While rumors of presidential misbehavior are a lot easier to spread today than they were a century ago, that didn’t stop Warren G. Harding from being caught up in a scandal of his own. Yes, back in the 1920s, the United States was rocked by suggestions that Harding had behaved improperly – particularly when it came to his personal life. And those whispers of conduct unbecoming have dogged the 29th president ever since, casting a shadow over his reputation. But is there actually any truth to the salacious gossip? Well, according to the results of a 21st-century test, there definitely is.
The source of the storm surrounding Harding was one Nan Britton, who shocked the American public by claiming to have had an illicit liaison with the commander-in-chief. And while other women had made similar assertions about previous presidents, Britton marked herself out by writing a kiss-and-tell book about her experiences. It was no wonder, then, that a scandal erupted – one that would be talked about in households up and down the land.
Nor was this speculation the only thing to cloud Harding’s legacy. Indeed, although he was apparently well liked during his short tenure in the Oval Office, he is now often listed as one of the worst presidents in American history. That’s likely owing to Harding’s link to the Teapot Dome affair, which remains among the most sensational examples of corruption in the U.S. to date.
Other government misconduct marked the times, too. There was the Veterans’ Bureau scandal, for instance, which saw the agency’s head Charles R. Forbes engaging in bribery and embezzlement. In fact, it’s said that Harding was so incandescent with anger upon hearing of these misdeeds that he actually throttled Forbes at one point. And such ordeals may have in turn contributed to the president’s relatively early and somewhat surprising death from a heart attack at just 57.
Back before Harding rose to the top job in the country, however, he started his political life as a state senator in Ohio. And while at the time Harding was little known, his work in the Senate saw him soon earn allies. In particular, the man’s composure and apparent humble nature endeared him to his colleagues in the Republican party. Even though Ohio state senators usually only served a single term, then, Harding ultimately went on to score a second.
Furthermore, in 1903 Harding decided to join the race for state governor when the election front-runner dropped out. After another popular candidate stepped forward, however, the former senator contented himself with earning the position of lieutenant governor instead. And as it happens, he did manage to network some in that role, growing a base of friends that would later stand him in good stead.
Finally, in 1914 Harding ran for the U.S. Senate. And although he personally didn’t get involved in denigrating his opponent, there certainly was some ugly campaigning – especially when Catholic Democrat Timothy Hogan was accused of being a Papal agent. Harding, meanwhile, stuck to a stump speech that was reported to have been “a rambling, high-sounding mixture of platitudes, patriotism and pure nonsense,” and he won handsomely.
A door opened for Harding, too, when the time came to pick a new president. Initially, you see, Theodore Roosevelt seemed the likely Republican nominee for the 1920 election. When the former leader died in 1919, though, the prospects of a third term in office were naturally shattered. And this left the field wide open for Harding – even though he did not poll well.
Nevertheless, delegates were free to vote for whom they liked, and so the June 1920 Republican National Convention saw some fierce fighting over the nomination. Finally, however, the party grandees decided to back Harding. And after ten ballots, the former senator was duly picked as the election’s GOP contender.
In much the same way as his predecessor William McKinley, Harding didn’t go off on the campaign trail; instead, he rarely strayed from his Ohio residence. Even so, his proposals to clamp down on taxes and immigration and impose tariffs on imported goods seemingly proved to be vote winners. More than 60 percent of the electorate ultimately plumped for Harding over his Democratic rival James M. Cox.
And Harding kept those promises. He cut taxes on the rich sharply – a move that arguably ushered in the high times of the 1920s. In fact, during Harding’s tenure, the top rate of tax plummeted to as low as 25 percent. Capital gains tax was also greatly reduced, while the levy on excess profits that had been brought in during WWI was scrapped altogether.
Harding also kept his word on tariffs, putting extra charges on foreign grain, wool and sugar in 1921 and raising these fees even higher the following year. Somewhat inevitably, though, these measures prompted a vicious trade war. And that promise on cutting immigration was kept, too. In all, then, Harding adhered to his slogan of “America First” – perhaps why he refused the U.S.’ entry to the League of Nations.
