 11, and for the next five evenings as well, while Barker, Baldinger, and Miss Harlan worked with Mrs. Harding. Some clothes Reddy carried to the Smithsonian Institution, others were packed to be shipped to relatives or into storage at Paddock’s Warehouse in Marion. From some of her husband’s coats the widow snipped buttons to be mailed with sentimental notes to young relatives and admirers.
The contents of the Chief Executive’s desk and of his wall safe in the second-floor study were examined by Mrs. Harding. Certain papers she ordered Baldinger to burn, at times trusting him to do the job, at others standing by his side and stirring the ashes in the fireplace. A shipment of personal effects, including many confidential and personal papers from the White House office proper, was gotten together to be sent to the warehouse in Marion. In the Executive office wing of the building, meanwhile, Christian, under the widow’s orders, was also packing busily.
On the evening of August 17, weary of her labors and ready to go into seclusion, Florence Harding left the White House for the last time. In the company of the Coolidges she motored through the rain-filled dusk to Friendship, the spacious home of Edward B. McLean, owner of the Washington Post and the Cincinnati Enquirer. Although Evalyn Walsh McLean had never warmed to Florence, her husband, Ned (as he was called by Harding’s crowd), had been genuinely fond of the late President; Harding in turn had always enjoyed his golf on the McLeans’ private course, their poker and bridge games, and the fruit of the Friendship cellar, stocked with the finest wines and liquors.
Now Friendship offered privacy, a place where Mrs. Harding could review and destroy more papers, from a group she had taken with her. Each morning Major Baldinger reported to her. Together they removed the contents of a safe-deposit box in a Washington bank. On another day Baldinger—today a retired colonel—remembers that they built a bonfire on which he burned several boxes of Professor William Estabrook Chancellor’s infamous book about Harcling, which claimed that there were Negroes or mixed-bloods among Harding’s ancestors. It had been published during the 1920 campaign but largely suppressed by the Department ol Justice, whose operatives had bought up many copies (see “The Four Mysteries of Warren Harding,” AMERICAN HERITAGE, April, 1963).
On the same day that the books were burned, Mrs. Harding ordered him to add to the pyre, unopened, a suitcase she had carried in the limousine from the White House. As the flames consumed the suitcase, Baldinger could see that it contained papers, but he had no questions to ask the determined woman. “Reddy,” she had told him, “we must be loyal to Warren and preserve his memory.”
On September 5, Mrs. Harding left Friendship for Marion to probate her husband’s will; it had been found, after several weeks’ search, in a Marion safedeposit box. Shortly after her arrival she sent for Major Baldinger, who took what became an extended leave of absence from the Army to serve her. The papers that had been shipped along with Harding’s personal effects from Washington to Paddock’s Warehouse in Marion had been brought to Haiding’s old offices as editor of the Marion Star. There for the next six weeks, off and on as her strength permitted, Mrs. Maiding worked every morning with the Major, reading, sorting, and consigning her rejects to the fire in a pot-bellied stove. To Baldinger she would hand single letters, then whole files, all to be burned. As he recalled the story recently, he recognized the autograph value alone of the letters he saw turning to ashes, ami “argued but to no avail.”
There is no denying Mrs. Harding’s political acumen, or that she saw sonic of Harding’s friends and appointees in a harsher light lhan he had. But she was five years older than her husband, tired and ill, and the long task of sorting papers took its physical and mental toll. Daily at noon that hot and sultry fall she arrived at White Oaks, Dr. Sawyer’s sanatorium, exhausted and begrimed to the elbows. Gradually the strain weakened her abilities, and finally her common sense. Some of the letters she chose not to burn but to censor, ripping off salutations from some and closings from others. From some of the carbons of outgoing correspondence she tore a portion of Harding’s text, only to leave intact the original incoming letter which had elicited it. Examples of letters which she chose to censor and save include one which related to the recurring racial rumors, and another on the subject of Hardings mixing cocktails, in that Prohibition era. In each case, however, the letter the President was answering clearly indicates why the reply was censored.
