Updated: Feb 6
Warren Gamaliel Harding was born on November 2, 1865 in Blooming Grove, Ohio to parents George Tyron Harding (most people called him Tryon) and Phoebe Elizabeth Harding. Tyron had been a Union soldier that had returned to Ohio from the Civil War just a year before Warren was born. Warren was the eldest of eight children (two of his siblings died during childhood) and his childhood nickname was Winnie because his mom had wanted to name him Winfield, but Tyron wanted to name him Warren after his grandmother’s maiden name. Tyron worked the family farm, but he wanted more for his family, so he started to apprentice with a local doctor while Warren was a baby. After three years of apprenticeship, Tyron went to medical school for a year and then opened his own medical practice in Caledonia. Phoebe then studied to become a licensed midwife for the town and surrounding area.
Tyron was usually paid by his patients with livestock, farm tools, or land for medical services and as a result, he became an active trader and business investor. In 1876, Tyron acquired the local weekly newspaper the “Caledonia Argus.” Warren started working at the newspaper at 11 years old and he learned the ins and outs of the newspaper business. At fourteen years old, Warren was admitted to Ohio Central College in Iberia, Ohio. He worked his way through college by painting houses and barns and doing construction work on railroad gradings in the summers. In his senior year at college, Warren and his friend, Frank Harris, launched a college newspaper called the Iberia Spectator and it was pretty popular among the townspeople.
Warren was very handsome and was very popular with women in college. He was over six feet tall and had blue eyes, wavy black hair, and an olive complexion and Frank Harris said that Warren knew every pretty girl within five miles of the college. During his last year of college, Warren’s family moved to Marion, Ohio so when he graduated in 1882 and at seventeen years old, Warren joined them in Marion. Trying to figure out what to do with his life, Warren first tried teaching grade-school at a one-room schoolhouse but it didn’t take long for him to decide that it wasn’t for him. Warren then decided that he would become a lawyer, so he spent several months reading Blackstone’s Commentaries, which is how you became a lawyer in the 1880’s, but he got bored. Warren also tried selling casualty insurance. Warren then started a band called the Marion Citizens Band and they were good enough to get paying gigs and Warren was able to earn some money. With his band money, Warren bought the Marion Star, a daily newspaper that was being auctioned off when he was 19 years old.
The newspaper came with an unlimited railroad pass that Warren could use to travel anywhere on any railroad. So, in June 1884, Warren headed for Chicago to attend the Republican National Convention to cover it for the Marion Star. Warren got to rub shoulders with some of the most well-known journalists and politicians (like a young Theodore Roosevelt) of the time. Warren became enamored with the republican nominee James G. Blaine, and got back on the train to Marion so he could use the Marion Star to endorse him for President. When Warren got back to Marion, he found out that the sheriff had reclaimed the newspaper. Something happened with the note used to purchase the Star, so the purchase had been cancelled. Warren and his father worked for months to re-acquire the Star and then it was finally theirs.
Harding spent the next few years building his newspaper and reinvesting his money into local businesses in Marion. It was not only his way to help build the town that read his paper, but according to his biographer John Dean “keep his nose- and a prodding voice- in all the town’s public business.”
Warren would often use his newspaper to attack a local banker and developer, Amos Kling. In 1860, Amos’s daughter Florence was born and Amos was deeply disappointed in having a daughter instead of a son, so he decided to treat his daughter like a boy which always does wonders for a child’s self esteem. Amos would take Florence, which he called Flossie, to work with him as soon as she could walk. At seventeen, Florence decided to attend the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Amos opposed it, but finally relented and let her attend. Whenever Florence would return home, though, Amos would criticize her friends, her life, and how she spent her time. Florence fled her domineering father to Columbus with Pete De Wolfe, who was only one year older than her and described as Marion’s youngest drunk. Florence came back two years later with a baby boy and no Pete to be seen. Amos offered to take the baby boy and raise him as his own, but he would not support Florence.
Florence became a piano teacher to support herself and met Warren Harding when his sister began to take lessons. They began to date and when Amos found out, he was outraged. Amos told Florence that he would disinherit her if she continued to date Warren, but she didn’t care. Then Amos began to spread the rumor that Warren was part black and told local businesses to boycott the Marion Star. This did little to deter the two lovebirds and they were married on July 8, 1891. Florence helped Warren manage the business operations for the newspaper and helped it become a continued success.
Warren began his political career in 1898 by winning a seat in the Ohio Senate and served there until 1903. Florence was very supportive of Warren’s political career. She became known as the duchess, the power behind the throne, and used the tactics she learned from her father to help further his reach. Warren would use his political power to help friends and family. He appointed his sister Mary, who was legally blind, to be appointed as a teacher at the Ohio School for the Blind even though there were way more qualified candidates. Harding then served as Ohio lieutenant governor from 1904 to 1906. He ran for the Ohio governship in 1910 and had both President Taft and former president Theodore Roosevelt come campaign for him, but lost to incumbent Judson Harmon.