But Harding didn’t exactly deliver on his pledge to put only those with the best credentials into government roles. Instead, he employed family members and businesspeople with whom he had connections. And, unfortunately, some of those people would in time become involved with the worst of scandals. Yes, although many of the details of these improprieties only became apparent after the president’s death, it’s now clear that his administration was mired in corruption.
Perhaps the most famous of these furors involves the Teapot Dome – a Wyoming oil reserve that was kept for the Navy’s emergency use. It was eventually decided, though, that responsibility for the field should be transferred to the Albert Fall-led Department of the Interior; after that, it could finally be mined. Ultimately, then, leases were awarded on the land. But when environmentalists questioned exactly what was going on behind the scenes, an investigation ensued.
This probe discovered, moreover, that Fall had come into a great deal of money. And while the Secretary of the Interior gave excuses for his sudden enrichment, Montana Senator Thomas Walsh unearthed the truth of the matter. In particular, Walsh found that Fall had taken huge kickbacks from the people who had been awarded the leases. And for his part in the crime, the disgraced politician would later spend time in prison – a fate that was then unprecedented for a cabinet member.
But if Fall had been a bad appointment, people were convinced that Attorney General Harry Daugherty was an even worse one. Word had it, you see, that he had also been involved in the Teapot Dome scandal. So, in 1924, Daugherty, too, came under scrutiny. And there was particular concern over the politician’s connection to Jess Smith, who was already known to have been involved in buying government influence using cash bribes from bootleggers.
Ultimately, it emerged that Smith was involved in a dubious deal with Thomas Miller. Miller had previously earned a post from Harding that had allowed him power over the ownership of a lucrative company. And while, at first glance, this all seemed above board, there was the small matter of a large sum of money that later turned up in a joint account Miller had with Daugherty. Yet while Miller went on to do prison time for his part in the affair, the Attorney General would remain a free man.
Plus, of course, there was the conduct of Veterans’ Bureau director Forbes. He had fought for jurisdiction over veterans’ hospitals, after which he had proceeded to milk money from the department by increasing costs to construct new facilities. And Forbes and his conspirators in fact pocketed thousands of dollars in fraudulently acquired funds – a crime that saw the former Marine in jail before the end of the 1920s.
So, although these scandals only came to light after Harding had passed on, some have argued that the president ought to take some share of the blame. In his 1969 book The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration, Robert K. Murray wrote, for example, “In the American system, there is no such thing as an innocent bystander in the White House. If Harding can rightly claim the achievements of a Hughes in State or a Hoover in Commerce, he must also shoulder responsibility for a Daugherty in Justice and a Fall in Interior. Especially must he bear the onus of his lack of punitive action against such men as Forbes and Smith.”
But for the American public, Harding’s philandering was arguably even more intriguing than his governmental scandals. Before starting his presidential campaign, the former senator had been carrying on a love affair with Carrie Phillips. And, as it turns out, she was a dangerous woman to be entangled with.
Phillips was quite clear, for instance, that she wasn’t as opposed to favorable treatment of Germany as many others were. She had been resident in the country before WWI had broken out, after all. But this was a problem for Harding on more than one level. Phillips, you see, was said to be linked to people who were thought to be German spies.
So, Phillips was duly jettisoned from Harding’s life, although she did not take being dumped lightly. It’s said, for one, that she asked for a hush payment and that she would publish her and Harding’s love letters if she didn’t receive this cash. The Republican National Committee reportedly paid handsomely to keep her quiet, with the president himself offering her a further $5,000 annually as a sweetener.
And in 1964 it became clear why Harding had wanted to keep that correspondence private – although the public weren’t able to find out for themselves until 2014. That decades-long wait was a result of a court battle brought by the former president’s family to prevent the letters from seeing the light of day. These notes were steamy, too, with detailed descriptions of sex and outpourings of desire.
However, Phillips wasn’t the politician’s only woman on the side. Nan Britton had become enamoured with Harding when she had been still a girl and had plastered her walls with pictures ripped from the newspapers. She even hung around outside his office in the hope that she’d catch sight of the man. So, Britton’s father would arrange a meeting with Harding, and from that first encounter, an affair ensued.
