Dear Straight Dope:
I write you to clarify me a doubt I have about a rumour. Is it true that a US president, Harvey, was caught up inside a closet with his lover and locked up by his angry wife?
John Corrado replies:
While my mind reels with amusement at the thought of our country being run by a six-foot tall invisible rabbit–excuse me, a lascivious six-foot tall invisible rabbit–I believe you’re actually asking about President Warren Gamaliel Harding, who has the distinction of being considered one of the worst Presidents the United States has ever seen, generally competing with Ulysses S. Grant for the lowest rung on the ladder.
How much of the popular conception of Harding is actually true? There’s no denying that he had horrible taste in associates–he appointed his political mentor Harry Daugherty as attorney general and Albert Fall as secretary of the interior, which turned out to not only be handing the foxes the keys to the henhouse, but rounding up the eggs for them as well. Fall became the first former Cabinet member to be sent to jail, and Daugherty eventually resigned before being kicked out. While Harding was never suspected of personal wrongdoing, there was no escaping the fact that all those involved in the "Teapot Dome" scandal were not merely his appointees, but also his close friends.
But what about those sexual peccadilloes? It seems to be common knowledge among historians that Harding went through all sorts of hoops if it meant having sex–one book suggests that Harding suffered from satyriasis, the male form of nymphomania. And that was an attempt to defend the man.
However, if one looks closely at the matter, it turns out there really aren’t many facts. Most of the truly outlandish stories about Harding’s need for sex and willingness to destroy his career in order to get it come from Nan Britton’s book The President’s Daughter. Published in 1927–a scant three years after Harding’s death and while Teapot Dome was still very fresh in people’s minds–Britton talked about her affair with Harding, which started in 1916 and lasted right up to his final days. It is in this book that we read the story of Harding and Britton making whoopee in a White House closet in order to keep out of his wife’s sight; we even learn that one time they would have been caught if it weren’t for a Secret Service man having knocked on the closet door to warn the two of Mrs. Harding’s approach. Not exactly the story you were looking for, but that’s what Britton wrote.
The problem is that, in the end, we really only have Ms. Britton’s word for all of this, and in some respects it’s hard to believe her. In his 1996 book The Strange Deaths of President Harding, Professor Robert Ferrell points out some of the weaker parts of her story–that she claims to have given birth to Harding’s child, even though most evidence points to Harding having been sterile; that she claims Harding wrote her hundreds of love letters which she later destroyed, though no evidence exists of any letters having been sent in the first place; etc.
What we do have, or at least what we will have, are letters Harding wrote to Carrie Phillips, a friend of his wife. Based upon what some people report from having seen some of those letters, she was a great deal more than a friend to Mr. Harding. Rumors abound about the Harding-Phillips affair. Once again, it is suggested that she had a child by him; it is rumored she threatened to expose their affair to the public if he didn’t vote against Wilson’s declaration of war upon Germany; and some say she was paid $20,000 and given a world cruise with her husband to keep them quiet during the 1920 presidential campaign. Unfortunately, all the proof is in those letters, and when those letters first came to public awareness in 1964, the heirs of Harding sued to have them kept private. As a result, under Ohio court order, the letters will be kept sealed until 2014, at which point we may finally learn the truth behind the Harding-Phillips affair.
As for fooling around in a White House closet–well, we’re talking about a period before DNA tests, and Nan never bothered to keep a blue dress with "evidence" on it. One might argue that the shame of revealing that one was an adulteress in the late 1920s means Nan was telling the truth. One might also argue that the possibility of making hundreds of thousands of dollars, which Nan certainly did, by writing a book that would end up a best-seller might well encourage a young woman to say anything she thought would get people to buy a copy. In the end, it’s a simple case of "She said / he’s dead."
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