As Ora Baldinger recalls these scenes after a lapse of forty years, there were between six and eight boxes of letters in this “personal effects” shipment from the White House office. Each was about ten feet long, a foot wide, and a foot deep, and all were very tightly packed. When Florence Harding was through with them, the papers were loose, and there was from six indies to a foot of empty space in each box. Anyone who knows the compressibility of files will understand that as much as half—perhaps more—of these papers could thus have been destroyed.
There is another account of Mrs. Harding’s letterburning sessions at the Star offices, given shortly after the event. George Van Fleet, then editor of the newspaper, recalled five boxes which Mrs. Harding care fully went through, always observing her rule, to do “what Warren would do.” What she preserved from these boxes—whether they were originally five, six. or eight—eventually found its way into two boxes, and one may make a fairly infonned guess that roughly sixty per cent of these most important Harding papers, dealing with his clays as President, were burned.
Of all this destruction—at the White House itself, at the McLean estate, now at the Marion Star with the “personal effects” papers—the outside world knew nothing. The Harding administration scandals had not yet become widely known. When the last of his fires grew cold, Baldinger turned to assist the newly formed Harding Memorial Association in collecting money to build the late President’s tomb. Meanwhile, a few days after the New Year, in January, 1924, Mrs. Harding paid a visit to Washington, where she granted an interview to Dr. Charles Moore, representing the Library of Congress. Moore had written her in October, while she was in Marion, to request that she turn her husband’s papers over to the Library. Rather surprisingly, she told him she had burned them all. It was the same answer she gave, about the same time, to the publisher Frank N. Doubleday when he called at her Washington apartment. She had done it, she told him, because she “feared some of it would be misconstrued and would harm [Harding’s] memory.”
One may imagine the reaction of both men. One may object to the ethics of Mrs. Harding’s actions, and to her dishonest, or at least exaggerated, account of her disposal of the papers—not to mention the taint she has left on those that survive. But there was no question of her legal right to dispose of her husband’s papers as she saw fit. She was only following the precedent established by George Washington himself when he took his private and official files with him upon leaving office. From that date presidential papers were considered private property. While the great bulk of them eventually found their way to the Library of Congress, and some to other research libraries, far too much has been destroyed. Van Buren burned most of his own papers, as did Pierce. Grant is thought to have set a match to some of his; others he returned to the senders. Lincoln’s son sorted his father’s papers and is reported to have destroyed some family correspondence, but scholars think he left the official files nearly intact. Fillmore’s son left instructions in his will to destroy the family papers, including his father’s. Most of the fdes were burned, but the executor luckily overlooked seventy volumes stored in an attic.
Secure in her own mind that she had done what was best for her husband, Mrs. Harding came back to Marion after her Washington visit and settled in again at White Oaks. There she died, on November 21, 1924, willing her husband’s papers to the Harding Memorial Association. Allied Donithen, whom his friends called “Hoke,” secretary of the Association and a long-time friend of Harding’s, now revealed that there were indeed still some Harding papers unburned. Immediately he reopened negotiations with Doubleday with a view to publishing some selected Harding correspondence. Judson Welliver, formerly a secretary to Harding, was chosen to assist in the selection and to write the official biography.
A young editor from Doubleday, Page and Company, John Van Bibber, came to Marion and had over five thousand pages of typed copies prepared from Harding’s papers, largely selected from the letters marked PPF (Private and Personal File) which Mrs. Harding had weeded out and kept. Had Harding’s reputation rested on this selection, along with an authorized biography by Welliver, Florence Harding’s purpose would have been achieved. As it was, what appears to have been the jealous rivalry of one of the President’s friends, and the need of another to protect himself, thwarted that purpose.
