April 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 3
In the life a and death of a scandal-haunted President, some dark regions still remain
Several months before the Republican National Convention of 1920, the Ohio political boss Hairy Micajah Daugherly made the offhand prophecy that none of the leading candidates could muster enough votes to win the nomination, and that alter the delegates had reached a dead end, a group of fifteen party elders would then get together in some smoke-filled hotel room. There, bleary-eyed and perspiring profusely—at about 2:11 in the morning—they would pick the party’s candidate, almost inevitably the next President of the United States. That man. Daugherty predicted, would turn out to be his friend and protégé, Senator Warren Gamaliel Harding of Ohio.
Daugherty s prediction was uncannily accurate. There have been a number of versions of the “fifteen men in a smoke-filled room,” and the casual phrase has taken its place in American political folklore as a synonym for cynical electoral manipulation. Vei when Daugherty made it, his remark seemed no more than a politician’s quick quip. Harding was still the darkest of dark horses, a scarcely conceivable candidate. He lacked even the complete Ohio delegation.
The leading Republican contender was Major General Leonard Wood, one of the ablest men in American public life. If the nomination had been by popular vote rather than through the maneuverings of the convention, he would certainly have been the party’s choke for that year. With his imperturbable presence, his air of paternalistic authority, he stood out from the run of politicians like a race horse among jackasses. Hc had begun his military career as a medical lieutenant on an obscure western army post and ended it as Chief of Staff. His civilian record in Cuba, where he served as Governor-General, and later as Governor of the Moro Province in the Philippines was equally brilliant. If anything could be said against him it was that he stood out too far for the comfort of politicians. As the ailing boss of Pennsylvania, Senator Koies Penrose, put it, they wanted a President “who would listen.”
Wood’s principal and implacable opponent was Frank O. Lowden of Illinois, who had made a notable record during five terms in Congress and later as governor of his state. Among the many dark horses were Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. On the opening ballot Wood received 2871/2 votes to Lowden’s 211¼. Harding had 65¼. By the fourth ballot Wood had reached 314¼ with Lowden close behind at 289, but to the astute bosses it was clear that neither could muster the 493 votes needed to win, that the general and the governor had cancelled each other out. Abruptly the permanent chairman, the frosty Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, adjourned the convention until the following morning.
That evening an inner group of senators met in the Blackstone Hotel suite of the enigmatic George Harvey. A former Democrat, an associate of J. P. Morgan, he was editor of the North American Review and had formerly edited Harper’s Weekly ; he liked to claim he had “made” Wilson President. Later he had turned against Wilson and Wilson’s creation, the League of Nations. Harvey was a man of pontifical solemnity who fancied himself a behind-the-scenes statesman, a President-maker. For this night’s work he would become ambassador to Great Britain. Among the others present were Senator Lodge, future Vice President Charles W. Curtis, Senator Frank Brandegee of Connecticut, Senator James Wadsworth of New York, and Pennsylvania’s Joseph Grundy. The man they picked would have the bloc votes they controlled fed to him ballot by ballot until, with the disintegration of the Wood and Lowden supporters, he wotdd stampede the convention. Such was their plan. Their problem was whom to choose.
As the heat-heavy hours wore away, various candidates were discussed and discarded. Harding, by a process of elimination, remained. He was, after all, innocuous, even if he did talk more about the time he used to play the trombone in his home-town band than about the tariff. As Senator Wadsworth remarked, Harding in the White House could be trusted to sign the bills the Senate sent him and not to send the Senate bills to pass. And he looked like a President. At close enough to 2:11 A.M. to make Daugherty seem clairvoyant, Harvey sent for Harding.
Harding at first glance was an impressive figure. His tall, solid body, his dark complexion contrasting with blue eyes and white hair, gave the appearance of mental and physical vigor. There were some who compared him Io a Roman senator—more justly than they realized, for in his features there lurked the same imbedded sensuality found in Roman portrait busts. William Allen White remembered him as “a handsome dog, a little above medium height, with a swarthy skin, a scathing eye and … the harlot’s voice of the old-time political orator.”