Britton went on to describe the liaison, too, after Harding had passed away. Indeed, her 1927 book The President’s Daughter painted a lurid picture of a relationship that had continued throughout Harding’s time in the White House. And Britton had a particular bombshell to drop: she claimed that the leader had fathered her daughter, Elizabeth Ann.
In addition, Britton claimed that Harding had given her a pledge to pay for Elizabeth Ann’s upkeep. Following the president’s death in 1923, though, his widow apparently didn’t stick to this promise, and this had impelled Britton to write her book. The commander-in-chief’s mistress also went to court over the matter but couldn’t prove that the little girl was Harding’s child. Ugly attacks from the defense may have sealed the deal when it came to that defeat.
Overall, Harding does not emerge particularly well from Britton’s recounting of their affair. And historian Frederick Lewis Allen seemed to suggest that she was right, as in his opinion, the former president appeared coarse and unrefined. In his 1931 book Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s, Allen wrote of Harding, “One sees with deadly clarity the essential ordinariness of the man, the commonness of his ‘Gee dearie’ and ‘Say, you darling.’”
Meanwhile, one of the more racy passages in Britton’s book claims that she and Harding had once had relations in a closet attached to the Oval Office. She couldn’t produce his letters as proof, though, because the president had asked her to get rid of them. And, in any case, Harding’s family were certain that he wasn’t capable of fathering a child.
Harding’s grandnephew Dr. Peter Harding explained that this belief was common among his relatives, who were not kind about Britton. He told The New York Times in 2015, “My father said this couldn’t have happened because President Harding had mumps as a kid and was infertile, and the family really vilified Nan Britton.”
As far as Harding’s wife, Florence, was concerned, though, it seems that she very much believed he had trouble keeping his pants on. There was even a whisper that she had in fact killed her husband by poison to pay him back for philandering. This outlandish rumor is thought to have originated with Gaston Means, who admittedly had something of an ax to grind with the late president.
But what of Britton’s own family? Well, it seems that they had the utmost faith in her. And Britton’s grandson James Blaesing would later reveal to The New York Times just how her romance with the president had impacted upon her. Blaesing explained, “She loved [Harding] until the day she died. When she talked about him, she would get the biggest smile on her face. She just loved this guy. He was everything.”
Nevertheless, Britton’s family suffered for that love, enduring being stalked and having their home burgled in the search for evidence that would disprove her story. Blaesing added, “I went through this growing up in school. They belittled [Harding] and her.” Even so, there was a way to discover the truth about the affair.
At one point, you see, Blaesing was approached by Harding cousins Peter and Abigail, who had decided to discover whether Britton’s grandson was in fact a relation of theirs. The pair had reasoned that DNA testing would finally reveal any existing familial connection – if, indeed, there was any to be found.
So, the three underwent their tests and sent off their samples to AncestryDNA. And the results were stunning: Blaesing was indeed Peter and Abigail’s cousin. This meant that the story of Elizabeth Ann – Blaesing’s mom and Britton’s daughter – and her parentage was true. Yes, she was irrefutably Harding’s child.
Indeed, Ancestry exec Stephen Baloglu told The New York Times that there could be no doubt about the outcome. He said, “We’re looking at the genetic scene to see if Warren Harding and Nan Britton had a baby together, and all these signs are pointing to yes. The technology that we’re using is at a level of specificity that there’s no need to do more DNA testing. This is the definitive answer.”
For Abigail, this confirmation brought the resolution that she had sought. She told The New York Times, “I have no doubts left. When [Blaesing’s] related to me, he’s related to Peter, he’s related to a third cousin – there’s too many nails in the coffin, so to speak. I’m completely convinced.”
Then, as word got around about the DNA results, others agreed that the case was now closed. Writer James Robenalt, whose book about Harding and Phillips had thrown doubt over Britton’s story, even accepted that he had been wrong. Robenalt confirmed to The New York Times, “I’m very pleased that that’s the result, just because that family deserves to be recognized.”
