First Lady Biography: Florence Harding
FLORENCE MABEL KLING DEWOLFE HARDING
15 August, 1860
Amos Kling, born 15 June, 1833, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; hardware store owner, real estate developer and owner, banker, local investor; died 20 October, 1913, Marion, Ohio.
Louisa Mabel Hanford Bouton, born 2 September, 1835, New Canaan, Connecticut; married 27 September, 1859, New Canaan Methodist Church; New Canaan, Connecticut, died 23 June, 1893, Marion, Ohio.
Stepmother: Amos Kling married secondly in July 1907 to Caroline Beatty Denman (1858-1925)
German, French, English; Florence Harding's noble French Huguenot family fled religious persecution migrated England. Mother maternal side, she descended English Hanford clan, who were among the colonial founders of Canaan, Connecticut. Grandmother Elizabeth Vetallis from southern France was likely a Catholic. In 1920, some Marion residents claimed the paternal grandfather's ancestors originated from Württemberg, Germany and were Jewish. There is no documentation on this or another claim that protestant Germans emigrated to New York state. It is established only that they were German in origin.
Birth Order and Sibling:
Eldest of three; two brothers: Clifford Bouton (13 October 1861- 11 July, 1937); Vetallis Hanford (7 November 1866- 1 July, 1938)
Medium height, brown hair, blue eyes
The Union School, Marion, Ohio, 1866-1876: Florence Kling attended primary school and then three years of high school studies. She was instructed by both male and female teachers in math, science, English, writing, surveying, rhetoric, logic, philosophy, history, geography, Latin, Greek, German, cartology, and astronomy; Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, 1877-1878: Florence Kling studied classical piano for years in Marion, later stating her intention in going to the Cincinnati Conservatory was to become an internationally-recognized concert pianist; her father, however, saw it as a practical move, enabling her to "earn her own living in case she were ever thrown upon her own resources" as a piano teacher. Florence Kling also began instructions in French. Founder Clara Baur stated the conservatory would "fit young people for professional career or social position as circumstances dictate, by utilizing the highest culture of the art of music, that they may wield a more potent influence for the good."
Occupation Before Marriage:
Store clerk, A.H. Kling & Bro. (hardware and farming machinery, implements) and rent collector, Kling properties, Marion, Ohio, approximately 1868-1880; From an early age Florence Kling worked as a clerk in her father's hardware shop, helping customers with hardware supplies and maintaining credit accounts, book-keeping, and general business. As a teenager, she also rode her horse out to collect rent on outlaying Marion County farms owned by her father.
Piano Teacher, 1883- 1891; After she was abandoned by her first husband, Florence Kling DeWolfe began teaching piano to local children, at twenty-five cents an hour. She lived and taught in rooms she rented a room in the home of a friend.
First marriage, common law:
19 years old, eloped with Henry Atherton DeWolfe (4 March 1859 - 8 March 1894), approximately March 1880; there is no record in the Marriage License ledgers of Columbus (where family lore had it the young couple ran off), or Marion (their residence). In the nearby town of Galion, they "held themselves" in the community as a married couple and met the Ohio common law marriage requirements at the time. The first legal record of their union appears in the ledgers with the birth of their son Eugene Marshall DeWolfe.
Henry DeWolfe found work in a Galion roller-skating rink but abandoned her and their son on 22 December 1882. She filed for separation in September 1884, and in doing so created the second legal record of the union, if even in common law. She filed for divorce on 5 May 1886. A divorce was granted to her on the grounds of "gross neglect of duty" on 12 June 1886. She resumed "Kling" as her last name.
30 years old to Warren Gameliel Harding, owner Marion Star newspaper, (born 2 November, 1865, Blooming Grove, Ohio, died 2 August, 1923, Palace Hotel, San Francisco) on 8 July, 1891, Marion, Ohio in the new home they built on Mount Vernon Avenue.