Behind Harding’s senatorial façade fluttered the mind and spirit of a banal small-town editor. But for his grim-jawed wife—whom he, not wholly in affection, called “Duchess'"—and the manipulating Daugherty, he would never have given the Presidency a thought. "1 found him,” Daugherty remarked afterward, “sunning himself, like a turtle on a log, and I pushed him into the water.”
When the late summons came from the Blackstone suite, Hauling, dishevelled and discouraged, had long since lost faith in Daugherty’s brash prophecy. Harvey was waiting for him behind his heavy tortoise-shell glasses. “We think you may be nominated tomorrow,” he told the stunned Harding with the urbanity of an undertaker. “Before acting finally, we think you should tell us, on your conscience and before God, whether there is anything that might be brought against you that woidd embarrass the party, any impediment that might disqualify you or make you inexpedient either as candidate or as President.” Harding asked for a little time to think it over alone. Ten minutes later he came back to say that there was no impediment.
The following morning on the fifth ballot Harding received 78 voles to 299 for Wood and 303 for Lowden. On the sixth ballot he had climbed to 89 and on the seventh to 105. William Allen While, who as a delegate would go down voting for Wood to the end, saw the emerging pattern and cried out that to nominate Harding would disgrace the Republican party and bring shame to the country. By the ninth ballot Harding led the list with 374¼ votes to 249 for Wood. On the tenth ballot—lale in the afternoon of the same day, Saturday, June 12, 1920—it was all over.
Though Harvey had relished his solemn catechi/.ing of the night before, he had solid reasons then for playing his portentous role, for there had long been ambiguous rumors adrift concerning Harding. Undoubtedly Harvey had heard them. One concerned something very important in poliiics, indeed in American life—lhe color of his skin. The olher mysiery, no less disturbing, raised a “woman question.” To these two mysterious stories, two more mysteries would laler be added—the manner of his death and the fate of his privale papers. Over foriy years later these four mysteries would still remain.
For campaign purposes the new Republican candidate seemed an embodiment of the American success story. He had started out as a poor boy in Marion, Ohio. At the age of nineteen, with a few hundred borrowed dollars, he had managed to take over a moribund newspaper, the Marion Star , and over the years had built it up into a prosperous daily. Afterward he had been in turn state senator and lieutenant governor, and in 1914 had been elected to the Uniled States Senate. Now the poor boy was to become President.
But the story was a myth and bore only a nodding acquaintance with reality. Hard ing was more a creation of his wife than of himself. Florence Kling De Wolle Harding, fixe years older than her husband and as dominating as she was lacking in feminine charm, had been the driving force behind him. Her aggressive qualities, along with her grimly plain features, she had inherited from her father, Amos Kling, a self-made realestate operator and banker who had become one of the richest men in town. At the age of nineteen she had defied her 1'aiher by marrying the llashy Henry De Wolfe, whom she had met at a roller-skating rink. The De Wolfes were almost as wealthy as the Klings, but Henry was the family ne’er-do-well, a small-town sport, aimless, a drinker who would in a few more years die of alcoholism. Alter two years he abandoned his wile and her year-old child.
Ten years later Flossie Kling De Wolfe married Warren Gamaliel Harding, to the profane rage of her father, who preferred even a wastrel of good family to a printer of none. Harding at the time of his marriage had been running the Star for almost seven years and had managed to make the paper modestly solvent. Flossie now made it a success, as chief of its business side. Without her neither the Star nor Harding would ever have amounted to much. For Harding, jovial and indolent, Marion, Ohio, was the world. He never wanted to be more than just one of the boys whose relaxations were the Saturday night poker session, the brass rail, and the occasional stag party. As editor he wallowed in the shallow rhetoric of small-town pride. No word of his ever reached beyond the boundaries of Ohio. As a United States senator he had been a popular nonentity. “A cheese-paring of a man,” Nicholas Murray Rutler (ailed him.