Warren got back into politics when he was elected to the US Senate in 1914. Warren mostly layed low while in Congress by not taking strong stands on issues, but he was widely liked by his colleagues. Looking ahead to the 1920 presidential election, many republicans wanted Theodore Roosevelt to run for a third time, but unfortunately Roosevelt died suddenly on January 6, 1919. Many candidates quickly joined the race, but nobody emerged as a front-runner. Warren decided to throw his hat in the ring as well, and announced his candidacy for president on December 17, 1919. At the 1920 Republican National Convention, delegates were deadlocked over their choice for a presidential nominee. But eventually, everyone decided while Harding wasn’t their first choice, they didn’t hate him and he was chosen as a compromise candidate.
Remember when I talked about how popular Warren was with the ladies? Well just because it seemed like Warren and Florence had a strong marriage, didn’t mean that he didn’t still look around. Warren had started a long-time affair with Carrie Fulton Phillips, who was married to Warren’s friend James, and the two families would often vacation in Europe together. After Warren accepted the Republican nomination, he disclosed his affair to the republican party officials. In return for Carrie’s silence, the republican party agreed to pay for Carrie and James to go on a tour of Asia and the pacific islands along a monthly stipend of $5,000 (about $64,000 today) per month for her silence. Harding ran his campaign on the theme of
returning to normalcy after the first world war. Harding ran a front porch campaign, which meant that Harding stayed at home in Marion, while others campaigned for him, and just tried to seem like a normal man that could represent every American. His campaign approach worked, and Harding won the presidency with 60.2 percent of the popular vote.
Warren G. Harding was inaugurated as the President of the United States on March 4, 1921 and wanted it as lowkey as possible. He nixed the parade and only had the swearing-in ceremony and a brief reception at the White House. Warren appointed many friends and campaign contributors to his administration, and they became known as the Ohio Gang. They were a good old boys club that would play poker at the white house weekly. Few of them were qualified to be in the positions they held, but they enjoyed their newfound power thanks to their president friend and began to abuse it. Alice Roosevelt, the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt and a regular player in Warren’s poker games, said “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 whisky stood about, cards and poker chips ready at hand – a general atmosphere of waist-coat unbuttoned, feet on the desk, and the spittoon alongside.” Harding was considered a very good poker player, but he once gambled away an entire set of White House china in a single hand. The china could be dated all the way back to the presidency of Benjamin Harrison, 30 years prior.
Just a few weeks after his inauguration, Harding approved the transfer of oil reserves that were in the Navy Department’s control to the newly appointed Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall. Albert Fall then quietly leased oil reserves in California and Wyoming to oil executives that had funded Harding’s campaign in exchange for cash and stocks worth almost $500,000 and Albert Fall pocketed all of it. Ned Doheny Jr. was the son of one of the oil executives and would bring the suitcases full of money to Albert Fall. When this embezzling scheme was found out it was called the “Teapot Dome Scandal” after the Teapot Dome Field oil reserves in Wyoming. During the height of the investigation, Ned Jr. and his longtime secretary, Hugh Plunkett, were found dead of an apparent murder-suicide in their mansion.
Charles Forbes was appointed as the head of the Veterans Bureau, which was a newly created office that was meant to oversee medical attention, the building of hospitals, and employment of World War I veterans. In the two years that Forbes was director, he embezzled around $2 million that were earmarked to go towards the building of veteran’s hospitals. Only 47,000 claims for disability insurance by veterans were approved by Forbes even though 300,000 soldiers had returned from world war 1 wounded. Even fewer received job training. Forbes mostly spent his time partying with contractors. Rumors were starting to go around about Forbes’ misuse of his position and Harding ordered him to stop, but Forbes just kept doing his thing. He started selling hospital supplies for a fraction of their value and then pocketing the money. When Harding found out, he summoned him to the White House and demanded his resignation. Forbes begged Harding to let him go to Europe to settle some family matters. Harding agreed, so Forbes left for Europe with another guy’s wife. That guy decided to testify against Forbes in a Congressional investigation. Forbes’s chief counsel became so overcome with guilt that he committed suicide. Warren felt overwhelmed by the presidency and said “I am not fit for this office and never should have been here.” He was happy to let congress set his agenda for him and just to go with the flow.
Warren was president during the height of prohibition, but that didn’t mean much to the Ohio Gang. The
president served liquor in the Yellow Oval Room. According the declassified FBI reports, Harding was drunk on whiskey when he had a confrontation in the oval office with railroad union leaders during their 1922 strike. Jess Smith, never technically an employee, used the Justice Department letterhead, cars, and staff and would supply the Ohio Gang’s parties with booze that had been confiscated by prohibition agents. Smith had a small house that he shared with the attorney general Harry Daugherty. They called it the “Love Nest” and it had a pink taffeta bedroom. During one party at the Love Nest where Warren was in attendance, some New York chorus girls and Washington DC prostitutes were brought in to entertain the men. Glasses and bottles were cleared off of a table so the chorus girls could dance on top. A bottle hit one of the prostitutes, a woman only known as Miss Walsh, in the head so hard that she was knocked unconscious and had severe bleeding. Harding was snuck out of the Love Nest, while everybody else watched Miss Walsh die and did nothing. They buried her body in a potter’s field. Miss Walsh’s brother found out what happened and threatened to expose it all unless he received a blackmail payment. The FBI director admitted him into St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital.
