In his somewhat sardonic book of political sketches, Masks in a Pageant, William Allen White had a chapter on Warren Gamaliel Harding in which he recorded incidentally one of Harding’s “primrose detours from Main Street.” It had come to garish light in the summer of 1920, when the Republican presidential candidate returned to Marion from his nomination at the convention in Chicago. Local pride had laid out a triumphal way from the railroad station through the town center to the Harding house on Mt. Vernon Street with its bandstandlike front porch that was to serve as the motif of the coming campaign. White columns topped by gilt eagles lined the route at regular intervals, and every storefront bloomed with red, white, and blue bunting—every storefront but one. That uncompromisingly bare building belonged to a merchant of the town with whose wife Harding had had an affair some years earlier. The merchant—unnamed by White—had found out, and though he had condoned the relationship, the absence of decoration was his mute revenge.
That liaison was one of the many things I had marked in my notebook to ask about when I first arrived in Marion on a late October afternoon in 1963 to begin work on a biography of President Harding. Marion is a small city with nothing to distinguish it from any other town in the central Ohio plain but the columned marble drum of Alexandrian immensity at its outskirts that is the Harding Memorial; that, and the mystery still attaching to the name of the most disparaged of American Presidents. To see the cylindrical white marble bulk looming out of the flatness at the end of a long day’s drive I found a little disconcerting. It had been raining all along the die-straight road from Columbus, but the rain had stopped as I reached the Marion limits and the cloud rack was breaking up in a violent-hued sunset in the west. I stopped at a parking inlet in the road and walked up the long macadam walk to the memorial, its marble still glistening in the wet. Curious an architectural amalgam as it was, it managed somehow to be harmonious. An outer ring of columns without fluting was what I suppose would be called Tuscan. This was balanced by an inner ring of smaller Ionic columns, and within that inner ring an unroofed garden area spread out, with two polished dark granite slabs marking the graves of Harding and his wife, whom he called “the Duchess.” The combined columns represented the then forty-eight states of the Union, but as I walked round the colonnade I could count only forty-six, f counted them twice to be sure. Later I was told that the Harding Memorial Association had run short of money before the memorial drum was completed and had skipped the last two columns, hoping that no one would notice.
The Hotel Harding—another memorial of sorts a mile beyond in the center of the city—seemed almost empty. In the lobby there were only two people: a drowsy, middle-aged bellhop tilted back on a chair near the deserted reception desk, and a travelling man sprawled just under an oleographic portrait of Harding. A bent, silent woman ran one of the twin elevators still in operation.
The next morning I met my first Marionite, a lawyer connected with the entrenched older circle that controls the affairs and social life of any such small city. When 1 mentioned the undecorated storefront of 1920, he knew the answer at once.
“That was Uhler’s,” he said, “that department store just three blocks from the hotel on the other side of Center Street. Only then it was Uhler-Phillips. Harding had a love affair that went on for years with Jim Phillips’ wife, Carrie. Almost everybody in town knew about it before it was over. Carrie Phillips is supposed to have been the most beautiful woman in Marion when she was young. 1 remember seeing her when she was an old woman, and even then she had a way of carrying herself that made you look twice. She only died in 1960, but in her last years she was half-crazy—no money and living on welfare. Just before the First World War she lived a couple of years in Berlin while her daughter went to school there.”
“Did people know about her and Harding in the 1920 campaign?” I asked him.
“Oh, most people,” he said. “Anybody who’tl been around a little. Too many, finally. When Harding was running his front-porch campaign, they had to get her out of town. Hoke Donithen, Harding’s lawyer, is supposed to have arranged for the Republican National Committee to pay her off, although someone else, they say, gave her the money. Some say twenty-five thousand, some fifty. Nobody really knows. The story is that she and Jim were sent on a trip to the Orient to get them out of sight until after the election.”
“Come to think of it,” he said suddenly, “there’s a lawyer here, Don Williamson, who was her guardian the last years of her life. He’s still supposed to have some letters Harding wrote her. I’ll take you over to him. I don’t know whether you can persuade him to let you see them or not, but there’s no harm trying.”