At the convention Daugherty played up the poorboy-to-President myth where it would do the most good; but another story was also in circulation, one that Harvey must have been aware of when he put his ponderous question to Harding. This counter-myth was derived from a crudely printed circular addressed (o the “Men and Women of America and distributed surreptitiously to the delegates. Harding’s family tree was the subject of the circular, which set out to demonstrate through various affidavits that “Warren Gamaliel Harding is not a white man.” “He is not a créole, he is not a mulauo, he is a mestizo.” ∗ The man responsible for the circular was William Eslabrook Chancellor, a professor of economics and social sciences at Wooster College, not far from Marion, and formerly superintendent of schools in Washington, D.C. Chancellor possessed sufficient intellectual attainments to have had educational and historical books published by such reputable houses as Houghton Mifflin and Macmillan, but—although he had nothing against Harding personally—he was obsessed to fren/y over questions of race. i\ot only did he believe in strict and complete segregation of whites and Negroes, but he advocated the disenfranchisement of colored citi/ens. Harding’s nomination, he maintained, was a plot to achieve Negro domination in the United States. Between the nomination and the election thousands more of his circulars were printed; 250,000 of them were seized by Post Office officials in San Francisco alone.
∗ This one obscure sentence in itself could produce an all-day discussion in many pans ol the U.S. To most Americans, especially southerners in Louisiana and along the Gulf Coast, creole means a while man of whole or partial French or Spanish ancestry, although it is sometimes used elsewhere to indicate a person of mixed blood with various racial admixtures and even to mean a native full-blooded Negro, although in that case the proper expression is creole Negro Mulatto , in its first meaning, indicates a person half-Negro and half-while, but also in broader meanings a mixed-blood in general, including, for example, Negro-Indian. Mestizo , more properly a Spanish word, also means a mixed-blood, although not necessarily containing either Negro or white. All these points tan be argued, but not in this limited spate.
The rumors that Chancellor unleashed across the country were no novelty in Ohio. They had been current concerning Harding’s parents long before his birth. They persisted, to be revived and whispered about by Harding’s enemies every lime he ran for olfice. Harding’s father was George Tryon Harding, who had served as a short-term filer in the Civil War and afterward had come back to Blooming Grove, Ohio, where he married and took up the trade of veterinary. Then, switching from animals to humans, he Sj)CiH several years picking up what medical knowledge he could by assisting the local doctor on his rounds. Finally he went a few terms to a fly-by-night Cleveland homeopathic college and returned a “paper” iM.D. Later “Doc” Harding moved his family to the shabby outskirts of Marion, twenty-five miles away. The Hardings were always poor whites and they remained poor—the mother more successful as a midwife than the father as a physician. Warren was the eldest of eight children.
Gossip both in Blooming Grove and Marion held that the Hardings were of mixed blood. In 1938 Samuel Hopkins Adams, visiting Marion in search of background material for his book on the Harding era, found that this belief still persisted among the older residents. A reporter who had worked for Harding and the Star just after the turn of the century told Adams that “it was generally believed that there was Negro blood in the Harding line, but that W. G. had outgrown it.”
Professor Chancellor’s circular caused such an uproar in Marion County that the Wooster trustees asked for his resignation. He continued, however, to live in the town and continued his digging into the Harding genealogy. Harding had been President for just over a year when the residts of Chancellor’s work appeared in a book with the title page
Warren Gamaliel Harcling President of the United States. A Review of Facts Collected from Anthropological, Historical, and Political Researches by William Eslabrook Chancellor formerly Professor of Economics, Politics, and Social Sciences of Wooster College, Woosier, Ohio.
Although a casual reader might (and was presumably intended to) assume that the professor was the author, the title was carefully worded and punctuated to make no such claim. Chancellor later denied that he had written it, but no other author has ever been suggested. According to the title page the book was “sold and distributed by agents of The Seminal [ sic ] Press.”
Like the earlier circular, the book was distributed surreptitiously. Most of the copies were sold by door-todoor salesmen through the main cities of Ohio. Some copies even reached Washington. In the book Chancellor now maintained that there were several Negro strains in the Harding clan, but his chief claim was that the President’s great-grandmother, Elizabeth Madison Harding, born in 1799, was a Negress. Chancellor in his delvings had spent several weeks in Blooming Grove interviewing the oldest inhabitants, some of whom claimed to have known Elizabeth Madison Harding.