However, not everyone was of the same mind. In fact, Dr. Richard Harding – another of the president’s grandnephews – remained skeptical about the findings. He told The New York Times, “I’m not questioning the accuracy of anybody’s tests or anything, but it’s still in my mind still to be proven.” Still, he remained generous to the Blaesing family, saying, “I hope they’ll find their new place in history is meaningful and productive for them.”
And, as it happens, the test result answered yet another piece of speculation about Harding – one that had been of interest for some time to students of history. You see, when Harding had run for president in 1920, some of his detractors who favored segregation had suggested that he had “black blood.” The DNA analysis revealed, however, that the president had no ancestors of color.
Ultimately, history has been a harsh judge of Harding, and he remains one of the least popular of America’s commanders-in-chief. Perhaps his best epitaph, then, is something that Harding said of himself. According to The New York Times, the then-president once declared, “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.”
But Harding isn’t the only president to have kept a facet of his private life under wraps. Grover Cleveland, too, had something that he was unwilling to share with the American public – although he had good reason. And when you hear why the two-time leader chose to keep quiet on this particular issue, you may just agree with his decision.
Forty-five Presidents have led America, but Grover Cleveland stands as the only one who has served two non-consecutive terms. That tends to be the headlining detail about the former leader, his time serving as first the 22nd and then the 24th President. And perhaps that’s because he kept a huge, deadly secret all to himself.
Of course, a few other details about Cleveland make him noteworthy to historians and history buffs alike. For one thing, he zoomed into the White House after a mere three years in state and local politics. His 1881 mayorship in Buffalo, New York, opened the door to the state’s governorship in 1883 and then the presidency in 1885.
When Cleveland became president, he didn’t have a wife to move with him to Washington as his First Lady. So, he enlisted the help of his sister, Rose, who held the position until he married Frances Folsom in 1886. To this day, the Clevelands remain the only presidential couple to get married in the White House.
Of course, Cleveland wouldn’t have wed in the White House without a strong bid to lead the nation. He ran on a full slate of reformer policies, promising to fix widespread corruption and, in his second term, a deep economic depression. All the while, no one knew that the president’s personal life mimicked that of his political career. He, too, needed to reveal a secret, or else it could have him killed.
Grover Cleveland’s actual first name was Stephen. His parents gave to him as a tribute to the first pastor at the Caldwell, New Jersey, church where his father served in the same role. With the family patriarch – and father of nine – in such a selfless career, he often struggled to provide for his brood.
So, when Cleveland reached his teens, his father pulled the future president from school and enrolled him in an apprenticeship. It helped the family financially and armed him with valuable skills, but it meant that the young man missed out on some of the final years of his dad’s life. The teen moved home just before a stomach ulcer caused the patriarch’s death.
With Cleveland’s father gone, he once again had to provide for his family. So, in 1853, the young man headed off, this time to serve as a teaching assistant at New York’s Institute for the Blind, where his brother worked. But the future president’s time in the classroom would last just a year – he wanted to move west.
After a year at home in Holland Patent, New York, Cleveland began his trek west. His journey began with a stop in Buffalo, New York. It proved to be a pivotal leg of the voyage. Indeed, so much opportunity awaited him in the city that the future president never made it any further.
To be fair, Cleveland actually had an in as far as Buffalo society went. Lewis F. Allen, his uncle, mingled with the city’s most influential men, and was instrumental in his nephew gaining a clerkship with the law firm Rogers, Bowen and Rogers. Coincidentally, the 13th U.S. President, Millard Fillmore, had also worked for the firm in the past.
A clerkship with the firm gave Cleveland the chance to read the law and pass the New York State bar, which he did in 1859. Within four years, he’d left the firm to start his own practice, and became Erie County’s assistant district attorney. The future president’s career take-off, though, couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Cleveland practiced law in the heat of the Civil War and, in January 1863, Congress made it mandatory for able-bodied men to join the military. Those who fit that bill, though, did have one way to avoid conscription. They could, in fact, hire someone to fight in their stead, and the future president chose this option. In the end, he paid the equivalent of more than $3,000 today for George Benninsky to take his place.