Williamson had an old-fashioned office in an old building, camouflaged by a modernistic grill, next to the silver-domed courthouse. A chunky, pleasant man in his middle forties, he seemed more generally interested in sports than in history. Four years before Carrie Phillips died he had been appointed her guardian, and he had made the arrangements to have her taken to the Willetts Home for the Elderly. Up until then she had been living as a recluse in a disintegrating house with over a dozen unhousebroken German shepherd dogs.
“That place was knee-deep in muck,” Williamson said reminiscently. “The floors were rotting out, some of the ceilings had fallen down. After 1 put the old lady in a home, we had an auction to get rid of the stuff in the house. She had a lot of good things, too. I looked through the place for some diamonds she was supposed to have had, but I think someone else got there first. Anyhow, I found an upstairs closet door locked that I had to break down, and when I did I found a box in the corner. When I opened it I saw it was full of letters. Oh, I glanced at them, enough to see that they were from I larding to her and that they were love letters, but I didn’t know what to do with them. I felt—rightly or wrongly—that if I turned them over to the Harding Memorial Association they’d go up in smoke. Her daughter Isabelle would never even answer my letters. I didn’t know what else to do, so I just kept them in a safe place.”
“And,” he said very earnestly, “I do know one thing for certain, that if a President of the United States has written something—no matter what it is—it’s a part ol history and nobody has a right to destroy it. I’ll let you see those letters, as long as you don’t plan to make anything sensational out of them. Come round to the house tonight if you want.”
Williamson and his wife were wailing for me when I arrived that evening at their house on Bellefontaine Avenue. Hc led me into the kitchen, where in the middle of the breakfast table he had placed a cardboard box about two feet long by a foot wide. The flaps were back and I could see that it was full of letters tossed in helter-skelter. “There you are,” he said. “Help yourself.”
The three of us sat round the table, and I began to remove the letters. I later found that there were just over a hundred of them, but at first glance there seemed more. Some were in their envelopes, some out of them. In some cases the pages were out of order or parts of individual letters were separated. Some were fragments. Many, written in pencil on scratch-pad paper, ran to thirty or forty pages. A few were on United States Senate stationery. I recognized at once the angular Harding handwriting.
Early in February, 1909, Harding and his wife had gone abroad with Jim and Carrie Phillips. The two toupies had toured Europe together and had returned in May. Probably the relationship began on this trip, although a number of years would elapse before Jim and the Duchess found out about it. Mrs. Harding was older than her husband, a driving and almost maternal ligure. Carrie Phillips was the love of Harding’s life, and it is impossible to read the letters without feeling a certain pathos in the story. On Christmas Eve, 1910, six weeks after his defeat for the governorship of Ohio, he sent Carrie his photograph inscribed on the back with a passionate and tender message.
Some of the letters, with only guarded references to their relationship, were written openly to Mrs. Phillips at her home, and included greetings for her husband and daughter. Stylistically, they do not suffer from the infelicities that led the late H. L. Mencken to write his satiric discourses on “Gamalielese.” In ordinary conversation, and when he wrote about practical politics for his newspaper, Harding’s style was clear and comprehensible. It was when he assumed the stance of the orator, or in moments of passion, that he would sometimes lose himself in alliterative quagmires and verbal blind alleys. The passion bursts out in the private letters to Carrie, often tumbling on for page after page with no thought of organization. About their relationhsip, about sex itself, he was often explicit and unrestrained.
At times the love-stricken Harding turned to verse. In the autumn of 1912, after he had seen De Koven and Smith’s musical, The Wedding Trip , in New York, he returned to his room in the Hotel Manhattan and in his exaltation composed twenty flowing stanzas full of fire about Mrs. Phillips’ lips, her breath, her mouth, her clothes, and how she looked without them. His rhymes are among the more astonishing exhibits in the Phillips letters, for he wrote her a number of such poems—Mesh-gnawing doggerel scribbled in tense moments of longing, and unrevised. Few men in that still very Victorian and inhibited era would have been capable of expressing such feelings, and fewer still would have committed them to paper. An entirely new dimension—a different Harding—is revealed in them.