With Harding’s inauguration Harry Daugherty had attained his own goal of becoming Attorney General of the United States. When he learned of the publication of Chancellor’s book, he at once sent out agents of the Justice Department and the Post Office to gather up the whole edition. They spread out all over Ohio buying, borrowing, and even confiscating every copy they could find. They finally managed to locate the Seminal Press, bought all the unsold copies, burned them, and destroyed the plates. So thorough was the Justice Department in its search, so carefully did government agents comb Ohio, that this sub rosa volume has become one of the rarest items in American historical bibliography.
Harding himself was troubled all his days by the shadow across his lineage. His father-in-law remained for years Harding’s bitterest enemy. Just before the marriage Kling, on meeting Harding in the courthouse, elaborated profanely on the young man’s mixed blood and threatened to kill him. Kling was probably responsible for a full-page article that appeared about that time in the rival Mirror alleging that the Harding family had always been regarded and treated as Negroes in Blooming Grove. Twelve years later, when Harding was running for lieutenant governor of his state, Kling remarked with open bitterness that he hoped to God he would never live to see a Negro governor of Ohio.
Whatever Harding’s frustrations and anger at these mocking accusations, he always followed the manly course of disregarding the rumors about his heredity. He himself did not know whether they were true or not. “How do I know, Jim?” he once told his old friend James Faulkner of the Cincinnati Enquirer . “One of my ancestors may have jumped the fence.” Nor, in a day when such matters have come to be of less concern, is there anything more to add to that honest comment.
No President of the United States ever suffered such a loss of reputation in so short a time as did Harding after his death. Aloof insiders like Alice Roosevelt Longworth might sum him up waspishly as “just a slob,” but when he died suddenly in San Francisco on August 2, 1923, he was as popular and respected among the mass of people as three years before, when he had been elected by a record plurality. Three million people from cities, hamlets, and open prairie came to watch his funeral train as it slowly crossed the country; “the most remarkable demonstration in American history of affection, respect, and reverence for the dead,” according to the New York Times . The day of Harding’s funeral was proclaimed a day of public mourning. He would, it seemed, be remembered in history as another Garfiekl or McKinley.
Yet within months the scandals long simmering beneath the amiable “normalcy"—the President himself had coined the word—of the Harding administration boiled over. Harding had surrounded himself with his friends, and now it turned out that many of his friends were vultures. Ominous questions arose concerning the Teapot Dome oil leases; Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, was sent to prison for bribery. Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby retired in disgrace. There were revelations of graft and corruption in the office of the Allen Property Custodian and the Veterans’ Bureau. There were suicides. Under Daugherty and his bagman, Jess Smith, the Justice Department had become—in Senator Henry Fountain Ashurst’s phrase—the Department of Easy Virtue, with pardons and bootleggers’ permits for sale over the counter. Only two hung juries kept Daugherty from going to jail when he retired to Ohio.
As an aftermath to all the other scandals a book appeared in 1927, The President’s Daughter , published by an otherwise unknown organization called the Elizabeth Ann Guild. It was written by a former Marion resident, Nan Britton, who claimed that for years she had been Harding’s mistress and that her eight-year-old daughter Elizabeth Ann—whose photograph served as a frontispiece—was Harding’s child. By this time, as The President’s Daughter circulated briskly, if for the most part under the counter, the public found it easy to believe almost anything of Harding. Nan’s 44o-page book was convincing not only through its elaboration of details but by its very naïveté. She was a determined young woman, she had determined to become Harding’s mistress, and she had achieved that inglorious goal. She had no regrets. Such was the theme of her book; its major details were as follows.
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.
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.