Out of wedlock with Henry DeWolfe, one son: Eugene Marshall "Pete" DeWolfe (22 September 1880 - 1 January 1915). Although he became the legal ward of his maternal grandfather Amos Kling, Marshall DeWolfe was also at times within the family circle of his mother and stepfather. Harding even provided Marshall with some newspaper training as both editor and publisher. He died in Colorado, the father of two children, Eugenia "Jean" (1911-1978) and George (1914-1968). How to acknowledge these "Harding grandchildren" later became an internal issue during the Harding presidential campaign of 1920.
Occupation After Marriage:
Business Manager,The Marion Star,1894-1906: Two and a half years into their marriage, Harding sought medical attention at the Kellogg Sanitarium in Battle Creek,Michigan for an unspecified nervous ailment, whether physical or mental. He was back at Battle Creek several times in 1894. In his absence, the Star's Business Manager quit and Florence Harding assumed the job. She did not draw a separate salary, but did share profits with her husband and they opened a joint personal checking account. As Business Manager, she created a Circulation Department, mapping out service routes on a grid of Marion to provide delivery to homes and businesses and using the RFD postal system to reach remoter areas. She then hired and trained a team of newsboys from working-class families, initiating a reward system and giving them gifts like pocket knives to cut bindings and whistles to alert customers that the paper was being thrown to their door. Furthermore, Florence Harding re-negotiated for shorter-term, lower-interest rates to buy printing equipment, dropped delinquent customers after three weeks, handled complaints, made all the supply purchases and even repaired machinery to save on service costs. She alone kept all the business accounts. Her decision to subscribe to a news wire service proved to be a turning point in the paper's financial success, bringing global news to the county within twenty-four hours of it happening.
Florence Harding did not write or edit stories, but she did make editorial decisions, often telling reporters to cover certain events, providing leads and sources, looking for human interest stories. She also hired Jane Dixon the first woman reporter in the state. Without effort or resistance she won the support and respect of the male staff.
As local and state political figures came to meet with her husband the editor, Florence Harding was comfortable in the male world of state politics. She viewed politics through a business perspective: seeking investor support, committing to professional obligations, striking compromise deals. During his two terms as state senator (1900-1904), and lieutenant-governorship (1904-1906), she managed his social and political contacts, finances, public remarks, even his clothing. On 24 February 1905, Florence Harding underwent emergency surgery for nephritis, a kidney ailment that forever afflicted and left her reliant on homeopath Charles Sawyer. During her convalescence, Harding began a passionate relationship with her close friend Carrie Fulton Phillips, the wife of a neighbor. When Florence Harding learned of the affair in 1911, she considered filing for divorce, but decided against doing so when he agreed to end the affair. Despite this agreement, it continued. Harding may have fathered Marion Louise Hodder, born in Nebraska in 1895 to Susan Pearl McWilliams Hodder, childhood friend of Florence Harding. There are various claims of his affairs with others, including Grace Miller Cross of his U.S. Senate staff, Augusta Cole, Rosa Hoyle, and Ruby Randall..
With Harding's election to the U.S. Senate in 1914 and their move to Washington, Florence Harding was introduced by Alice Roosevelt Longworth, former president's daughter and now congressional wife, to Evalyn McLean, whose husband owned and edited the Washington Post. Superficially it seemed an unlikely friendship but they shared a belief in astrology and the supernatural, and a passion for humane animal treatment. They also became vigilante advocates for the care and rehabilitation of returning, wounded World War I serviceman.
Campaign and Inauguration:
In early 1920, Florence Harding consulted Marcia Champrey, the astrologer of Evalyn McLean, who predicted that if Harding was able to win the Republican nomination, he would go on to win the presidency - but not live to complete the full term. When Carrie Phillips threatened to reveal her relationship with Harding if her monetary demands were not met, he responded that he could only do so if he were to win the presidential nomination; then private funds could be surreptitiously solicited by the National Republican Committee. Thus Florence Harding had strong but contradictory reactions at the Chicago Republican Convention in June 1920, which publicly emerged in her statement to newspapers that she wanted him to win at the deadlocked convention, but saw "only word one above my husband's head and that word is tragedy." Her disclosure of her tactical political activities, such as seeking support from undeclared delegates was news in and of itself, the New York Times further reporting she was the first candidate's wife to speak with the press.
