Following a swing through the Western states and a detour through the Alaska territory, President Warren G. Harding died in a San Francisco hotel after several days of sudden, perplexing physical deterioration—just as he became aware of multiple scandals affecting his administration and, ultimately, his standing in history.
Three decades before Judith Miller and Jayson Blair’s work called into question The New York Times’ reputation for accuracy, a caption in its Sunday magazine made me think heresy about the Newspaper of Record. Harding, the caption mistakenly stated, had been assassinated on August 2, 1923. Maddeningly enough, however, the circumstances involving the President’s death were confusing and murky enough that some suspect foul play to this day, eyeing particularly the role played by First Lady Florence Harding.
In this scenario, Harding’s imperious “Duchess” becomes a kind of Roaring Twenties counterpart of Mellie Grant, the President’s vengeful wife on Scandal, and Beth MacMann, the heroine (if “heroine” is the proper word for a woman accused of offing her cheating hubby with Paul Revere’s spittoon in the White House) of Christopher Buckley’s insanely funny No Way to Treat a First Lady.
Florence dispensed with an autopsy and a then-commonly-used death mask for her husband, then had many of his papers destroyed—actions that only fed the imaginations of conspiracy theorists. (Equally remarkable was the speed with which this was done—within an hour of his death, Harding was “embalmed, rouged, powdered, dressed, and in his casket,” according to Russell Aiuto's "Strange Life and Death of President Harding." “By morning, he was on a train, headed back to Washington, D.C.”) The President’s weakness for other women, according to this theory, fed the Duchess’ desire to take revenge on her husband.
Others, somewhat less sensationally mided, point to an emotional rather than physical poison acting on the President. In this version of events, Harding, buffeted by (take your pick) a young mistress clamoring for him to divorce his wife, persistent racist claims that he had African-American blood, and worries that some close aides were mired in corruption, had grown so despondent that he literally worried himself to death.
To be sure, the Hardings had any number of secrets: Florence had eloped at age 19 to a drinker she soon divorced, and Warren had at least one affair, with a friend from Marion, Ohio, who was paid by the Republican National Committee to take a trip abroad so she could be conveniently out of the way during the 1920 Presidential race. (I discussed Harding’s nomination that year in what became known as the “smoke-filled room” in a prior post.)
But when it came to secrets, Harding was no match for a later President who bedded more women than he could count (including an intern); medical ailments so severe and multitudinous that he required injections by a shadowy physician nicknamed “Dr. Feelgood” to cope; a father whose days as a bootlegger furnished him with underworld connections; and a secret intelligence operation aimed at overthrowing a recently installed Cuban caudillo.
It’s hard to believe now, when he is perennially ranked at or near the bottom of Presidents by historians, that, in an age before television, when radio was still in its infancy, the mourning for Harding was every bit as intense as that of this other President who died in his third year in office, John F. Kennedy. (Approximately nine million Americans lined up to view the funeral trip back to Ohìo.) Yet Kennedy’s reputation has survived much more intact than Harding’s—this despite the fact, for instance, that it was the activist liberal President, not the laissez-faire conservative one, who laid the groundwork for American involvement in a divisive, ruinous foreign war.
There are a number of reasons why that has occurred, including that Harding called for a “return to normalcy” while Kennedy urged service to the nation and others. But key among them is the place of the President’s widow in the time surrounding his death.
Jacqueline Kennedy carried herself with a stoic dignity that won universal applause after her husband’s assassination. She was largely silent and aloof in the 30 years after Dallas, and the one interview she did give—with journalist Theodore H. White, when she spoke of her husband’s love for Camelot—played an indelible part in the creation of his legend. Secret Service aides had enough respect for her that they would not speak to Dark Side of Camelot author Seymour Hersh about her husband's many assignations until after her death.
Harding did not enjoy that posthumous shield, as his wife—more sickly in life than himself—died within a year of him. That opened the floodgates to all kinds of accounts, many untrue, by men who knew they could speak without fear of contradiction. Prominent among them: the roguish Gaston B. Means, a man described by his publisher as an “ex-Department of Justice investigator.” Means’ book The Strange Death of Warren Harding, is the source of the rumor that Florence poisoned her husband. Even though Means’ account was so shot full of inaccuracies and even downright lies that it was denounced by his own co-author, it had already done its damage in the form of a preposterous conspiracy theory.
Yet in other ways, it was Florence, who had made possible so much of Warren’s success, as both newspaper editor and politician, who inadvertently helped undermine his enormous popularity with the public.
When he learned the full dimensions of the scandals threatening to break over his administration (primarily in the form of the “Teapot Dome” scandal involving Interior Secretary Albert Fall and Navy Secretary Edwin Denby), Harding cried out, "I can handle my enemies, but God protect me from my friends!” He might just as well have said, “God protect me from Florence’s friends.”
Florence had insisted on one friend, Charles Forbes, to be appointed to head the newly created Veterans Bureau. He betrayed the couple’s—and the nation’s—trust through massive kickbacks and corruption at the bureau.
The second friend of Florence’s was Dr. Charles Sawyer, personal physician to the President. He had endeared himself to the first lady by advising her she did not need surgery for what seemed like a life-threatening kidney ailment, at a time when other prominent physicians were urging surgery. When she recovered, she ascribed to him almost the same level of medical wisdom that Czarina Alexandra of Russia regarded the mad monk Rasputin. The Hardings adored this little, somewhat pompous man, but much of the White House staff were cool toward him.
Dr. Sawyer was a homeopath, which meant he did not possess the requisite expertise when the President, even before his fatal trip west, began to develop what sounds like serious heart trouble. Carl Anthony, a prominent historian of First Ladies in general and Florence in particular, believes that Harding’s so-called “mysterious death” is not so mysterious at all—it was the result of misdiagnosis, mistreatment (including the use of purgatives) and medical neglect.
Furthermore, Florence enlisted Harding’s private secretary, George Christian, in attempt to destroy her husband’s papers, in a misguided attempt to sanitize his memory. (She was not the last First Lady to do so. Some years later, Harry Truman found his wife burning his letters. “Think of history,” he protested. “I am!” she answered.) What she did not realize, however, was that Christian only sent her a few cartons. He kept more than 100 cubic feet of records in the White House basement. Many commentators and even historians wrote under the belief that they need not consult any primary documents from his administration because none existed. It was only in the 1960s that the Harding Memorial Association began to relinquish its tight grip on this material, which then ended up in the hands of the Ohio Historical Society. It has taken historians (including, interestingly enough, John Dean of Watergate fame) all this time, after consulting these records, to construct a more nuanced view of this heavily maligned President.