Perhaps Cleveland’s decision to stay home had to do with his aversion to the Republican party and its leader at the time, Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, the lawyer had long identified with the opposition, the Democrats. So, when it came time to stand for election, he knew precisely on which side of the aisle he stood.
First, Cleveland campaigned to become Buffalo’s District Attorney in 1865, but lost that race to his roommate and Republican nominee, Lyman K. Bass. The defeat clearly didn’t deter the lawyer from politics. Instead, the lawyer made a bid to become Erie County sheriff in 1870. And it’s a race he won – by a mere 303 votes.
Nevertheless, becoming the county’s sheriff paid dividends for Cleveland – quite literally. In just a two-year term, he raked in as much as $40,000, which would be worth more than $800,000 today. Politically, though, his law-enforcement career didn’t do much for the future president. He did, however, perform at least two prisoners’ executions himself.
After Cleveland’s two years as sheriff were up, he gave up law enforcement to return to his legal practice. He, Bass and Wilson S. Bissell founded a practice of their own, which skyrocketed them to the top of the Buffalo’s community of lawyers. It wouldn’t be the first fast-track to the top the future president would take, either.
But the timing proved perfect for someone with the lawyer’s political leanings to rise to the top in Buffalo. The city had serious problems with corruption on both sides of the aisle – the parties actually cooperated to take advantage of the system. Democrats, though, knew they could rake in votes from disenfranchised Republicans. And they did so with an honest candidate – Cleveland.
Cleveland won the election by about 4,000 votes, and began his tenure in January 1882. He quickly began to right the wrongs of his predecessors – in one example, the city had accepted a street-cleaning tender $100,000 higher than the lowest-cost operator because the former bidder had political connections. Soon enough, people outside of Buffalo began to hear about the mayor who was battling entrenched government corruption.
By the time that the state’s Democratic party needed to select their next nominee for governor, word of Cleveland’s success had reached them, too. Not only did Cleveland win the chance to represent his party, but he also won the election. And his first day as the Governor of New York was January 1, 1883.
True to form, Cleveland hit the ground running to deliver his promise to cut pointless government spending. He made headlines by vetoing eight state legislative motions within two months of becoming governor. And, although out of the ordinary, his challenges earned praise from the media, as well as the public.
Cleveland’s time as governor made so much of an impression that the relative political newcomer became a potential presidential nominee in the 1884 election. And things aligned perfectly so that he could nab the top spot among Republicans. The initial top contender, James G. Blaine, seemingly appeared too immoral to voters.
Cleveland’s fight against corruption helped him to earn the nod over other nominees. Indeed, they seemingly all had skeletons in their closets. One had voted for the south to secede, for instance, so he couldn’t earn support from Northern voters. Eventually, Republicans threw their weight behind the former Buffalo mayor, and he won the nomination.
The president’s first term had him slashing all economic support from the government to any group – no exceptions. So, he vetoed a bill meant to support Texas farmers struggling through a drought. Cleveland also fought back against fraudulent Civil War pensions claims, as well as benefits for those disabled by events outside of combat.
The public seemed to appreciate Cleveland’s vetoes. As proof, he once again won the popular vote in his 1888 re-election campaign. However, Republican candidate Benjamin Harrison managed to earn more votes from the electoral college, thus earning him the presidency over the sitting commander-in-chief. But the former president’s departure from the White House wouldn’t be a permanent one.
Cleveland then became the only president to win non-consecutive terms by winning the 1892 election. Back in his post, the Democrat tackled an economic depression by ceasing the government’s Wall Street aid program. In doing so, he saved the country’s gold reserves, but his policies during this time didn’t sit well with the public or with his party.
As a result, in 1896, the Democrats chose a different candidate to nominate for president – William Jennings Bryan. With his political career at its end, Cleveland retired to the New Jersey town of Princeton. A quiet life may have met him there, but the former leader had plenty of interesting – and secretive – facets of his personal life.