The campaign was headquartered in Marion, the Hardings' hometown with appearances from their front-porch. Carrie Phillips was not only paid her hush money but made inaccessible to the press by being sent on an Asian trip until after Election Day. Evalyn McLean left a substantial archive in the Library of Congress of documentation on other aspects of the campaign, including affidavits claiming Harding either had African ancestors or that he had been involved in a dangerous affair with a Senate staff secretary Grace Cross. In both the unedited version of her memoirs manuscript and the transcripts of taped interviews she did to prepare for writing it, Evalyn McLean made clear that Florence Harding was fully aware of every threat.
With the campaign conducted from the private home, its large stone front porch as the central political platform, Florence Harding was able to play a dual public role of traditional housekeeper and modern activist. One day she wore an apron to pare apples and chat with farmers' wives, another she told how she refused to wear a wedding ring because she considered it a symbol of bondage. She told one reporter that she preferred to work rather than cook - yet offered a sample of her famous waffle recipe to another. With her years in the newspaper business she was comfortable with the national press corps, helped craft the public image of both herself and Harding with calculated anecdotes, reviewed outgoing press releases, and vetted the candidate's public remarks and speeches. Working with advertising king Albert Lasker, she helped organize large events at the house, the most famous being the day stage and screen stars came to "meet the hometown folks."
Unlike any previous presidential candidates' wives, Florence Harding offered her political opinions - most notably her rabidly anti-League of Nations and pro-suffrage views. She considered the right to vote for women a foregone conclusion, but addressed employment, economic, and social equity by using stories from her own life. To questions about her first marriage, she arranged her words to falsely suggest that she was a widow when she married Harding. In October of 1920, when rumors about Harding's alleged African ancestry were printed in some newspapers, campaign officials were unsure of how to respond. Florence Harding insisted no official response be given, permitting the campaign to neither deny nor confirm the allegations and not prolong the story in the press. By Election Day, the issue faded and Harding won.
During the transition period, Florence Harding weighed in on Cabinet and other appointments during the transition, the president-elect informing potential appointees to send information to him through her. She successfully urged the appointment of Charles Forbes as head of the Veteran's Bureau, supported Harding's choice of their friend Senator Albert Fall as Interior Secretary, but unsuccessfully advised against naming friend and lobbyist Harry Daugherty as Attorney-General after Daugherty suggested he "made" Harding President in an interview. She successfully urged Andrew Mellon to accept the offer of Treasury Secretary when he hesitated. She was able to get her doctor Charles Sawyer, made an Army Brigadier-General so his presence was near her. Numerous other friends were named to minor or mid-level positions and after it was widely learned that she was behind the naming of a California woman to a regional receivership, she was defended in an editorial which declared, "When the people elect a President they at the same time elect a Presidentess…"
Florence Harding was the first incoming First Lady to ride with her predecessor to the Capitol. During the inaugural speech, she mouthed the words of passages, suggesting she had helped craft some of it. Upon their arrival at the White House, she was widely reported to say, "Well, Warren Harding I got you the Presidency. Now what are you going to do?" She ordered that the White House windows and gates be opened to the public so they could look in, a symbol of the folksy neighborliness promised by the new Administration.
60 years old
4 March, 1921 - 2 August, 1923
With her public image already cast from the campaign, Florence Harding continued to strike a duality as a modernist and traditionalist. She was one of the earliest First Lady to feel that the citizenry were her constituency and her role entailed more than hostess in the White House. "I feel that there is a great duty and responsibility which I must live up to," she explained.
Florence Harding was "particularly anxious…to help the women of the country to understand their government…I want representative women to meet their Chief Executive and to understand the policies of the present administration." She invited not only women's political groups but also women federal workers, girls graduating from high school, college girls, and even African-American girls from local Dunbar High School. She broke an unwritten social code and invited divorced women to social events. While she did not publicly address the issue of birth control, she refused to condemn the movement for it when pressed by a reporter.