So timely was Harding’s end in the light of the approaching nemesis that those in the know soon began to whisper that he had committed suicide. Such rumors were stiffened by certain anomalies about his death. There were contradictory reports of his symptoms. It was uncertain, rumor said, just who had been with him when he died. Afterward Mrs. Harding had refused to allow an autopsy, had refused even to allow a death mask to be made. Even darker rumors followed, hinting that Harding’s death had really been a mercy killing and that the iron-willed Duchess had poisoned him to save his reputation. Fifteen years later Samuel Hopkins Adams found a number of people in Ohiosome of them friends of the Hardings—still convinced that Harding had been murdered by his wife. Many Washington insiders accepted the story at the time, although it did not gain nationwide circulation until the publication in 1930 of The Strange Death of President Harding , by Gaston B. Means.
Means, a perjurer and trickster whose devious career included a trial for murder, was officially an operative in the Bureau of Investigation, but his real function was to operate under cover for Burns and Jess Smith. Though his word was always dubious, he maintained in his book that he had also been employed by Mrs. Harding to investigate Nan Britton. Means was to spend two post-Harding periods in a Federal penitentiary, the last (during which he died) for swindling Evalyn Walsh McLean of $100,000 by concocting false clues in connection with the Lindbergh kidnapping. Without saying it in so many words, Means implied that Mrs. Harding had poisoned her husband. Following Nan Britton’s revelations, Means’ book tore up the last shreds of Harding’s reputation.
It seemed reasonable enough, after all the other scandals, to believe that Harding had met an unnatural end. Yet the skilled diagnostician Dr. Emmanuel Libman, observing him at a dinner party in the autumn of 1922, had predicted to friends that the President would be dead of a coronary ailment within six months. The year 1923 found Harding oppressed both mentally and physically. He had always played golf with the same compulsive zest that he played cards. Now he tended to become tired after nine holes and often quit at the twelfth or thirteenth. He was unable to sleep except when propped up with pillows. His face aged and grew slack. To his essentially indolent nature the demands of the Presidency had become a relentless burden. With morbid uneasiness he began to doubt himself and to sense the menace to his administration and to his name of the friends he had trusted. Although he still attended the Calvary Baptist Church, he would not go on Communion Sunday, saying that he felt unworthy. He forswore liquor and gave up his poker parties. For some time he had been thinking of a trip across the continent and to Alaska, “a voyage of understanding,” he called it, in which he imagined himself escaping from the isolation of the White House and renewing himself by seeing again the ordinary men and women of America who had elected him.
Originally he had planned the trip as a junket to be made with cronies like Daugherty, Jess Smith, and the court-jester husband of Evalyn Walsh, Ned McLean. The shift to the voyage of understanding developed with the darkening mood of 1923. It was as if Harding were trying to break out of the web of his old associates. Instead of Daugherty, Harding now invited soberminded men like Speaker of the House Frederick GiIlett, Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace (father of the present Henry Wallace), and Dr. Hubert Work, the former physician who was now Secretary of the Interior. Secretary of Commerce Hoover, then on the West Coast, was asked to join the party there. Dr. Charles Sawyer, the President’s personal physician, accompanied him, as did a young Navy doctor, Commander Joel T. Boone. Sawyer was a Marion friend, a diminutive country doctor of about the standing of the elder Harding, whom the President had brought to Washington and made Surgeon General. Sawyer cut an absurd figure in his uniform, but he was an honest man. Mrs. Harding of course made the trip, one of her maxims being, Never let a husband travel alone.
The special train with the presidential car Superb left Washington on June 20. But before then Harding had had two ominous shocks. In March Charles F. Cramer, Forbes’ closest associate in the Veterans’ Bureau, had committed suicide. Two months later Jess Smith’s improprieties had become so flagrant that they finally reached even the President’s insensitive ear. Summoned by the White House, Smith confessed, blubbering out the catalogue of iniquities of the Ohio gang. Harding, aghast, dismissed him with the warning that he would be arrested next day. The next day Smith shot himself dead in Daugherty’s hotel room.
To the correspondents and those aboard the Superb the voyage of understanding seemed more a voyage of doom. Harding in his restlessness insisted on playing bridge steadily, interrupting his game only to make a speech at each town and whistle stop. He prided himself as an orator, but this time his phrases—always resounding platitudes—had lost their resonance. When he spoke in Kansas City, William Allen White noticed that his lips were swollen and blue and his eyes puffed.