When Carrie was in Berlin, the two devised an elaborate code in which he was “Constant” and she “Sis.” From Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser, which he had read and enjoyed. He read widely and surprisingly well. With an ocean between them, his pen filled page alter page with love and desire for her as he tried to recapture the past. At times he showed himself sick with jealousy, at other times abject. Carrie, for all her Marion antecedents, had become a woman of the world, sophisticated beyond any level he had reached. She knew it, and he knew it. Whenever the mood took her she was merciless to him, and he grovelled. Even now, when both are dust, it is impossible not to feel pity for him. Over ten stormy years, perhaps longer, the romance lasted. As the years wore on, the lovers began to wrangle and at times seemed on the point of breaking off, but always—until 1920—he came back.
It this were the whole story, if this were only the poignant evidence of a long, frustrating, hidden romance, these faded letters would still be a great historical curiosity. Many men have had Harding’s experience; similar relationships are especially numerous in the tense, highly charged atmosphere at the political apex. Men at the top have strong drives of many kinds, psychologists say, or else they would never get there.
The romance, however, is not the whole story or even, from a historical standpoint, the main part of it. The Phillips letters go far beyond that. Hauling told Carrie everything, and his completely candid outpourings consequently shed a strong light on his character, his motivations, his ambitions, his doubts. To her he confided, as to a wife, the reasons for his actions, and they are not discreditable. In this way the letters have much to say to biographers.
The letters are full of little glimpses of the times; meetings with such public figures as Sir Edward Grey, the British diplomat, and Theodore Roosevelt; useful estimates of men and events from a widely informed observer. And at one tense moment they reveal unsuspected integrity and strength of character in the supposedly easygoing Senator. When the European war started, Carrie returned to the United States with strong pro-German feelings. She was unrestrained in voicing them. She urged Harding to make speeches against American involvement; she demanded that he vote No when the declaration of war was submitted to the Senate. And in the heat of emotion she threatened him with exposure if he did not. It must have been a terrible moment. Whether Carrie meant it or not one cannot tell at this remove, but Harding believed her—despite which he refused, pleaded with her to come to her senses, lectured her on patriotism, and told her he must follow his conscience. He made no speech. And although one negative vote would have made no difference, he voted for war. It took courage.
After America’s entry, it appears that Carrie’s proGerman views got her into further trouble. This I discovered not from the Phillips letters but in two ancient clippings from the Cleveland Plain Dealer of April 13 and 14, 1931, when the Associated Press reported that two strange letters from President Harding had been turned up and published in a catalogue by the famous manuscript dealer, A. S. W. Rosenbach. There were no envelopes with them, and Rosenbach had no clue as to the identity of the “Dear Jim” to whom they were written, or the “Carrie” who was their subject.
“… I wrote her [Carrie] again yesterday,” Harding wrote on April 12, 1918, “very seriously and earnestly, warning her of impending dangers. She is under the eye of government agents, and it is highly urgent that she exercise great prudence and caution. I know, of course, that she is not deserving of surveillance, but feeling grows intenser and prejudices are more pronounced as the casualty list grows, and I could beg of her to be prudent and above the impassioned prejudices of passing days. … She forgets we are in war—hellish war—and she forgets how Germany treats those who are against the government.”
On May 1, 1918, he wrote Jim again: “I was glad to have your letter. … I know most of the stuff said about Carrie is all rot … I know she is no German informer—she couldn’t be. Yet these things have been reported. …
“The greater peril is some unheeding, impassioned, self-appointed sponsor of justice and patriotism who might humiliate or harm her.”
The day after the first Plain Dealer article, reporters discovered that “Carrie” was Mrs. James E. Phillips, whom they identified as a “Marion society woman.” Mrs. Phillips laughed off the incident as an example of wartime hysteria. “The whole thing was silly,” she told the reporters, and said that President Harding had written the letters merely out of “neighborly interest.”
No one at the time, obviously, understood about Carrie or the purport of these letters; history must sometimes be pieced together from scraps. A fuller account of this event cannot be given without more careful study of the Phillips letters than I had time to make; yet on the evidence the incident testifies not only to the strength and complexity of the HardingPhillips relationship but to his unexpected independence when the chips were down.