Believing firmly in the necessity of physical exercise for women, she hosted a women's tennis exhibition game on the White House courts. To the Camp Fire Girls, she wrote: "The part that women play in the world has been greatly changed….It has broadened and enlarged and we will all be wise to recognize that a larger consideration for the health and physical advancement of the girls will better fit them for the role they must assume." Her message to the Girl Scouts was almost militaristic: "Let is, as in the past, persist in overcoming all obstacles. No matter what the sacrifice may be we must proceed with the great upbuilding work…"
She also led a national boycott on sugar when prices were too exorbitant for most households, and in defending her support of a protectionist policy of American industry to the Southern Tariff Convention of Women, Florence Harding wrote that housewives "are the makers of the household budgets, the managers of the homes, which in the final analysis are the end and aim of organized society." She donated to the creation of a Women's National Republican Club in New York because, "the women intend to handle the finances themselves." Her efforts to promote economic, political and society equity for women won her wide praise in publications ranging from the Sacramento Union, Philadelphia Public Ledger and New York Times.
The First Lady also shared a vision for a "community of women working together under the guidance of other women," and supported a prison reform movement that grew from the harsh experiences of women suffragists in prison. A diverse consortium of women's groups that Florence Harding supported, including the American Association of University Women, the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, the American Federation of Teachers, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the League of Women Voters, and the national Women’s Christian Temperance Union sought to protect women inmates from the exploitation of male inmates and staff and to provide a communal setting with provisions for nurseries and childcare to imprisoned women. It would result in Alderson Reformatory Prison, the first federal correctional institution exclusively for women prisoners, located in West Virginia. It emphasized rehabilatation to give skills to women to earn their own living "without dependence on a man or the community." In February of 1923, Florence Harding disclosed to women reporters that she was then lobbying Republican House Majority Leader Franklin Wheeler Mondell of Wyoming, over whom she had considerable influence, for a bill to fund Alderson.
Florence Harding used the White House visit of scientist Madame Marie Curie to illustrate her view of professional women as equal to professional men, and how one could aid the other: "She has been the associate and partner of her husband in their great work of scientific research, and it seemed to me that their relationship was peculiarly ideal and of the sort that must point the way for all of us to the ideal family relationship of the future." In another letter - that she did not ultimately send, Florence Harding went so far as to muse that in the future the primary breadwinner of some families would be a woman, although it would predominately remain a male role. She especially believed that the "woman of genius" must have "complete opportunity for the development of her special talents."
In numerous instances, Florence Harding saw to the appointment of women in politics positions. She also reached out to Alice Robertson, the second woman to be elected to Congress but believed it would take time for more women to rise in elected politics: "The time has passed for discussion about the desirability of having the women actively participate in politics. They are in politics, and it is their duty to make their participation effective….This necessarily means that much and aggressive effort is needed to maintain their interest, and to inform them concerning issues and public problems." Florence Harding joined an effort to memorialize the long struggle for women's suffrage in a U.S. Capitol statue for the by the National Women's Party. "Let women know and appreciate the meaning of being an American - free and equal," she declared to a reporter. Republican Party pressure on the White House forced Florence Harding and the President to rescind their acceptance of an invitation to dedicate the new headquarters of the National Women's Party: the organization was opposed by both parties which wanted women integrated into the two-party system. On the other hand, she refused to give in to pressure from National Republican Women's Executive Committee to disassociate with the League of Women Voters and their push for an Equal Rights Amendment, first introduced in 1921.
On occasion, Florence Harding would deliver extemporaneous remarks to public groups such as the Red Cross. She made only a half-hearted effort to enforce the custom of not permitting First Ladies to be quoted directly in the press. She spoke at great length and detail when asked questions and appreciated seeing herself quoted in the newspaper. Feeling especially strongly about promoting women in journalism, she frequently invited the women reporters who covered theWashingtonsocial scene to preview her state dinners. While she was self-conscious about how she looked in photographs and newsreels, she also crafted a rudimentary version of what would evolve into the "photo op." Whether it was the Filipino women who called on her to urge the President to support their land's independence or a group of Lighthouse for the Blind students, Florence Harding arranged such delegations and then herself into a tableau of them exchanging presents or pleasantries in a way that suggested action, rather than just a stiffly-posed group. In some raw footage that was edited out for newsreels, she can even be seen telling the cameramen how to set up the shot and what she wanted them to focus on. While she also came to know the individual political reporters who covered the President she was careful never to speak on the record for their stories. Perhaps no previous First Lady was as astute in understanding and manipulating the media of her day.