Slowly the Superb moved across the continent in the rending summer heat. At St. Louis Harding delivered a ghost-written speech on the World Court. Later the wife of former Secretary Fall, evidently much troubled, visited him incognito at his hotel. The veiled elderly woman spent over an hour talking with him, and when she left, Harding appeared profoundly disturbed. Afterward on the train, as if he were thinking aloud, he remarked that it was not his enemies but his friends who were keeping him awake nights.
On July 3 Secretary Hoover and his wife joined Harding at Tacoma just before the party embarked for Alaska. Aboard ship the Secretary was forced to play bridge with the President each day, beginning immediately after breakfast and continuing until after midnight. So surfeited of cards did Hoover become on the voyage that he never played bridge again. One evening Harding sent for him and in the privacy of his cabin asked him what he would do if he knew of a great scandal in the administration. Would he for the good of the party expose it or bury it? Hoover replied that the only thing to do would be to publish it and at least get credit for integrity. Harding gave no further details. But Hoover noticed that as the trip continued the President grew increasingly nervous. In Alaska a long, coded message came to Harding by plane from Washington. After reading it he almost collapsed and for the rest of the day seemed half-stunned. He did not recover on the voyage back. His speeches were listless, their banalities no longer covered by his personal magnetism. In Seattle, on a searing afternoon, he faltered and was barely able to finish reading his manuscript.
That night Harding suddenly experienced such pain that Dr. Sawyer was summoned in haste. Then the doctor announced that the President was suffering from acute indigestion after having eaten crab meat—although later it turned out there had been no crab on the presidential menu. Dr. Boone, noting symptoms of high blood pressure and an enlarged heart which had been passed over by the homeopathic general, insisted over Sawyer’s objections that it was much more serious and that Harding had had a cardiac attack.
As the Superb moved south all speaking dates were cancelled. Dr. Boone and Dr. Work arranged to have two specialists meet the train at San Francisco: Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur, the president of Stanford University and afterward president of the American Medical Association; and a well-known heart specialist, Dr. Charles Minor Cooper. Harding arrived in San Francisco on Sunday, July 29, walking unaided from the station to the street, although reporters noted that he looked “gray and worn.” He was taken to the Palace Hotel, where Dr. Wilbur and Dr. Cooper examined him and at once diagnosed his condition as a coronary attack aggravated by bronchial pneumonia.
Under treatment the President seemed to improve. On Wednesday Dr. Sawyer announced that the crisis was past. The President’s lungs cleared up and on Thursday his improvement continued. He was able to sit up. Then, without warning, at 7:35 in the evening, he suddenly died of what his death certificate described as cerebral apoplexy.
According to the newspaper accounts by reporters at the hotel, his wife had been sitting at his bedside reading an article about him by Samuel Blythe in The Saturday Evening Post . It was called “A Calm View of a Calm Man,” and it pleased Harding, for he remarked, “That’s good! Go on, read some more.” And in that instant a change passed over his face; he shuddered and collapsed. Mrs. Harding ran shrieking into the corridor. A few seconds later Dr. Boone and Dr. Sawyer arrived to find him dead. Doctors Wilbur and Cooper were sent for. They with the other two doctors and Secretary Work signed the death certificate.
“Nothing could be more absurd than the poison theory,” Dr. Wilbur wrote long afterward. And as Samuel Hopkins Adams pointed out, to accept it is to assume that five doctors—four of whom at least were distinguished members of their profession—would violate their ethics to cover up a capital crime. Even if they had done so, there would still be the problem of how either Harding or his wife could have obtained possession of a lethal drug without the knowledge of others. As for the suicide hypothesis, Harding for all his faults was not the suicidal type.
