In the years leading up to his brief two years as U.S. president, Warren G. Harding kept a passionate, deeply romantic love affair with the wife of one of his good friends from Ohio.
In sometimes flowery, sometimes lurid prose, Harding wrote of his “mad, tender, devoted, ardent, eager, passion-wild, jealous, reverent, wistful, hungry, happy” love for Carrie Fulton Phillips.
“My Darling,” he wrote on the back of a portrait of himself, dated Dec. 24, 1910. “there are no words, at my command, sufficient to say the full extent of my love for you.”
In another, he writes her three pages of poetry, listing everything he loves about her.
Those letters – approximately 1,000 pages in total – were kept for decades after they were written, first in a closet in Phillips’ home, then under close secrecy by the Library of Congress, until today. An agreement between the Harding family and the Library of Congress permitted their release on July 29, 2014 – approximately 50 years after an Ohio probate judge ordered them sealed at the family’s request.
“It’s times like now I wish it was sealed for 75 years,” quipped Richard Harding, the president’s grand-nephew and the son of the man who fought for the letters to be sealed.
He said the family released the letters “with some ambivalence, but a sense of history.”
While Phillips and Harding were lovers from 1905 through 1920, the letters span a 10-year window of that time – 1910 through 1920, the period when Harding served as Ohio’s lieutenant governor and as a U.S. senator. The affair ended before Harding became president.
Most of the letters are from Harding, but the collection does include some drafts and notes from Phillips.
The range from passionate – Harding writes of Phillips “thrilling lips,” “matchless breasts,” “incomparable embrace” – to petulant. At one point, irked by something she wrote, Harding replied, “ Feeling as you do, we ought not meet…I used to argue to myself that deep in your heart you did not feel all the resentment and indifference which you utter, and now I know that you do.”
Ultimately, politics interfered with, then broke the relationship. Phillips, who spent three years living in Germany, was sympathetic to the Germans and pressured Harding not to support the U.S. entry into World War I. Harding, then a U.S. senator, voted to enter the war anyway.
"I have pondered the situation with soberness and solemnity ever mindful of the great responsibility,” Harding wrote to Phillips on March 25, 1917, about the looming war vote.
“How unthinking and unfair you are when you accuse me of playing politics! I represent a state with hundreds of thousands of German Republicans. Nobody knows better than I do that I seal my political fate by displeasing them. I know it makes me a one-term official to oppose their desires, but I prefer to perform a duty in good conscience even though I know it means the end of my public service."
Even after the affair ended, Harding and Phillips remained friendly. In 1922, Phillips, her husband and her mother, visited Harding in the White House.
In 1956, Phillips, her health failing, moved into a nursing home in Marion, where she died four years later. Her lawyer found the letters in her house, and released them to a Harding biographer in 1963.
The Harding family was outraged. They fought the release of the letters in court, and in 1964, an Ohio probate judge closed the papers. After years in court, the Harding family bought the letters from the Phillips family. In 1972, George Harding, Harding’s nephew, donated the letters to the Library of Congress, with one stipulation: they could not release them publicly until July 29, 2014, which would be 50 years from the day the probate judge first closed them. They have been locked in a vault in the Library’s Manuscript Division until today.
Though tough to read – Harding’s penmanship was comparable to a chicken-scrawl, and he often declined to date his letters – the letters reveal a man who referred to his lover a “Sis,” and who signed his letters “WGH,” “Gov,” and “Constant,” among other nicknames. He sometimes used the name “ Pouterson” to refer to the two of them.
A Republican from Ohio who served in the Ohio Senate and then in the U.S. Senate, Harding became the 29th president in 1921.
In August 1923, Harding suddenly collapsed and died in California. His administration's many scandals have earned Harding a bottom-tier ranking from historians, but in recent years there has been some recognition of his fiscal responsibility and endorsement of African-American civil rights. Harding has been viewed as a more modern politician who embraced technology and was sensitive to the plights of minorities, women and labor.
By Jessica Wehrman - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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