Florence Harding was radical in her public support for the National Society for the Humane Regulation of Vivisection and the National League to Conserve Food Animals, but she also was a strong advocate for the more traditional goals of the ASPCA and Animal Rescue League. She promoted the Humane Education Society's plan to educate humane animal treatment in public schools. She turned down invitations to rodeo shows, and removed all the big game heads placed in the state dining room by Theodore Roosevelt. While she would wear fur that had been taken from animals that had died naturally, she refused to permit feathers used on her clothing because they were usually plucked from live animals. "Cruelty begets cruelty," she wrote, "hardness towards animals is certain to breed hardness towards our fellow man. Of this, I am very sure from both observation and analogy, the converse is just as true. That is why I am always willing to give every encouragement to humane causes." She interceded with the Commerce Department's commissioner of fish and fisheries when she learned that San Diego fisherman were killing seals that ate fish they were trying to catch. "It is difficult for me to believe that the protection of fish requires the sacrifices of these seals," she wrote. On occasion, she also permitted her Airedale dog Laddie Boy to be advertised as a "guest" at animal welfare events to help sell tickets and solicit donations. In August of 1922, however, during coal miner strikes, Florence Harding was criticized by a worker's union publication as being insensitive to human suffering while she donated money to keep an old workhorse alive instead of being slaughtered.
Florence Harding's work on behalf of World War I wounded veterans was as personal to her as it was political. She recalled her own long convalescences from illness as the root of her empathy for the hospitalized serviceman and she fully dedicated herself to every aspect of their well-being and care: visits to hospital wards, using all federal agencies within her power to resolve disputed, individual cases, veteran benefits, and ward transfers. Her symbolic acts and personal appearances were the public face of it, but she also worked privately, and prompted federal action. Her visits to the men she called "my boys" at Walter Reed Hospital's Red Cross Convalescent Home were made several times a week, and often she was photographed talking to them, or visiting vocational facilities to prompt public interest. Yet she also made the visits without any public notice, often after dinner and took notes on their needs or problems. She hosted famous garden parties for thousands of the disabled men from area hospitals and care centers. She invited a famous doughboy to first sing at the White House before he began a national tour of veteran hospitals. Whenever she traveled around the U.S., Florence Harding would visit wards for those suffering from mental trauma, tuberculosis, blindness, or missing limbs all resulting from the war. She headlined a "Lest We Forget" Week to prompt donations of clothing, books, records and other items needed in the wards. If she noticed any veterans on crutches when she was being driven somewhere, she had her car stopped and the veterans given a ride to wherever he was headed. She led a national effort to create a monument to the World War I soldiers on the National Mall.
Although both Forbes and Sawyer were at odds and often undermined the other's credibility, Florence Harding relied on them both to conduct investigations into any reports she received of poor care, abuse, incorrect medical diagnoses, pension or other compensation problems of disabled veterans. She also passed on reports she received of abuses of the system by veterans. Likewise, she was known to care for the nurses and other hospital workers who were being treated unfairly. Learning that New York Public Health Service nurses were paid less than those in the Army and Navy, she questioned the War Secretary who responded that there were "now" going to be equitable pay scales. Within nineteen days of receiving a complaint, she resolved a situation where male Maryland hospital guards had access to women nurses' rooms and were harassing them.
While Sawyer became exasperated with her interference, once simply giving her a packet of pamphlets to send to such inquiries, he cooperated with her request for full inspections of individual cases. Forbes, on the other hand, tended to reply glibly without documentation to support his defense of claims against the Veterans Bureau. Forbes was charged with overseeing the rapid building of an entire new system of desperately needed veteran hospitals; until they were completed, the government had to contract with private facilities to provide care and it was grossly inconsistent.
