Twenty-ninth president Warren G. Harding (1865-1923) was two years into his first term when a (probable) heart attack put an abrupt end to both his life and his presidency. (Vice-president Calvin Coolidge stepped in and was then elected in 1924.) But just because his time as president was brief doesn't mean Harding isn’t deserving of closer examination. Take a look at some facts about his upbringing, his office controversies, and how a big family secret was revealed nearly a century after his death.
Warren G. Harding was a newspaper reporter before he was a politician.
Warren G. Harding was born in a farming community near Blooming Grove, Ohio, on November 2, 1865. He was the oldest of eight children. Raised on physical labor, he displayed an interest and aptitude for writing and journalism while in college, later performing a variety of tasks for the Marion Mirror, a Democratic-leaning newspaper that was in contrast to the Harding family’s Republican politics. In 1884, a competing paper, the Marion Daily Star, was put up for sale; some friends of Harding’s financed its acquisition and soon, Harding was running it as he saw fit. The paper’s popularity made Harding a name in his community—one that would eventually graduate to local, then national, politics. Yet he remained involved in the Star, never ceding his financial interest in the paper until two months before his death in August 1923.
Warren G. Harding could get feisty.
Harding’s temperament was even-keeled during his political career, but that doesn't mean he was a pushover. While editing the Star, Harding was the target of personal attacks by the editor of a competing newspaper, the Independent. Eventually, he had his fill of the vitriol, and Harding exploded, telling the man he would “mop up the street” with him if the alleged slander didn’t stop ("and then," Harding continued, "I’ll go over and mop up your office with what remains").
Harding's presidential nomination was a compromise.
Harding was elected to the Ohio State Senate in 1899 before taking office as lieutenant governor from 1904 to 1906. From 1915 to 1921, he served in the U.S. Senate. While Harding was well-liked, his candidacy was the result of a deadlock: Republicans couldn’t decide on a candidate, so Harding was chosen as a compromise. Along with running mate Coolidge, he defeated Democratic candidate James Cox by winning 60 percent of the popular vote and 76 percent of the Electoral College. Harding’s 1920 victory remains the largest popular vote margin since the 1820s.
Harding got a celebrity endorsement when he ran for president.
Decades before actors and public figures openly endorsed presidential candidates, Harding’s campaign was the beneficiary of support from Al Jolson, the performer who was among the most popular entertainers of the 1920s. Jolson, a devoted Republican, agreed to visit Harding’s home in Marion, Ohio—where the candidate was making speeches from his front porch—and led a parade down the block. Jolson then sang “Harding You’re the Man for Us,” a hastily-prepared melody that cemented his backing of the politician. Actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford also made the trek to rally behind Harding.
Warren G. Harding's presidency was marked by scandal.
Though Harding himself was never implicated in any wrongdoing, his cabinet was embroiled in controversy. Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall was found to have leased public land to oil companies in exchange for gifts in the Teapot Dome Scandal. He spent a little under a year in prison. Attorney General Harry Daugherty was accused of selling liquor permits during Prohibition. Several other officials took bribes. “I have no trouble with my enemies,” Harding once said. “But my damn friends ... they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor nights.”
Harding named his penis "Jerry."
Harding married his wife Florence in 1891, but he was far from faithful: He had two affairs that we know of. In 2014, letters between Harding and one of his mistresses that had been sealed for 50 years were finally released by the Library of Congress. In them, Harding expressed his affection for his mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips. Written on official Senate stationary, the letters, dated between 1910 and 1920, offer a glimpse into his proclivities. He referred to his penis as “Jerry,” a code word in case a third party read the correspondence, and elaborated on his fantasies involving her “pillowing breasts.” An example:
"Jerry came and will not go, says he loves you, that you are the only, only love worthwhile in all this world, and I must tell you so and a score or more of other fond things he suggests, but I spare you. You must not be annoyed. He is so utterly devoted that he only exists to give you all."
When he won the Republication nomination in 1920, the party allegedly paid Phillips as much as $25,000 (or $297,000 today) to remain quiet about the affair.
His Prohibition stance didn't keep him from drinking.
As a senator, Harding supported the 18th Amendment prohibiting the sale and transportation of alcohol, an era that lasted from 1920 to 1933. He agreed to back the Anti-Saloon League, which rallied against imbibing, in exchange for support during his elections. But according to long-time White House employee Elizabeth Jaffray, with his friends Harding had no problem downing scotch and soda in the White House.
The Harding DNA unlocked a family secret.
Nearly a century following Harding’s sudden death due to a heart attack in August 1923, a DNA test added another bit of salacious detail to the president’s sex life. In 1927, one of his mistresses, Nan Britton, claimed Harding fathered her child a year before his Presidential campaign. Harding’s political allies chastised her and cast doubts over her credibility, but in 2015, DNA sampled from relatives of Harding and Britton’s grandson confirmed she was telling the truth. Their daughter, Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, died in 2005. She was Harding’s only child.