American history, Andrew Sinclair, Barack Obama, biographies, Carrie Phillips, Francis Russell, James Robenalt, John W. Dean, Nan Britton, presidential biographies, Presidents, Robert K. Murray, Samuel H. Adams, Warren G. Harding
In this era of unfathomable computing power and data storage capacity it is hard to imagine such a concept as Too Much Information.
But despite the dearth of scholarly biographies focused on Harding, we seem to have learned far too much about him over the past 14 months. And little of what has been revealed is likely to improve his standing.
Historians have long considered Harding one of the two or three worst presidents in our nation’s history, and they’ve long known of his propensity for straying from his wife. But as a result of significant controversy and litigation, much of the written evidence was locked away – until recently.
On July 29, 2014 approximately 1,000 pages of “correspondence” between Harding and one of his mistresses (Carrie Phillips) were released to the public. These letters were written over a ten-year period and provide significant transparency into this relationship (which preceded his presidency). And they threaten to make Bill Clinton’s indiscretions seem downright pedestrian.
Another slightly less certain rumor haunted Harding’s legacy as well – that he fathered a child with Nan Britton, another of his mistresses. The Harding-Britton affair was allegedly conducted during his presidency, and after he died Britton wrote a book: “The President’s Daughter.” This book was considered scandalous when published in 1927, but neither Britton (who died in 1991) nor her daughter (who died in 2005) subsequently seemed concerned with proving paternity.
Earlier this year, with the cooperation of Britton’s grandson and some of Harding’s known descendants, DNA testing firmly established that Harding was the father of Britton’s daughter. The story broke in the New York Times about a month ago. Hello!
As if that wasn’t enough…Warren Harding’s family tree was long alleged to have been “tainted” with African-American blood. Given the times in which Harding lived this was quite damaging to his reputation – but he could never disprove the rumor.
The same DNA testing which established Harding’s paternity of Nan Britton’s daughter also confirmed it is highly unlikely Harding had a black ancestor – at least not as far back as his great-great-grandparents. It seems that Barack Obama remains our nation’s first African-American president. Oh well.
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*The first biography of Harding I’m reading is “The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G Harding in His Times.” Written by Francis Russell and published in 1968, this was part of a small wave of Harding-related biographies based on papers released by the Ohio Historical Society in 1964. Russell independently pursued the Harding-Phillips angle and discovered some of their salacious correspondence. A lawsuit forced him to leave out the most colorful quotes, but it seems as though he got his point across…
*The second biography I’ll be reading, but the first book published following the opening of the Harding papers, is Andrew Sinclair’s 1965 “The Available Man: The Life Behind the Masks of Warren Gamaliel Harding.” It is apparently less “sensational” than Russell’s biography, with less emphasis on scandals and rumors.
Given my developing penchant for reading biographies from oldest-to-newest, I would have started with this biography…but it just arrived in my mailbox yesterday and I’m already 1/3 through Russell’s biography. But let me take a moment to thank the New Zealand Embassy in Washington D.C. which, according to a stamp inside the book, acquired it in April 1965 and at some point sold it to someone who sold it to someone who sold it to me. It almost looks like it has never been read…
*The last Harding biography I’m reading is “The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration” by Robert Murray, published in 1969. Some say this is the most detailed, serious book on Harding. In Harding’s case, I’m not certain what that actually means, but time will tell. Based on the name penned inside this book, it was originally owned by a now-deceased history professor who, a quick Google search reveals, served as a Sergeant of the Guard at the Nuremberg War Trials. Ah, the joys of the internet.
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Three books I won’t be reading (at least not the first time through):
– “Incredible Era: The Life and Times of Warren Gamaliel Harding” by Samuel H. Adams. Published in 1939, this one of the best-known early biographies of Harding. But the author lacked access to most of the critical Harding papers (which were not to be released for another 25 years) and he seems instead to have focused on rumors and allegations.
– “The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage During the Great War.” Published in 2009, this book by James Robenalt apparently reveals much of the Harding-Phillips affair. I’m not certain whether the author had access to any of the freshly-released letters, but the book’s punch-line seems to be that Phillips was actually an agent for the German government.
– “Warren G. Harding: The American Presidents Series” by John W. Dean. Harding seems to be exactly the type of president about whom books in the American Presidents Series are perfect: he is generally poorly regarded, few (if any) compelling biographies of him exist, and a shorter facts only biography might be just what the doctor ordered. On second thought, perhaps I should read this one?
Jim Kane said:
I enjoyed Russell’s work and look forward to hearing your thoughts on the other ones!
My reaction so far (I’m halfway through Russell’s book) is that it swings from dull to fascinating. Sometimes it moves like a tortoise and reads like a prehistoric stone tablet…at other times it speeds along briskly and reads like an engaging made-for-tv drama. I can’t wait to see what I think by the end and how it compares to the other Harding bios-
I was going to read this book but didn’t because I understand Russell’s book takes a very unfavorable view of Harding. It seems he was out to prove Harding had African ancestry and to bring to light the affair with Carrie Phillips. McGraw-Hill rejected titles for the book were: “From Whore House to White House” and “The Nigger in the Woodpile.” The title still conveys a racist tint in the mention of the word “Shadow.” Today it would not be an issue but back in the 1960’s and certainly in the 1920’s this would have been a problem for Harding supporters.
Ironically I considered skipping this book for the very same reasons. But it is so frequently read (for a Harding biography anyway) and referenced that I decided I couldn’t afford not to read it. I’m almost done with it but still wrestling with exactly what I want to say about it in my review…
I loved Dean’s book, and not just because it was short. It isn’t obsessed with scandal, and is more about the 1920 election.