Not until 1923 did Florence Harding learn that Forbes had been receiving vast kickbacks for new hospital contracts and on medical supplies he claimed were "damaged" but were in perfect condition and desperately needed in veteran hospitals. She later confessed that it was not only a political drawback, but the most devastating personal betrayal to her of the assorted Harding scandals. Florence Harding privately opposed her husband's practical decision to veto a bonus in veteran pensions but was successful in urging his issuing Executive Order 3560 on 14 October 1921: it directed the Civil Service Commission to add five points to the test scores of veterans applying for postmasterships, to count their military service time towards the required period of business experience and to set no age limit for them.
The extent to which Florence Harding involved herself directly in political matters was commonly reported in the press. Unlike her predecessors who had done this, however, she was praised rather than criticized for it, due largely to the prevailing support of women's activism in public affairs during the 1920's. She enjoyed debating specific issues with figures such as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge but her greatest acknowledged influence was on the President. He consulted frequently with her on all of his political decisions, a fact which numerous officials conceded. She read all of his major speeches before he delivered them, and on several occasions successfully argued with him to change his wording, once on his suggestion that he would seekU.S.entry into theLeague of Nationsand, on another occasion, when he wanted to suggest a one six-year presidential term.
Whether it was the head of the Federal Reserve System, a Federal Prohibition Commissioner, or the Collector of the Port of New York, she made clear her choices on appointments to not only the President but individual Cabinet members. The Attorney General even responded that he "always give[s] your instructions preference over his [the President's]." The Navy Secretary responded similarly that there "will always be an earnest effort to do as you desire."
On international affairs, Florence Harding was more cautious. She led a national relief effort following the Armenian genocide of 1915 but feared that aiding an effort to find housing for Irish families displaced by the British Army during the "Easter Revolution" for independence would be seen as anti-British by the State Department. Privately, as documented in a State Department memo, she vigorously opposed Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover's famine relief effort in Russia until its Bolshevik leaders had pledged to reject communism.
Florence Harding espoused greater race relations. Publicly it was illustrated by her always seeking to shake the hands and thank the invariably African-American cooking staff at events she attended, going into the kitchens of hotels and private homes to do so. While such an act still kept intact a racial caste system, it was a highly visible appreciation previously unexpressed by First Ladies. Privately her views were evident in her successful effort to make the President rescind his offer of a political appointment to an individual that Florence Harding soon enough correctly suspected of being racist. Without knowing that it had been the First Lady who put a stop to the appointment, the rejected office-seeker wrote to her complaining, and suggested that not African-Americans but Catholics were to blame. The First Lady had her secretary respond, "Mrs. Harding suggests that if you wish a letter of this tone to go to the President, she must ask you to seek some other agency of delivery."
Even in the context of the traditional hostess role, Florence Harding was a departure from her predecessors. With a dip in employment and mild depression in 1921, she set a public example of economy by shutting off water fountains, lights, and rooms used only for entertaining, and turned down the automatic $10,000 congressional appropriation for decorating the private quarters. When she greeted the public, she physically touched them, hugging, sometimes pecking their cheeks - an act previously unheard of. She re-opened the White House for public tours, sometimes leading them herself: this was stopped by members of Congress who felt they lost influence with their constituency by no longer being the sole venue through which visitors could get a ticket to tour the house.
Florence Harding was a popular figure. A song "Flo From Ohio" was written in her honor, and "Flossie Clings" which copied the silk neckbands she wore were adapted as a style by young women. Her favorite violet-blue "Harding Blue" of delphinium flowers, came into vogue. She also reflected the popular culture of her era, from owning a radio, to playing the game mah-jongg, and even sampling "Eskimo Pies." The designs of her 1923 summer wardrobe reflected the rage for "King Tut" motifs, spurred by the discovery of the royal burial grounds in Egypt. She was the first First Lady to provide feature movies as entertainment following state dinners; most notable was her screening the silent film "The Red Wagon," accompanied by a live orchestra. Hollywood actors were also in evidence for the first time at the White House, including Al Jolson and the Gish sisters. Fascinated by the era's advances in air travel, Florence Harding dressed in pants, soft helmet and goggles to experience first-hand flying in a plane. One religious newspaper editorial chastised the First Lady for having a navy jazz combo perform the "sinful syncopations" of jazz at a garden reception and that she and the President reportedly took part in some of the "new" dances. Although Prohibition was the law of the land, the Hardings like many Americans managed to find enough alcoholic beverages to serve their guests where a regular supply might otherwise have become depleted. With the First Lady serving as bartender, in their private quarters, the Hardings served liquor from a private reserve that a member of the Attorney General's circle later claimed came from the confiscated alcohol by the Prohibition-era Justice Department.