Of the men who had surrounded Harding none felt closer to his chief than George Christian, and none thought more highly of his own ability. He would have been out of character had he not resented Donithen’s choice of Welliver to edit the correspondence and to write the proposed biography. First he tried to discourage Donithen, but when he continued to press for the project, Christian wrote to Harry M. Daugherty, Harding’s Attorney General and early political sponsor, who had resigned from Coolidge’s Cabinet when a congressional investigation uncovered evidence of fraud in his department. Daugherty, fearful that a federal grand jury was preparing a criminal indictment against him, probably was not anxious that any of the administration’s papers be published.
Whether it was Christian’s jealousy or Daugherty’s instinct for self-preservation, the two men—for reasons that can only be surmised from the meager evidence in the Association’s files—forced the president of the Association, ex-Senator Joseph S. Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, to call a meeting in the fall of 1925 to discuss the project. Harding’s Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, along with Donithen, Frelinghuysen, and others, favored publication but they allowed Christian and Daugherty to override them. Publication was abandoned, and the papers in the Association’s control were ordered closed until 1975.
Meanwhile, in the year following Mrs. Harding’s death, Dr. Moore of the Library of Congress had travelled to Marion several times to talk with the officials of the Association about placing the papers, which the widow had willed to the Association, in the Library. His pleas had been shunted aside, and now that the plans for publication had been halted and the papers closed, he attempted to marshal public opinion to force the Association to act. Christmas morning, 1925, readers of the New York Times were treated to an exclusive, a front-page story headlined, HARDING PAPERS BURNED BY WIDOW . In the first public announcement of Mrs. Harding’s action, Moore stated that she had “burned practically all the letters he had left concerning political and national affairs,” and that the Association, which held carbon copies of some of his outgoing correspondence, had refused to turn them over to the Library or to allow photostats to be made.
(Moore noted, oddly enough, that Daugherty was using his influence to see that the copies were released to the Library. In view of Daugherty’s stand against publication a few weeks earlier, this seems doubtful. It seems even more doubtful when it is remembered that during his 1926 trial for fraud in a New York district court it was learned that in August of 1925—a few months before Moore’s announcement—Daugherty had done his bit to whittle down the remaining Harding sources; he had burned a group of records of the Midland National Bank, the Daugherty family institution in his home town of Washington Court House, Ohio. Daugherty pleaded the Fifth Amendment when questioned about the records, but his attorney admitted the destruction. He hinted that his client was not motivated by any desire to protect himself, only by loyalty to the memory of the President. He demonstrated this “loyalty” by leaving the impression, which was the gossip of the day, that Harding had maintained secret accounts at the bank to finance his stock-market speculations and affairs of the heart. One probable indication of Daugherty’s true feelings about the papers can be found in a news item published by the Washington Court House Herald , a local paper close to the former Attorney General. In response to the New York Times account of how some of the Harding papers had been burned, the Herald hinted that the destruction of the papers begun by Mrs. Harding might soon be completed. All of Harding’s correspondence, official or otherwise, said the article, was of a frank, intimate, and personal nature, unlike that of his predecessors, Wilson and Roosevelt, who often wrote their letters with a view to publication. “The present disposition of the Harding trustees is to keep all the letters sealed. Maybe sometime soon they, too, will be destroyed.”)
Soon after Moore’s surprising announcement, Association officials in Marion sought to reassure the public. Donithen declared that Mrs. Harding had destroyed only personal letters, and that no “official” files had ever been sent to Marion from Washington. Van Fleet, the editor of the Star, who recalled the circumstances of the destruction vividly for his readers, hinted of mysterious missing files to which Mrs. Harding had never had access, and, in Washington, George Christian gave a reporter a soothing interview. The personal papers, he said, had been left to the Association by Mrs. Harding, excepting some “unimportant” correspondence not included in the gift; everything official was stored at the White House.
