For the 64th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Teri Finneman spoke to author Katie Sibley to mark the 100th anniversary of the Warren Harding election in 1920. First lady Florence Harding made a significant impact on journalism and public relations history, becoming one of the first women to serve as first lady who was influenced by her media background. Sibley describes Florence’s successful journalism business skills, her PR savvy, and her relationship with reporters.
Katie Sibley is the author of First Lady Florence Harding: Behind the Tragedy and Controversy.
This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, publisher of Journalism History.
Katie Sibley: Her work at the newspaper, which I think often gets forgotten when we focus more on her life as a first lady, which just really set the stage for her later work. I mean this was an opportunity for her to be right there with him, supporting him in his work at the newspaper. He was, of course, the editor but she was doing the circulation and that was a pivotal, a pivotal development at the time.
Teri Finneman: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told.
I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York Sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Teri Finneman: And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history.
Show transcripts are available at journalism-history.org/podcast. This is episode is sponsored by Taylor &Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History.
Florence Harding. 100 years after she served as the nation’s first lady, she isn’t among those most remembered. And if she is, it’s for a vicious and untrue public relations stunt that has long tarnished her legacy. But she deserves to have the truth of who she was more broadly shared. Her savviness as a newspaper businesswoman that made an Ohio newspaper a powerhouse. Her use of newsboys to give young boys jobs that connected with the community. And her public relations strategy that made her an integral part of her husband’s campaign success.
In this episode, we learn more about the role of Florence Harding in journalism history and her husband’s successful front porch campaign and try to put to rest the rumor that she poisoned her husband.
This is the second part of a two-part episode examining the journalism legacy of the Hardings. Our guest today is first ladies historian Katie Sibley, the author of First Lady Florence Harding: Behind the Tragedy and Controversy.
Katie, welcome to the show. How did you get interested in studying Florence Harding in the first place?
Katie Sibley: Oh, thank you so much for having me, Teri, it’s a pleasure to be here.
My interest in Florence Harding extends from an unlikely place. I was working on Soviet spies in the 1920s, but I got very interested in that decade of the 1920s here in the United States, which along with teaching women’s history at my college, St. Joseph University, I realized that there was some interest in these women of the 1920s. And so, I had the opportunity to write a book about Florence when I realized that the series on first ladies didn’t have one and they kindly offered me the chance to write about her.
And I was so excited to do that. I was welcomed by people in Marion, Ohio, who gave me all kinds of helpful resources and other resources I found. And I realized that one of the things that really intrigued me about Florence was that she had been so maligned and so trivialized and treated misogynistically that there was just a lot there to uncover and kind of show in a new way. And that was very exciting for me.
Teri Finneman: Florence married Warren in 1891 and would spend the next 15 years playing a significant role in the Marion Star helping run the newspaper. Newspaper legend William Allen White noted “she did a man’s work,” so misogynistic as you kind of mentioned before. Tell us what roles and impacts she had at the newspaper.
Katie Sibley: Oh, it’s a fascinating story because it, it really, her work at the newspaper, which I think often gets forgotten when we focus more on her life as a first lady, was just — it really set the stage for her later work. I mean this was an opportunity for her to be right there with him supporting him in his work at the newspaper.
He was, of course, the editor but she was doing the circulation, and that was a pivotal, a pivotal development at the time because up until then very few papers really had a proper circulation system. Customers would come to the newspaper office and get their paper, but that could be sort of catch as catch can. What she did was institute this system of newsboys, I guess they were always boys, and they went around and distributed the paper and collected the money.
And so, this put the business on a sure financial footing. And Florence, of course, had a background. Her father had been a businessman and she had trained really under him in his dry goods business. She had a very good head for numbers and this kind of thing, although she was actually trained as a pianist as well. She had many talents.
One of the things that she really loved doing at the paper was kind of leading this group of newsboys, which became for her, who had kind of a sad history with her son, she had a son in her first marriage, not with Warren. And then, basically, had to kind of give him up to her father to raise because she was unable to raise it, raise him.
– Marshall was his name – herself because her husband, first husband, was kind of a ne’er-do-well. So by herself, she couldn’t really raise her son. She didn’t really have the means to do that, although she taught some piano.
So here was her chance to kind of work with a group of young boys and lead them and be kind of a maternal figure as well as, I think, maybe more importantly in the long run, she had the opportunity to work with Warren side by side. And this was something very important to her because it was really a key part of who she was.
She was a career woman and she continued to be a career woman with Warren. Now, obviously, his career was perhaps more visible and more important, but she was the one who really was key in developing that, in fostering his work, and helping to promote him. I don’t want to say that she made him. I think that’s been a caricature kind of thrown at her, but she certainly helped to facilitate his path towards politics. And the newspaper really was the beginning of their close relationship there.