Other scandals did break, however. Just when Florence Harding fell deathly ill in September 1922, the President learned of Forbes malfeasance at the Veteran's Bureau and he was forced to resign and was later convicted. The May 1923 suicide of her close friend Jess Smith, the Attorney-General's companion also hit her hard, especially as allegations of his illegal operations out of the Justice Department reached their ears. Without regard to widespread belief that Smith was gay, Warren and Florence Harding had accepted him into their trusted circle of friends with whom they often traveled. Smith was also part of the alleged cabal led by Ned McLean to intimidate Harding's former mistress Grace Cross from divulging her relationship.
Alice Longworth later recalled how, during a visit to a convalescing Florence Harding in early 1923 she had told her that she and the wife of Wilson's Attorney General Mitchell Palmer had both seen the President at the home of Evalyn McLean who later confessed that Harding had come there to have an assignation with an unnamed mistress, reputedly the young Nan Britton. Britton later wrote a book claiming that Harding had fathered a daughter by her. To what extent Florence Harding knew the details of such an assignation is unclear but there was a rupture in the friendship in the spring of 1923 as the Hardings prepared to make a trans-continental train trip and voyage to Alaska. The McLeans had shared all of the Hardings' long trips during the presidency but were not invited for the final one.
It was Florence Harding who had insisted that the trip to Alaska be made, it being a long-held ambition of her's. It had been previously scheduled and postponed but now that she was recovered, definitive plans were made, even in the face of the President's obviously failing health. Naval physician Joel Boone kept a handwritten diary when he came to serve under Sawyer in care of the Hardings. He was alarmed by Harding's enlarged heart and general condition, as were others who advised against the trip. If Florence Harding had specific fears stemming back to the astrological prediction that Harding would not survive his term, she nevertheless pushed for the trip. Shortly after the election, she had consulted a new astrologer, a Mrs. Joseph in Cleveland, who assured her he would not meet his demise as the earlier astrologer had warned her. Seemingly by miracle she had been returned from what she vividly described as a near-death experience by the in competent Sawyer, in whose medical powers she now placed her full trust in his care for the President.
As the Hardings went out across the country with numerous stops in the Midwest and West, Florence Harding's popularity increased. She insisted on fulfilling all of the scheduled appearances despite its obvious toll on Harding. In Alaska, Florence Harding spoke openly to the press of her belief that the territory was ready for statehood. Under Sawyer's care, Harding was nevertheless weakened, yet made to climb endless steps. Shortly after the President sampled some seafood - widely reported to be crab - and had returned to the U.S. mainland, he fell ill. The train was sped down the west coast, headed to San Francisco. Florence Harding made occasional speeches from the back of the train to gathered public groups.
Although Boone correctly assessed that Harding was in grave danger, his diagnosis was angrily dismissed by Sawyer. The First Lady and Sawyer remained sequestered in Harding's sickroom at San Francisco's Palace Hotel.
Among the few remaining medical records kept by Boone of Harding's illness was a scribbling that indicated the President had been given digitalis for his heart. Sawyer also told the press at the time that he administered some unnamed stimulants to Harding. Documentation from other doctors in attendance, conflicting details given out by Sawyer to reporters who gathered in the hotel for news, and Florence Harding's panicked yell for Boone support the theory that the near-blind and incompetent Sawyer may have accidentally induced the heart attack that killed Harding on 2 August 1923. By all contemporary accounts, Sawyer had an enormous power over Florence Harding, and her refusal to permit an autopsy or even a death mask may have been to protect his credibility.