Along with the drinking and embezzling, the Ohio Gang also greatly enjoyed their mistresses and President Harding was no different. Warren was still sleeping with Carrie and writing her, I guess you could call them love notes, while he was in office.
One poem he wrote:
“I love your poise/of perfect thighs/ when they hold me in paradise…/I love the rose/your garden grows/love seashell pink/that over it glows.” Warren often referred to his junk as “Jerry” in notes to Carrie. In another letter Warren wrote to Carrie, he writes: “Jerry came and will not go, says he loves you, that you are the only, only love worthwhile in all this world, and I must tell you so and a score or more of other fond things he suggests, but I spare you. You must not be annoyed. He is so utterly devoted that he only exists to give you all.”
Another mistress of Warren’s was Nan Britton. She had grown up in Ohio and when she was a teenager, she had decorated her room with Warren Harding’s campaign posters. After graduating from high school, Nan moved to New York to work as a secretary and there she met Warren while he was campaigning for president. Nan started to work for the campaign as a volunteer in New York. One day, Warren took Nan to a hotel where he registered under a false name. In her memoir, Nan says that she “wore a pink linen dress which was rather short and enhanced the little-girl look.” Nan was 20 and Warren was over 50 years old. Shortly after they concluded their tryst in the hotel room, the door was bust down by the New York Police Vice Squad, yelling “Let this poor little girl go!” while trying to arrest Warren. Warren explained who he was and Nan recalled that the police suddenly became calm and strangely respectful and just left the room without another word.
Warren and Nan kept seeing each other after he was elected. Warren would often sneak Nan into a coat closet in the White House to do it and a secret service agent would knock on the door to let them know Florence was approaching. Nan became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter. Warren refused to meet his daughter, but secretly made child support payments that were hand delivered to Nan by the secret service. When Florence found out about Nan, she went into a rage and poisoned Warren, believing that she should run the country instead. Warren was able to recover and Florence realized that the only way
she would be able to have power, was to keep him alive and pull his strings, even if that meant sharing him with other women.
It’s hard to know how many mistresses Warren had while in the white house, but they include Rosa Hoyle, who is said to have conceived his son, Augusta Cole, who also became pregnant by Warren but had an abortion, a Washington Post employee Miss Allicott, and chorus girls Maize Haywood and Blossom Jones. Though I couldn’t find her name, there was one mistress that committed suicide when Warren refused to divorce Florence and marry her. When asked about his affairs by a reporter, Warren simply said “It’s a good thing I am not a woman. I would always be pregnant. I can’t say no.”
It was found out that Jess Smith was corruptly involved with the Alien Property Custodian and had been taking bribes to settle matters before the Justice Department. Harding told Daugherty that he wanted Smith sent back to Ohio. On May 30, 1923, Smith was found dead with a pistol at his side and his death was pronounced as a suicide, but Alabama Senator James Thomas Heflin was suspicious and said “Nobody else knew what he knew and with him dead there was nobody to tell the story – so Jesse Smith was murdered.”
In early June 1923, Warren and Florence set out on a tour of the country which he called the “Voyage of Understanding.” He planned to be the first president to visit the Alaska territory and then journey south along the West Coast. They would then get on a boat in San Diego, and travel through the Panama Canal and arrive back in Washington DC at the end of August. On July 27, Harding gave a speech to 25,000 people at the stadium at the University of Washington where he spoke of making Alaska into the next state. That night, Warren started to feel sick and went to bed early. He woke up later that night complaining of pain in his upper abdomen and called for his doctor. He started to feel better that next morning, so they got on a train headed to San Francisco. After arriving in San Francisco, on the morning of July 29, they made their way to the hotel. Once in the hotel, Warren started feeling unwell again. Doctors found that he was experiencing heart problems and that he had pneumonia. He was prescribed bed rest, liquid caffeine and digitalis (heart medication). He slowly started to regain his strength and his health began to improve. On August 2, he sat up in bed while Florence read him a Saturday Evening Post article on him titled “A Calm Review of a Calm Man.” Florence said she paused to fluff his pillows and he told her “That’s good. Go on, read some more.” She began to read again when a few seconds later, Harding suddenly started to convulse and then collapsed back in the bed gasping. Florence called the doctors into the room, but there was nothing they could do. Warren G. Harding was pronounced dead at the age of 57. Florence refused doctors to conduct an autopsy and ordered that her husband be embalmed quickly. His body was carried by train from San Francisco to Washington D.C., and nine million people across the country lined the railroad tracks while the train carrying his casket passed by them.
“A President of the Peephole” by Carl Sferrazza Anthony
“The Most Scandalous President” by Carl Sferrazza Anthony
“Warren G. Harding” by John W. Dean
“The Strange Death of Warren G. Harding” by Dr. Howard Markel
“The Ohio Gang” by Tom Lutz
“Hidden History: For Scandal, You Can’t Top Harding” by Robert Watson
History.com article “Warren G. Harding”
“America’s Horniest President” by Jordan Michael Smith
The Independent article “Warren G Harding”