The story has a sad and even shabby denouement which is unquestionably the most important aspect of the whole affair. It came in 1920, a few months after Harding had announced his candidacy for the Presidency. Twice Carrie had tried to get him to quit public life; once she begged him to get a divorce and marry her. How could she hold him? She asked for money—a fairly large sum—or some dramatic sacrifice, and she threatened him with disgrace. It must have stunned him. In an anguished reply, he offered to leave Washington and come back to Marion, if she demanded that price. Or, if she preferred to have him remain in a position of political influence, he would do that, and pay her $5,000 a year. What motives lay behind this extraordinary final demand cannot easily be deduced without further careful study of all the letters, which is not possible now. Perhaps even that would not answer all the questions that arise.
Even though William Allen White hinted at her existence, Carrie Phillips has never been mentioned in any of the literature about Harding except in William Estabrook Chancellor’s scurrilous book on Harding’s genealogy that was published and suppressed in 1922. Although irrational on the racial question, Chancellor had a sharp nose for facts and had spent some time in Marion; many of his secondary assertions have turned out to be true. According to his story, the Phillipses, shortly after Harding’s nomination, were paid twentyfive thousand dollars by the Republican National Committee and sent on a trip to the Orient until after the election.
One thinks back to the Republican Convention of 1920 in Chicago, its delegates deadlocked between General Leonard Wood and Governor Frank Lowden, and to what the results of that convention meant in the history of the world. How much did the senators and party bosses who met in the famous “smoke-filled room” at the Blackstone Hotel really know about the safe, handsome candidate they decided to support that night? Does the story of that meeting, enshrined in amber in a hundred histories, need some alterations as the result of the discovery of the Phillips letters? Did the king-makers know about Carrie?
How much did Mrs. Harding know about Carrie’s demands? Or Harry Daugherty, the skilled political operator behind Harding’s rise in politics? “I found him,” Daugherty once said, “sunning himself, like a turtle on a log, and I pushed him into the water.” Is the simile a little placid for the circumstances? What lures could Daugherty hold out to make Harding disregard the real threat Carrie posed? Do the Daugherty stories need reassessment too? The more one thinks about it, the more the questions spin on.
After I had put down the Phillips letters, Williamson began to replace them in their box. “Well,” he asked me, “what do you think?”
“I think,” I said, “that there’s enough dynamite in those letters to blow up the Harding Memorial.”
“It’s too late now,” he replied, “but if you want to read the whole lot of them I’ll have them at my office tomorrow morning. I’m not going to be there myself, but you can shut yourself in and make yourself at home. There are plenty of people who’d like to get their hands on those letters. If they did, that would be the end of them. That’s one reason why I’m letting you look at them. Just in case anything should happen to the letters themselves, they won’t be entirely lost to history.”
Back at my room in the Hotel Harding, I lay on my bed staring up at the fly specks on the ceiling, faintly apparent in the arc-light glow of Center Street. I couldn’t sleep for thinking of the letters. There they had been, buried for nearly half a century, only to be turned up by a casual stranger on his second day in town. If anyone else had seen them, there was no record of it.
Next morning I found Williamson as good as his word, for when I arrived, his wife, who was filling in temporarily as his secretary, showed me into the inner office. On the desk was the familiar box. I sat down and began to go through the letters with more haste than system.
Somehow I felt suspicious of my good luck, and I read as speedily as I could, necessarily skipping a good deal. There were letters from other persons to Mrs. Phillips, but I could spare no time for them. But the’ more I read of Harding’s, with all his passions running on from page to page, the more I began to wonder what might happen if I published extracts from them. At about one o’clock Williamson came into the office looking rather worried. Before he said anything himself, I told him that although the letters were probably the most extraordinary historical find I might ever make, I thought that the only proper thing to do was to present them to the Ohio Historical Society.
“That’s a funny thing,” he said. “I began thinking about it too, and I went over to ask Judge Ruzzo in the probate court, and that’s what he told me I ought to do.”
I said that if he were going to give them to the Historical Society he might as well do it right away. He agreed, and without any delay I picked up the telephone and called the Society’s curator of manuscripts, Kenneth Duckett. I had met Duckett a few days before, and then only briefly. He struck me as a solid professional type, younger than most curators. He would know how to handle the letters. When I told him that I had found something of great importance in Marion and that I was driving down to Columbus to pick him up, he asked no questions but said he would be waiting for me.
