Sex in Central Park in Broad Daylight, Extortion — and a Presidential Love Child!
Married since 1891 to an older woman, Florence (“Flossie”) Kling DeWolfe, the domineering daughter of a wealthy Ohio businessman, Warren Harding engaged in a series of affairs throughout their marriage. Two stand out: his long, intense flings with Carrie Phillips and Nan Britton.
In 1905 Harding — then lieutenant governor of Ohio — plunged into a six-year fling with Phillips, a knockout brunette and wife of a close friend. The Phillips and the Hardings often vacationed together, offering Carrie and Warren ample opportunities to see each other — often under the noses of their spouses. Incredibly, despite his desire to keep the affair secret, Harding created a vivid paper trail, — eight hundred pages long — of love letters to Phillips. It never occurred to him that this indiscretion would come back to haunt him, that the higher he advanced in politics, the more vulnerable the letters would make him. Harding called Carrie “Sis” and she called him, intriguingly, “Constant.” He wrote her on Christmas Eve, 1910:
There are no words, at my command, sufficient to say the full extent of my love for you — a mad, tender, devoted, ardent, eager, passion-wild, jealous reverent, wistful, hungry, happy love — unspeakably encompassing, immeasurably absorbing, unendingly worshipping, unconsciously exalting, unwillingly exacting, involuntarily expounding, everlastingly compensating. All the love a man can know and feel and endure, and gladly, oh, so gladly give. It flames like the fire and consumes. . . .
The future commander-in-chief’s literary efforts even included somewhat crude attempts at poetry:
I love your back, I love your breasts
Darling to feel, where my face rests,
I love your skin, so soft and white,
So dear to feel and sweet to bite. . . .
I love your poise of perfect thighs,
When they hold me in paradise. . . .
It wasn’t until three years later — as he weighed a run for the US Senate — that Harding realized, too late, that his paper trail to Phillips was a problem. His solution? Write her another letter. This from January 3, 1913:
“I have been thinking of all those letters you have. I think you [should] have a fire, chuck ’em! Do. You must.”
In 1911, the affair was discovered by their spouses. Florence Harding, enraged, felt betrayed and considered divorcing Harding, before he pledged not to see Phillips again. James Phillips, humiliated, took Carrie and their two children and fled to Germany. It had no impact on Harding’s career: he was elected to the Senate in 1914. After World War I broke out, Carrie returned to the United States, and the two reignited their affair. Letters written in his own hand on Senate stationery show the affair — by now more than a decade old — remained passionate. It was remarkably reckless behavior for such a powerful man. But Warren Harding, though increasingly cautious, dwelled in a world where friends and associates were to be trusted.
This naive mindset would land him in hot water. Carrie eventually tired of her affair with Harding, and had developed sympathies toward Germany (there is some evidence that she was a German agent). As the United States contemplated entering World War I against the Germans, she blackmailed Harding, threatening to publicly expose their affair if he voted for war. Harding successfully called her bluff.
Shortly before the 1920 convention, Republican officials approached Harding to ask the skeletons-in-the-closet question: Was there anything in his background that might prove an embarrassment during the fall campaign? Harding, figuring that he had won three statewide elections in Ohio without having to divulge any secrets, said no. He also neglected to mention that he had heart troubles, and had checked himself into a sanitarium a few times to deal with nervous exhaustion.
But after locking up the nomination, Harding was blackmailed by Phillips again, who threatened to release his love letters to the newspapers if he didn’t pay her off. It was only then, with the presidency hanging in the balance, that Harding reluctantly came clean. Yes, he told Republican Party officials, there had been an affair with a woman, Carrie Phillips — and she wanted money. Angry over their hand-picked candidate’s duplicity, party officials felt like they had no choice but to pay off the Phillipses.
Though details of what it took to buy their silence are disputed, it was an enormous amount of money. Some historians say $20,000, nearly seventeen times the annual salary for the average American in those days; another Harding expert, the author David Pietrusza, claims the Phillips were given as much as $50,000. In any case, James and Carrie Phillips, flush with cash, embarked upon a long tour of the Far East that conveniently lasted until well after Harding had been safely elected president of the United States.
But Harding, only revealing as much as he thought necessary, made no mention of Susie Hodder, a childhood friend of his wife, who he began seeing three years after getting married — and with whom he fathered a daughter.
Nor was anything said about his long-term fling with Grace Cross, a typist in his Senate office (the night before his inauguration, she and Harding are said to have met in the Willard Hotel near the White House). Harding’s appetite for women didn’t end when he became president; if anything it appeared to increase. There was Rosa Hoyle, who reportedly bore him a son, and Augusta Cole, who aborted a pregnancy by him. There were chorus girls named Maize Haywood and Blossom Jones, and “Miss Allicott,” an employee of the Washington Post, all said to be procured by his good friend Ned McLean, owner and publisher of the paper. Then there was an unnamed New York woman who committed suicide when Harding refused to marry her. In the words of his attorney general Harry Daugherty, no president had more “women scrapes” than Warren Harding.
Yet despite all of these affairs, allegations, and cover-ups, the most infamous of Harding’s flings involved a woman from his hometown: Nan Britton. A ravishing blonde thirty-one years his junior, Britton grew up infatuated with Harding, a friend of her father’s. Harding hired her to work in his Washington office, and one night in the winter of 1919, according to Britton, the two conceived a child, Elizabeth Ann.
When Harding became president, two Secret Service agents, James Sloan and Walter Ferguson, helped sneak her into the West Wing, where she and her presidential lover sometimes retreated to a large closet near the Oval Office itself. “My God, we’ve got a president who doesn’t know beds were invented, and he was elected on a slogan of ‘Back to Normalcy,’” smirked Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy’s daughter and a White House regular during the Harding years.
On one occasion, Mrs. Harding, apparently tipped off by another agent, rushed to the Oval Office only to find the door blocked by Ferguson. “She stood and glared at me like she couldn’t believe it. Finally she spun around and returned to the White House. . . . As soon as I thought it was safe, I went to the car and took the girl to a hotel.” Once, during a visit to New York, Harding and Britton even enjoyed each other’s company alfresco, in a secluded part of Central Park. Even by the standards of later presidents, it was beyond brazen. And showing that he hadn’t learned a thing, Harding also wrote Nan long love letters — sometimes forty pages in length.
Some White House reporters seemed aware of Harding’s appetite for women, but kept quiet. This sometimes encouraged the president to let his guard down. “It’s a good thing I’m not a woman,” he told them once in a rare moment of candor. “I would always be pregnant. I can’t say no.”
21 Presidents, 21 rooms, 21 insider stories. That’s “Under This Roof,” by Paul Brandus of the award-winning White House-based news service West Wing Reports. Now available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble — and follow Paul on Twitter: @WestWingReport