How Some Were Burned…

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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 Kaldingcr 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.