When Duckett and I got back to Williamson’s office in Marion, we prepared an agreement. It stated that a free gift was being made to the Ohio Historical Society, with no financial consideration of any kind involved, of two sealed boxes of letters, contents unknown, written mainly by the late President Warren G. Harding. Duckett accepted the letters on behalf of the Society, and both men signed the agreement in triplicate, one copy for the Society, one for Williamson, and one for the judge of probate court. Then Duckett and I carried the boxes to the car.
By the time we reached Columbus the Historical Society building was closed, but Duckett had a key. Once inside, we retreated to the double-doored privacy of the directors’ room, opened the shoe boxes, and spread the letters across the long table. While Duckett tried to sort them out and classify them, I took notes. The letters I found most important I copied verbatim, others I summarized. It was very late when we finished.
I had considered spending several days going through the letters, and I naively assumed that the Society would be grateful to me for such a spectacular acquisition. But when I met Duckett next morning he wore a very long face. I knew that for the last few days he had been occupied with the presidential papers belonging to the Harding Memorial Association.
“I have been thinking all night about those letters,” Duckett said, somewhat apologetically. “I know you want to study them, but I don’t see how I can make them available to you until I make them available to everyone now working on the Harding papers. Meanwhile, if the Memorial Association in Marion should get wind of what was in them and that we had them, they might hold up the parts of the main Harding papers they haven’t sent yet. I don’t dare risk it; for the time being I’ll have to keep the letters secret. I’m not even going to tell the director, not until everything’s down from Marion. All I’ve said to him is that I have acquired some material that I think should be secluded for the time being. If I let him know what the Phillips letters are, he’d feel he had to tell the trustees, and then it would get back to the Association.”
Two days later I returned home to New England. Over the winter of 1963–64, Harding’s letters to his Carrie remained in their limbo. Considering them irreplaceable historical documents which might be subject to theft, damage, or destruction, Duckett made a microfilm of them. The official Harding papers were opened to the public on April 26, 1964, at a more than usually festive annual meeting of the Historical Society. An all-day reception, with a buffet lunch, was held at the Society’s large gray building on the campus of Ohio State University. Reporters flocked in like starlings. The three living ex-Presidents of the United States sent letters of felicitation. A few days before the ceremony, however, Duckett had told the Society’s director, Erwin C. Zepp, what was in the shoe boxes. Zepp in turn informed the president of the Society, Fred J. Milligan, a Columbus lawyer. Before the meeting of the trustees, slated to follow the opening day reception, Milligan broke the news to several other members of the fifteen-man board.
At the start of the meeting he let the trustees know that the Harding papers being released that day were not quite all. There were other letters, some extraordinary private correspondence, to consider. The board then sent the stenographer from the room and went into executive session. Not until several weeks later was a bowdlerized version of the meeting recorded in the minutes. What went on at that session can be learned only piecemeal. The trustees were officially told that a large collection of intimate letters from Harding to another man’s wife was now in the possession of the Society. The first impulse of several of the trustees was to destroy the letters at once. The lawyers present pointed out the difficulties in this, since the Society had a legal duty to preserve historical material in its custody. Also, an outsider had already read them and made an undetermined number of notes. Then too, there was the question of legal ownership. And finally there was the unspoken but well-understood thought that the Society received an annual grant from the Ohio Assembly, whose Republican majority might not take kindly to the Society’s sponsoring any reflections on a home-state Republican President.
For Milligan the problem seems to have resolved itself into how best to get rid of the unwelcome gift. He let it be known that his Society did not want to own, or have anything to do with, the letters. The trustees’ meeting was on a Saturday. The following Monday morning, Duckett was called to the director’s office at ten, and told that he had until eleven to turn over the letters to Milligan to be impounded in the vault of the Ohio National Bank by the unofficial act of the board. Milligan was to have one key and the director, Zepp, the other. Duckett countered by asking for twenty-four hours’ delay, and during this time he persuaded Milligan to promise him the key assigned to Zepp.