There the official papers remained, largely forgotten, throughout the term of Calvin Coolidge. In July, 1929, when Herbert Hoover was President, they turned up again. Workmen making repairs in the basement of the White House found thirty-nine letterfile cases of Harding correspondence. It is a safe assumption that this was the vast accumulation of papers that George Christian had begun to pack in August, 1923, over in the Executive wing, while Florence Harding and Baldinger were packing things up in the White House proper. In the Executive offices, of course, would be the bulk of the official papers, the correspondence with departments and agencies. If Christian was ordered to send this material to Marion, along with the “personal effects” papers, as Baldinger thinks he was, he disobeyed. It went instead to the cellar, and was used on occasion during the Coolidge era. It seems likely that these files, having more to do with public business than private problems and indiscretions, did not greatly interest or worry Florence Harding. The foreman called the building superintendent, who got in touch with Dr. J. Franklin Jameson, newly installed chief of the manuscript division of the Library of Congress. Jameson, a man who would really come to know frustration over the Harding papers, was delighted. He had already been looking with longing to the Harding papers in Marion. Now he had an estimated one hundred cubic feet of records. He had never heard of them before. How could he keep them legally, in the face of Mrs. Harding’s will?
Hopeful that possession would count the proverbial nine points, Jameson made a hurried examination of the files and then wrote to Charles Schaffner, a Marion attorney who had acted as administrator of President and Mrs. Harding’s estates, notifying him of the find. Schaffner replied by return mail and ordered the papers sent to him in Marion. After they had been “gone over” he promised to confer with Jameson about giving the papers to the Library of Congress.
It may be that Jameson knew about the cloud of smoke that accompanied the last going-over that Harding’s papers received in Ohio. At any rate, when Schaffner’s letter reached him he was on vacation in Maine and he tried to stall. The papers were so bulky; rather than ship them now, he suggested, could he not assign a “confidential man” to prepare an inventory? “Meantime,” said Jameson, “the papers would be kept closed to investigators, of course.”
Jameson’s choice of terms may not have been the best. During the search for facts in the Teapot Dome case, the word “investigators” may have suggested unpleasant ideas to Harding’s old friends. Schaffner was firm in his demands, although he assured Jameson that the officers of the Association, to whom he would turn over the papers, wished to “look through the files,” and that if there was nothing in them that they “cared for,” they would be glad to return them to Jameson at a later date. Meantime, to be sure that there was no further delay, Schaffner wrote on August 2, 1929, to President Hoover (incidentally an officer in the Association), requesting him to direct that the papers be packed and shipped. On September 24, 1929, the basement papers were shipped to Marion.
Thwarted but not defeated, Jameson began a campaign to convince the individual members of the Association that all these papers belonged in the national library. Former Cabinet members—President Hoover, Harry S. New, and Hubert Work—attempted to assist Jameson; and ex-Senator Frelinghuysen, president of the Association, agreed that the Library of Congress was the logical depository.
On January 1, 1932, Jameson paid a visit to Marion and went to see Hoke Donithen, secretary of the Association. By Jameson’s standards the Association was quite casual about its trust to preserve the Harding papers. In the back room off Donithen’s law office Jameson saw the basement papers, which then occupied some seventy feet of shelving. The shelves were wooden, the building not fireproof. It was a most unsuitable place. Donithen told him that the Association owned in addition “a trunk or box of other papers” which was then held at the late Mrs. Harding’s bank. One assumes these were what had survived her burnings in Washington and Marion. Donithen had agreed with him, Jameson wrote later, that both groups of papers should go to the Library of Congress but that it was difficult to bring about formal action by the trustees.
In 1934, Jameson almost succeeded. On a second visit to Marion, he found the papers had been removed to the basement of the Harding homestead—also a wooden, non-fireproof building—and he was emboldened to draw up terms for a transfer. According to the tentative agreement the papers would remain the property of the Association, but would be placed in the Library of Congress in the status of a “revocable deposit.” Until August 23, 1943 (twenty years after Harding’s death), scholars could see them only with permission of the Association’s executive committee. Then the papers would be opened to all without restriction.