After Harding’s funeral, Florence Kling Harding wasted no time in unprofitable grief. The Coolidges did not press her, and she spent the first few weeks of her widowhood in the White House gathering up and destroying every bit of her husband’s correspondence, official and unofficial, that she could lay hands on. Once back in Marion, she performed a similar operation on the files of the Star . She employed a corps of secretaries to trace Harding’s correspondents, to whom she appealed on sentimental grounds for any surviving letters. Her last year of life—she died on November 21, 1924—was a busy one, but her motives were incendiary rather than sentimental. When the publishing house of Doubleday, Page asked if it might publish a volume of Harding letters, she refused to consider it. She admitted to Frank N. Doubleday, the head of the firm, that she had burned her husband’s correspondence, saying she feared some of it might be misconstrued and harm his memory.
What the destroyed letters contained remains as much a mystery as the Lincoln correspondence destroyed by his son Robert in the igao’s. Yet there were a number of Harding letters in the hands of various officers of the Harding Memorial Association, formed by the President’s friends in Marion upon his death, that somehow eluded her.
These letters and papers still exist in possession of the Memorial Association; they are kept in an underground vault in Marion. They are at present in the custody of Dr. Carl Sawyer, the president of the association and son of the former White House physician, who has been engaged in sorting and arranging—but not destroying—them. Nothing, however, is open to the public or even to scholars or biographers. Dr. Sawyer maintains that Harding was unjustly treated and that the truth about him will show him to have been “a fine, a wonderful man.” But it does not seem to be a truth that anyone in Marion has been particularly anxious to hasten before the public. Long ago the association resolved not to make the Harding papers public until fifty years after his death, in 1973. Recently, however, Dr. Sawyer said that at least some of the papers would be made public this year. From them, perhaps, a different image of Harding will emerge; some of the mysteries may be dispelled.
Soon after Harding died, the association began to raise money for a tomb splendid enough for their President’s body to lie in state forever. Businessmen, workers, children, Ohioans from every walk of life, and many people from other states contributed. At first the money gushed in with fanfares of publicity, but as the Harding scandals darkened the sky over Marion, money and publicity began to run thin. To the press, as to the politicians, the proposed memorial became an embarrassing subject. Eventually, however, the dogged committee of the Memorial Association succeeded in getting together three quarters of a million dollars.
The cornerstone was laid in 1926, and the dedication was set for July 4, 1927. On high ground in the cemetery off Main Street south of Marion the white marble monument loomed up—a beautifully proportioned circle of Tuscan columns joined by an equally austere entablature. Harding’s remains and those of his wife were moved there early in 1927 to await the official eulogy. This, according to the etiquette of such things, could be spoken by no one less than the President of the United States. President Coolidge was in any case the honorary president of the Memorial Association.
Cautious Cal, however, had no intention of getting himself tarred with the Harding brush. At any mention of dedicating the Harding memorial, Coolidge, according to Hoover, “expressed a furious distaste.”
July 4, 1927, came and went unmarked by any ceremony in the Marion cemetery. So did three more July Fourths. Herbert Hoover, succeeding Coolidge as President, was no more pleased at the prospect of this dubious task than Coolidge, but he was more the man and less the politician. An article that appeared in the September, 1930, issue of Plain Talk called “Harding’s Haunted Tomb” stirred Ohio and bestirred Washington. Hoover finally agreed to take his sour medicine and preside over the dedication.
The Marion memorial was dedicated on June 16, 1931. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes spoke first, revealing to his surprised audience that if Harding had lived he would have been a hopeless invalid and that he knew it. Ex-President Coolidge then cannily accepted the memorial on behalf of the American people, measuring out his words by the teaspoonful. Finally President Hoover stepped before the battery of microphones. Directly behind him, as a member of the committee, sat the gimlet-eyed Daugherty. Hoover might have dodged the issue that was probably alive in the minds of everyone present, glossing it over with meaningless words. But his Quaker conscience faced it squarely. His words were intended to cut home, and they did: Here was a man [he said as if he were addressing the man behind him] whose soul was seared by a great disillusionment. We saw him gradually weaken, not only from physical exhaustion, but also from mental anxiety. Warren Harding had a dim realization that he had been betrayed by a few of the men whom he had trusted, by men who he had believed were his devoted friends. It was later proved in the courts of the land that these men had betrayed not only the friendship and trust of their staunch and loyal friend but they had betrayed their country. That was the tragedy of the life of Warren Harding.