I met Milligan in his office a few days after the letters had been locked up in the Ohio bank. My first impression of him was of a lawyer-politician. A graduate of Ohio State University, he had been at one point travelling secretary for the national organization of his college fraternity, Phi Delta Theta. The mementoes of old college pursuits hung about his walls like testimonials—fraternity scrolls, diplomas, group pictures, an inspirational note about Lincoln’s having been a failure at fifty. After a few minutes of amiable inconsequences, I asked him point-blank about the status of the Phillips letters. He said that after the board meeting he had picked up Duckett and gone to Marion to talk over the problem with the probate judge, Edward J. Ruzzo. By the time Mrs. Phillips had been taken to the Willetts Home she was penniless, and she had been supported there by state old-age assistance. No executor had ever been appointed after her death, since she had no estate; debts or claims against her amounted to some $4,000. That situation the letters had suddenly altered.
After consulting with Milligan, while Duckett and Williamson were present, the Judge announced that he was appointing Paul Michel, a Marion lawyer, as executor of the estate of Carrie Phillips. Michel was also the secretary of the Harding Memorial Association. His uncle had been Hoke Donithen, the Harding family’s lawyer. Judge Ruzzo instructed Michel to get in touch with any heirs of Mrs. Phillips. Meanwhile, the letters were to remain at the Ohio National Bank in custody of the Historical Society, “probably for years, the way the Judge sees it,” Milligan explained to me.
On being appointed executor, Michel maintained that he must have control of the physical assets of the estate, and three days afterward Judge Ruzzo issued an order that the letters be surrendered to Attorney Michel’s custody. When Michel arrived from Marion with the court order, Duckett felt he had no other choice but to produce them. He and Milligan met Michel at the bank and gave over the sealed package. However, Duckett preferred for the time being to say nothing about the microfilm.
Sometime later, during July, Milligan called a meeting of the staff and employees of the Society. To them he explained that from the beginning Williamson had not technically had the legal right to give the Phillips letters to the Society, that the Society had not had the right to accept them, and that on order of the probate court they had been returned to Marion. As far as the Society was concerned, the affair was ended. “Our hands are clean,” he concluded, and the meeting ended abruptly without the usual question period.
Despite the legal correctness of these explanations, it is a fact that nearly every historical society holds letters and documents to which its rights are unclear. If a Washington letter turned up, the far-distant heirs of the addressee might claim physical ownership, and Washington’s equally remote heirs, the common-law copyright. The same would apply to a letter from, for example, Theodore Roosevelt or Calvin Coolidge. One can scarcely imagine, in such cases, a recourse to the probate courts. Nor can one imagine a historical society seeking to rid itself of the papers of any other President or historical figure. All the Ohio Historical Society needed to do, I am quite sure, was to keep the letters safely in the archives while trying to persuade the Phillips heirs either to donate or sell them to the Society. No such attempt was made.
“If old Doctor Sawyer had got hold of those letters, he’d have made a bonfire fast enough,” Michel told me when I talked with him one afternoon. The lawyer kept an elaborately decorated but windowless office in the depths of a building near the courthouse. He was a short, brisk, urbane man with close-cropped gray hair, and with a much more detached view of the letters than I had expected. He said he had not read them himself as yet, and asked me what I thought of them. Then he switched abruptly. “Well, I broke the sad news to the directors of the Memorial Society. One of the older ones said he’d known about Mrs. Phillips, but he’d never heard of the letters. Williamson should by rights have given the letters to me, representing the Memorial Association. I don’t think I’d have destroyed them—but I’ll admit I’d never have let you see them.”
Isabelle, the Phillipses’ daughter, was still alive, he told me, married long since to William H. Mathee and running a small antique shop in Genoa City, Wisconsin. Michel had written her that some objects of “considerable value” belonging to her mother had been discovered. She had replied by engaging a Marion lawyer. Michel had also consulted a well-known manuscript dealer, Ralph G. Newman of Chicago.
For myself, I had no intention of making public any news about the letters unless there seemed a clear danger of their being destroyed. But by the summer of 1964 too many people knew about the letters for the secret to last. The seventeen trustees of the Ohio Historical Society had probably told their wives. Most of the lawyers in Marion were in on the secret, as were a number in Columbus. I was surprised that the story kept as long as it did. Just before the Republican National Convention in July I learned that someone had leaked part of it to an Ohio paper. Wishing to set forth the facts as accurately as possible, I decided to ask AMERICAN HERITAGE to tell the New York Times about them at once, as a matter of record.