Donithen favored the transfer, but before he could move to implement it he died, in April, 1934. Jameson was extremely disappointed, but his hopes took another great leap that fall when George Christian, whom he had gotten to know, admitted having in his possession a significant body of pre-presidential Harding papers which he was willing to turn over to the Library. On December 27, seven large and three small wooden boxes of papers arrived at the Library from Christian’s Washington residence. The shipment included papers which had been sent to Christian from Harding’s Marion office just before his inauguration on March 4, 1921. Eight of the boxes contained the presidential campaign correspondence arranged by state, recommendations for appointments, and congratulatory messages; and the other two were filled with personal and private papers.
The New Year of 1935 came, and perhaps Jameson made his resolutions. If so, we can almost guess what one of them might have been; then his conscience got the best of him, and dutifully he wrote to Frelinghuysen, notifying him of the Library’s good fortune. Meanwhile Christian had found more papers, and again the Library’s truck called at his Connecticut Avenue residence, returning with eighteen letter-file cases, giving the Library the collection of papers relating to Harding’s career as senator, as well as others dealing with his election as President. It must have broken Jameson’s heart, but on May 4 all the acquisitions from Christian had to be shipped to the Harding Memorial Association.
So matters stood when, in 1937, Jameson died, and the quest for the Harding papers passed into the hands of Dr. Thomas P. Martin, acting chief of the Library of Congress manuscript division. Martin visited Marion twice—in 1939 and again in 1943. Dr. Carl Sawyer, son of old Dr. Sawyer, had succeeded Joseph Frelinghuysen as president of the Harding Memorial Association. He was cordial but promised Martin nothing.
The war ended and a decade and more passed, but the Harding papers remained closed to all researchers, and the prospects of their coming to the Library of Congress remained dim. In 1958, Fred Shelley, head of the presidential papers section of the Library’s manuscript division, found nine pieces from the Harding papers which had been misfiled in the Coolidge papers. These were sent to the Association in the hope of reopening negotiations. In 1961, Daniel Reed, Martin’s able successor, spent a day with Dr. Sawyer, who hinted that his task of arranging and numbering the Harding correspondence was progressing well and that the Association might turn it over to the Library soon.
It was at this juncture that the Ohio Historical Society entered actively into an attempt to acquire the papers. Although the Society had expressed an interest as early as 1924, acquisition was not seriously considered until after 1960. From this date the Society began a concerted effort to collect the papers of Harding’s contemporaries, and on October 4, 1963, Dr. Sawyer formally gave the Memorial Association’s collection to the Society.
Or so the Society thought. When the formal gift agreement was concluded, its wording was so ambiguous that the Association released only the presidential letters; the Society, on the other hand, assumed that it had acquired title to the entire collection. The awakening did not come until October 10, 1963, when the papers were to be moved from Marion to Columbus, headquarters of the Historical Society.
The day dawned bright and clear. The Society staff, in elaborate rehearsals with the moving company, had set up a split-second timetable. To reassure Dr. Sawyer, who had feared a possible hijack by “those Teapot Dome people”—and not unmindful of publicity values—the Society’s public relations officer had enlisted the state highway patrol to escort the moving van.
But when the moving van and the five-man crew arrived in Marion that morning they found that the “hijack” had already occurred: what the Association termed “the senatorial papers” had been removed the day before from the vault under the Harding home and taken to the Sawyer sanatorium. The Association had also held back the so-called Marion Star correspondence, comprising Harding’s political and personal as well as business files for the period 1895–1914. Having previously examined these papers where they were stored, in the Harding attic, the Society staff had decided that they had not been screened by anyone and that the estimated ten thousand pieces represented potentially the richest source in the surviving papers.
Operating on the assumption that the presidential papers alone were still better than none, the Society staff supervising the move accepted the withholding of the two early files as gracefully as possible. The moving van arrived in Columbus that afternoon surrounded by TV cameramen, newsreel photographers, wire-service men, and reporters. It was too late to change the prepared press release. The news was out that the Society had acquired all the Harding papers and that they would be opened to researchers within six months.