For one thing, Cleveland had married his former law partner’s daughter, Frances Folsom, whom he had known since she was born – and he was already a grown man. At the time of their nuptials, the leader was 49 while Folsom was just 21. The pair wed in the White House, making him the only Commander-in-Chief to get married at the official address.
Cleveland’s wedding may have raised eyebrows, but he and Folsom said “I do” well within the public eye. Sometimes, however, the president handled his personal affairs far from the spotlight. And one such issue had to be dealt with privately because it had deadly consequences, should it have gone wrong.
In June 1893 – just at the start of Cleveland’s second presidency – he noticed something odd in his mouth. The former New York Governor discovered a cancerous tumor growing on his upper jaw, and doctors found that it was expanding rapidly. They also knew that surgery to remove the lump should be done as soon as possible.
But doctors couldn’t just slice the tumor away without a few potential complications. For one thing, the required surgery could cause Cleveland to suffer from a stroke. Worse yet, there was a 15 percent chance he’d die while on the operating table. But the president knew that he had to have the procedure.
But Cleveland made an interesting decision before the operation. The leader didn’t tell anyone he about the procedure and it’s dangers, not even Adlai Stevenson, his vice president. At the time, the country had fallen into an economic depression, so the Commander-in-Chief worried that news about his poor health could incite panic on Wall Street.
Despite the fact Cleveland needed surgery, he had to avoid a hospital-bound operation. Instead, he gathered with six of the country’s top physicians in an unlikely meeting place – a yacht harbored in New York. The president initially seemed to be enjoying himself on board, smoking cigars on the deck and chatting with the doctors.
But the ship wasn’t departing on a joy ride. Instead, Cleveland and the six doctors traveled to Long Island Sound. Below deck, the physicians prepared a space to perform surgery. Without an operating table, they had to get creative. In the end they secured a chair to the yacht’s mast for the president to in sit during the surgery.
For light, a single battery-operated bulb illuminated the below-deck operating room. Finally, the doctors boiled all of their surgical tools and slipped into clean aprons. With that, they were ready to helm the risky surgery around noon on June 30, 1893. President Cleveland was seated and the procedure began.
Fortunately for Cleveland, the doctors had brought along anesthetics, including nitrous oxide, to numb the president’s pain while they removed the tumor. In total, it took 90 minutes for them to get rid of the cancerous growth. In addition, they also took a quintet of teeth and part of his jawbone and palate.
But the doctors didn’t just have to perform the surgery perfectly. They also had to do it in a way that wouldn’t produce any visible facial scars. Otherwise, the public might realize that Cleveland had an operation. And that could cause the stir the president was trying to avoid with the secret surgery.
On that note, Cleveland couldn’t heal from his cancer-removal surgery in the public eye, either. So, after his yacht-based surgery went off without a hitch, the vessel dropped him off at his summer abode, which sat on Cape Cod. There, the president healed – and he did so extremely quickly.
A couple of weeks after arriving in Cape Cod, Cleveland received a prosthesis to cover the hole the surgery had left behind in his palate. This allowed the president to resume speaking in his normal voice. All the while, the public were led to believe that their Commander-in-Chief had a toothache.
One journalist, though, did pick up on the fact that all wasn’t what it seemed with Cleveland. Elisha Jay Edwards of The Philadelphia Press had heard a rumor that the president had a secret surgery. Chasing the lead, Edwards connected with dentist Ferdinand Hasbrouck, who had been on board the yacht and gave the leader his anesthesia.
Edwards’s story about the surgery was, indeed, very accurate. But the White House denied the claims made in the article, and the public believed them over the press. It would take a quarter-century for Cleveland’s surgeon, W.W. Keen, to speak out in defense of the journalist and confirm that the president had, indeed, undergone a secret operation.
In the years after Cleveland’s successful surgery, though, his health fell into a decline. By 1907, his illness became serious and, the next year, he died of a heart attack. Before he passed away, though, the former president muttered these last words, representative of his legacy in the White House and in secret operating rooms alike. He said, “I have tried so hard to do right.”