The coast-to-coast, and even European, reaction was more than I had bargained for. Some of the more sensational California papers had headlines about “ HARDING’S PARAMOUR ” that dwarfed the political news. Of course, the presentation was one-sided; only the scandal appeared, the natural result of secrecy.
Back in April, when he reported the existence of the Phillips letters, Duckett had told the then assistant director of the Society that he had made microfilm copies of them. Now, in July, the assistant director (who had meanwhile become acting director) gave Duckett brief notice to produce the copies or face suspension from his job. The film, Duckett was told, would probably be burned, or given to the Phillips estate or to the attorney for certain Harding heirs. Certainly it would not be kept by the Society. Concerned, Duckett sent a microfilm roll in a sealed package to AMERICAN HERITAGE in New York, where it was deposited unopened in a bank vault for safekeeping. Then he told the acting director that he did not have a microfilm in his possession, or under his control, and that he did not wish to see his copies turned over in the absence of any specific preservation plan.
At this juncture Professor Allan Nevins issued a statement supporting Duckett. “… The Ohio Historical Society will do itself and the State of Ohio irreparable harm if it fails to use all possible efforts to prevent any disposition of any Harding Papers which results in the destruction of a single page,” wrote Nevins. “[Duckett] had a duty to American history and the whole body of American historians. It was in execution of that duty that he made reproductions of the Harding-Phillips letters solely for the purpose of insuring their historic safety. In this he followed precisely the right course. …”
Duckett was not suspended after all but continued at his job. The following week, as I entered the library of the Ohio Historical Society, where I had spent the past two months working on the Harding papers, I noticed two not exactly scholarly men lurking in a corner. “That’s him,” one of them said as I crossed the threshold. The two closed in to serve me with a subpoena, a bulky paper announcing in the conventional legal phraseology that I was now being sued for one million dollars by Dr. George Harding, a nephew and one of the many heirs of the late President. Also named in the suit were Duckett, AMERICAN HERITAGE , and the McGraw-Hill Book Company, which had agreed to publish my biography of Harding. The petition said that Duckett and I had copied the letters without the knowledge or consent of the Harding heirs. Judge Henry L. Holden of the Common Pleas Court in Columbus issued an order forbidding me and my fellow defendants from “publishing, producing, copying, exhibiting or making any use whatsoever” of the letters pending a trial hearing. Dr. Harding, a psychiatrist who runs a private sanitarium in a Columbus suburb, claimed he had suffered “irreparable damage.”
I spent an August morning giving pre-trial testimony setting forth the Phillips story in basic legal English. Byron Ford, one of the Harding lawyers, did most of the questioning, assisted by his law partner, Congressman John Martin Vorys. I sat at one end of a long table in their conference room, with Dr. George Harding at the other end and the lawyers between us. Dr. George was the son of the younger brother whom Warren Harding had called—for his piety—“Deacon.” Deac, like all the Hardings except the President, had been a Seventh-day Adventist. Dr. George continues the family’s devout tradition.
Today Dr. George is a short, agreeable man whose efforts at sternness have a way of dissolving into roundfaced amiability. Glancing at him from time to time in the conference room, I tried to find a resemblance to his uncle’s Roman profile. There was none, except possibly the nose. When at the conclusion of the proceedings I was asked to hand over my notes and papers, I refused. The Congressman took it in his stride, announcing merely that we would both have to take up the matter with the Judge. There matters stand legally as this is sent to the printers. One hopes the controversy can be sensibly settled, in the interests of history, and even in the interests of the long-dead but still little-understood twenty-ninth President of the United States.
If I had not managed to uncover the Phillips letters last autumn, I am convinced that others less interested in history than in local decorum would soon have got to them and that by this time the letters would have disappeared forever. Now, after all the varied legal twistings and turnings, they will, I hope, eventually be made available to scholars. It is a fortunate chance that they have endured for almost half a century, for their importance transcends their sensational aspects. Harding became President at a dividing point in history. His election was in one sense a nostalgic yearning to recapture the pre-1914 days, even as the country was being thrust forward irresistibly into the postwar era—that period when twentieth-century America actually, if belatedly, took form. One cannot properly understand Harding in his time without consulting the Phillips letters. These hundred or so letters are more significant for Warren G. Harding the man than the hundreds of boxes of documents now in the official Harding Collection at Columbus.