The weeks passed swiftly while the Society’s manuscript department marked time, unable to begin final processing and arrangement of all the Harding papers—estimated at three hundred thousand pieces—as long as the Association held the early files. Meanwhile, the news of the transfer of the main body of papers brought in to the Society other groups of papers, including the Carrie Phillips correspondence, adding new dimension to the Harding sources.
In mid-March of 1964 the Association finally released the early files, and the Society began a frantic rush to have all the Harding sources ready for the official opening of the Warren G. Harding papers at its annual meeting, scheduled for April 26.
To the dozens of researchers who made use of the collection the first weeks after the opening, it became apparent that that portion of it called the senatorial papers was woefully incomplete. Missing were the letters from 1915, when Harding entered the Senate, through the first part of 1920. Some months later, on July 3, Dr. Sawyer, who had found the missing correspondence stored in his home among his father’s papers, turned one box of two over to the Society. At this writing, he still holds the other.
Over the almost forty years that the Harding Memorial Association held the papers closed, historians have speculated as to whether it might have continued in the tradition established by Mrs. Harding. To hear Dr. Sawyer talk of his mission to preserve Harding’s reputation, one might easily believe it.
While it is known that Dr. Sawyer did return some of Harding’s family correspondence to his descendants, most of the scholars who have used the Harding papers in the months since they were opened have concluded that there is little evidence to indicate that the Association destroyed, censored, or suppressed letters from the Harding papers. There are occasional empty file folders in them, for example one with the title “HeartThrob Letters,” but it must be assumed that the contents of these were disposed of years ago. What weeding and destruction they underwent probably occurred before they came into the Association’s possession.
Still not explained, however, is the fate of many of the original letters from which the approximately 5,500 pages of typed copies were made for Doubleday, Page. When Dr. Sawyer turned over those copies to the Society he stated that the originals from which they were reproduced no longer existed in the Harding papers. He was also uncertain as to when and why the copies were made, although examination of the Association’s records and the copies themselves reveals that they were prepared for the publisher in 1925. Some of the originals have been located in the Harding papers now held by the Society, but an estimated half of them seem to be missing.
Other mysteries shroud the story of the Harding sources, most of them known only through rumor and hearsay. Some day, perhaps, scholars will have access to the Carrie Phillips correspondence, and will demonstrate its importance in understanding Harding’s life. Time may eventually bring to light—if they exist—a group of Harding letters addressed to Nan Britton, another Marion girl and Carrie’s successor in Harding’s affections; that correspondence is alleged to be stored in the files of a New York attorney.
Or there is the thesis of a brilliant and introspective English student who came to Ohio shortly after the President’s death. With quiet persistence he is supposed to have amassed a wealth of detailed information, much of it in sworn affidavits. He went back to England, wrote his thesis, but never submitted it because he was afraid of the controversy it would stimulate. Later on he lost interest in history and turned to the ministry. When he was questioned about the thesis and the affidavits, he said he had destroyed them. Responsible persons will talk about such rumors, but not for publication.
The greatest mystery of all, however, is subjective: What great personal magnetism did Warren Harding possess that engendered such blind loyalty? And how could those who felt it have turned so mistakenly to the one course—suppression—guaranteed to do his reputation the most harm?
Where the lives of important men are concerned, suppression hides small facts only to breed larger fabrications. Had the Harding papers been released in 1925 or 1926, scholars would soon have been busily at work. With such a large body of material available, there would not have been the atmosphere of mystery and silence in which other voices flourished—the probing Professor Chancellor; Nan Britton with her book, The President’s Daughter; Gaston B. Means with his sensational volume, The Strange Death of President Harding. Biographers like William Allen White and Samuel Hopkins Adams would have been less prone to accept rumor and legend (for some parts of the story there was nothing else), and generations of tabloid scandal writers would have turned to other topics.
It is fire, the fire of burning letters, that brings headlines. In death as in life, what hurt Warren Harding as much as he did himself was the folly of his friends.