Throughout the funeral train journey back to Washington, dozens of editorials praised Florence Harding's conduct during Harding's illness and death, as well as her political partnership and accomplishments as First Lady. Arriving on August 11, Florence Harding was met by Evalyn McLean who accompanied her to the White House. There the widow famously spoke to her late husband in his coffin.
Life After the White House:
On 17 August, 1923 Florence Harding left the White House for the McLean estate, "Friendship," along with two carloads of Harding's papers in long wood boxes. There, she and Evalyn McLean examined the material, winnowing it of what they considered to be repetitive, superfluous, could be potentially misconstrued or was outright damaging. It is also certain that she burned much of her First Lady Office files, the documentary record of which is uneven. On 5 September 1923 she briefly returned to Marion, Ohio, continuing to organize and cull Harding's papers. She did not destroy the bulk of them, nor even everything potentially damaging.
The widow returned to Washington, D.C.on 2 January 1924, taking a large Willard Hotel suite as the so-called "Teapot Dome Scandal" congressional hearings unfolded. Her faith in old friend Interior Secretary Albert Fall deteriorated as he was charged, convicted and imprisoned for accepting oil company bribes after leasing naval oil reserves in California and Wyoming to them. Through the trials, Florence Harding insisted that her movements were monitored and her telephone tapped. During the winter and spring of 1924, she left Washington only once, to dedicate a Connecticut high school named for her late husband.
Despite the scandals, Florence Harding planned to visit the U.S. Ambassador to Spain in Madrid, then tour Europe and attend the 1924 National Republican Convention. Amused but not dismissing rumors that she might seek political office as governor of Ohio, her intended priority was to assemble and publish a volume of Harding's public correspondence. However, when Sawyer was relieved of his position as presidential doctor and resumed control of his Marion sanitarium, he persuaded Florence Harding to leave Washington and live in a sanitarium cottage. Believing only he could keep her alive she reluctantly complied. She was with Sawyer in September of 1924 moments before he died of a heart attack.
Even in her last weeks, however, Florence Harding remained politically active. With the support of Ohio's two U.S.Senators, she lobbied President Coolidge to name the Harding attorney, Hoke Donithen as Sixth Circuit Court judge. He refused to do so. She met with equal resistance from him after requesting his allowance for her late voter registration in 1924. Her last public appearance was at an Armistice Day (now Veterans' Day) parade in Marion: despite a driving rain, she stood up in her car to salute the World War I veterans who passed before her.
Florence Harding did not live to see the publication of Nan Britton's book, The President's Daughter nor the one written by former F.B.I. agent Gaston Means,The Strange Death of President Harding. A friend of Jess Smith and an acquaintance of Evalyn McLean, Mean wrote a book that devastated the reputation of Florence Harding, accusing her of poisoning the President. As a whole, it was fiction but Means skillfully used real factual details to bolster it; having moved close enough to the inner circle of the Harding White House to learn embarrassing information about many within it. He referred to Sawyer's mistress as "Mrs. White" when she was, in fact, a Mrs. Black, for example, and recalled an incident involving a "Mrs. Milner" that was based on a real event involving Grace Miller Cross. He accurately described how Smith and others, acting as an unofficial arm of the Justice Department had harassed a professor who published an embarrassing book on Harding, and then took copies of the book - as well as the original manuscript - to the McLean estate for destruction. Unknown to anyone at the time, Evalyn McLean had indeed saved the original manuscript from destruction, and it would turn up in her Library of Congress papers.
The idea that Florence Harding poisoned the President seems to have been a metaphor for her having placed unwitting confidence in the incompetent Sawyer, a fact Boone, then serving as President Coolidge's physician, knew. None of the surviving principals publicly refuted the overall conclusion of the book perhaps to avoid being asked about the few facts that were embarrassingly true.
64 years old
21 November, 1924
White Oaks Sanitarium,Marion,Ohio
The Harding Memorial