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Sarah Hampson

The steamy tale of a President, his mistress and torrid love letters – but not the one you think Add to ...

“There are no words, at my command, sufficient to say the full extent of my love for you – a mad, tender, devoted, ardent, eager, passion-wild, jealous, reverent, wistful, hungry, happy love – unspeakably encompassing, immeasurably absorbing, unendingly worshipping, unconsciously exalting, unwillingly exacting, involuntarily expounding, everlastingly compensating.”

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The prose may be purple but for summer reading, this steamy romance is a page-turner. The author of the love letter (and there are 105 more – some as long as 30 pages) is Warren G. Harding, the 29th president of the United States. He wrote them to Carrie Fulton Phillips, the wife of a good friend, with whom he carried on a torrid affair for almost 15 years, through his term as Ohio’s lieutenant governor and his time as a U.S. senator. When he became president in 1921, the affair ended, in part because she blackmailed him, historians say. The Library of Congress will release the letters online at the end of this month, marking the end of a drawn-out battle between historians and Harding descendants who wished to spare the family embarrassment.

So, move over John Edwards, Anthony Weiner and Bill Clinton, because it wasn’t just Harding’s florid writing that’s a tad embarrassing, this politician wasn’t afraid to express his most carnal desires. He referred to his penis as “Jerry” – not the first man to employ a sobriquet for his genitals, of course – once writing in 1918 to Phillips, “Wish I could take you to Mount Jerry. Wonderful spot.”

The two had met in 1905 in Marion, Ohio, where Harding was editing a local newspaper and she was the wife of a dry-goods merchant. A beauty in the popular Gibson Girl style, wearing corseted, high-necked dresses with her long hair piled on top of her head, Phillips was witty, flirtatious and ambitious. Harding, a man of movie-star looks and magnetic personality, had married Florence Kling DeWolfe, a divorcée five years his senior, who was often sick with kidney disease.

There had long been rumours of Harding’s extra-marital excursions but the cache of letters, discovered behind a locked door in Phillips’s home after she died in 1960, confirmed them. At one point, Harding implored her to burn the correspondence but she refused. In 1964, Francis Russell, a biographer and historian, gained access to the letters but the Harding family sued to halt publication. They agreed to donate them to the Library of Congress in exchange for the assurance that they would remain sealed for 50 years. Nonetheless, Russell’s 1968 biography of Harding, The Shadow of Blooming Grove, was disparaging of the president, who is often ranked as the worst in U.S. history.

Some of the letters were made public in 2009, when James David Robenalt, a lawyer in Ohio, came across forgotten microfilm copies not included in the ban in Cleveland’s Western Reserve Historical Society. The Harding family didn’t stop him from using them, perhaps because his little-known book, The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage During The Great War, omitted the more salacious letters and focused on the backdrop of the First World War and Phillips’s German sympathies.

“Of all the ironies, this guy comes out looking better through these letters of adultery,” Robenalt says in a telephone interview. “He was very smart and an accomplished writer, which goes against this whole idea of him being a dumb-head in the White House. … He deserves a renaissance.” Robenalt believes that the affair could have had an impact on history as Harding was a possible presidential candidate in 1916 and, if he had chosen to run, could have beaten Woodrow Wilson, Robenalt contends. Phillips, who spent a lot of time in Berlin, constantly badgered Harding about the German point of view, he says. “There are a lot of what-ifs. If he had been president [at that time], would the United States have become involved in the war? … The letters have a much deeper story.”

The affair was between two people whose own marriages were deeply unsatisfactory, Robenalt believes. “She was his sexual outlet and the love of his life,” he says, adding that the graphic and highly intimate descriptions of Harding’s lust are “very shocking.” Phillips was clever and could be manipulative, unafraid to use the jealousy card. “She was a very modern woman. She clearly enjoyed sex and was open about it, which would have been unusual at the time.”

The complex story of love and passion did not end well, however. Three years into his presidency, Harding died, age 58, in a San Francisco hotel of an apparent heart attack. His wife died 15 months later. Phillips’s husband succumbed to alcoholism, after losing control of his holdings in the 1929 crash. He died in a back-room walk-up at the Marion Hotel in 1939. Phillips kept up her advocacy for Germany even through the Second World War. In the end, back in Marion, she became known for her eccentricity, often walking her dogs in a large mink coat with little underneath. She suffered from dementia in her later years, dying at the age of 87 in a state-run nursing home.

 

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