Teri Finneman: One of the most famous stories about Florence is that she spanked the newsboys so tell us if that’s true and then talk a little bit more about her relationship with those boys.
Katie Sibley: Okay, and I shouldn’t laugh because, of course, that, that is abusive, isn’t it? Um, but there I laugh because this is the caricature of Florence, right, that she was this kind of arrogant, this shrewish woman so who would be surprised to hear that, of course, she spanked the newsboys?
Well, apparently, she did. I don’t know if this was very often, but there were complaints about it. One, in particular from a famous former newsboy, Norman Thomas, who later ran for president, but other newsboys were very close to her for their whole lives. One of them was a man called Ora “Reddy” Baldinger, and he became sort of her aide-de-camp in the White House.
So he clearly had fond feelings for her, he stayed with her through his life. And again, as you mentioned, it was a cutting-edge use of these young, young boys to sell and distribute newspapers.
Because not just — we often have an image of newsboys as being these sort of hawkers on the street, but they were going around to the houses, they were promoting the circulation of the paper. So it was a more kind of efficient and really you might say just a, a very carefully thought out plan to develop a growing circulation for the paper.
And the paper thrived from this. I mean when, before Florence and Warren, well actually, Warren at the paper before her, once she arrived and got involved, the paper became very, very lucrative. And in fact, it provided a very comfortable living then and later. So, it’s very interesting, I think, to, to look at how Florence had a big role in that. Very important, important role.
And she did have some landmark moments as well. One was that, apparently, she received one of the first wires to come into the paper during the Spanish American War. I mean she didn’t write for the paper itself, which is a little bit disappointing, I think, but she certainly was someone who made it a more effective paper. And it actually, still goes on, I believe to this day in Marion, Ohio, so an important legacy there from the Hardings.
Teri Finneman: Beyond newspaper history, Florence also played a significant role in public relations history and presidential campaigns history in 1920. You note that advertising pioneer, Albert Lasker, made the Hardings celebrities. Talk about their public relation strategies and use of media.
Katie Sibley: Oh yes, it’s a fascinating, it’s really a fascinating story. Um, so yes, Albert Lasker, so he’s famous for promoting these pork and beans, Van Camps pork and beans in the days when housewives would boil their beans on a stove for hours on end and now they could get them in cans. And you know, there was an, there was an advertising campaign that facilitated that. And, of course, more than advertising [unintelligible] intrinsically linked with the 1920s, but they were really the first to bring it about in a political campaign using, for instance, his methods or kind of mass circulation of sort of the words of Harding through recordings.
There were speeches that he gave you can still listen to them on YouTube. They’re a little old, but you can hear them. In addition to that, there were pins, there were billboards. There was a kind of a mass — I guess you could say mass marketing effort they spent about $1.5 million on that aspect alone not counting what they spent on the campaign and travel and the other things that they did.
There were, for instance, I think something very much that your listeners might imagine, newsreels in the theaters, right, so pictures of them. And this, I think, plays into the question you had about their celebrity status. They were very popular, and I’ll talk more about this in a little bit when we talk about the front porch campaign. But they were very popular in Hollywood. They had quite a following among some of the leaders in the movie industry both actors and directors. And very unusual for Republicans to have that particular following. But they were visible, they were active, and they embraced the new technology. And they themselves became celebrities as a result.
I mean and this was very interesting, a contrast to the previous president, who as you know, by the end of his term was basically, in his bedroom pretty much horizontal. So and, and not very visible and of course I’m talking about Woodrow Wilson, and this was a very kind of great contrast, along with other contrasts on their policies, etc.
And, of course, Harding wasn’t running against Wilson, but there was still this presence of him in a way. He was running against another Ohio newspaper man called Cox as it turned out. But his presence was, and her presence, were very, very visible, and very cutting edge. And that celebrity status, that use of the media, that use of films and photo ops continues through the White House.
And so, there was some very famous pictures of them, for instance, of Florence being filmed when she’s greeting these Filipino women who came as part of the delegation for Filipino independence. Or even when she got very ill in the White House inviting people to come and see the Mayo Clinic men come and help her get better.
There was just this sense that she had this kind of attuned nature to how important it was to connect with the media and to make themselves visible. And that probably won’t surprise your listeners because, of course, she had been a newspaperwomen but she also moved into this more, I guess you could say, cutting edge sense of a filmmaking and picture taking that was, you know, the sort of photo op that we think of today.
Teri Finneman: One of their most famous strategies was the front porch campaign as you just mentioned. Uh, which you noted in your book was chiefly orchestrated by Florence and which attracted close to half a million people. Why did they take this approach and how did it work?
Katie Sibley: Yes, it’s really a fun sort of idea to think about. All these people gathering at their house, right, in Ohio. And of course, it made sense: it was a lot less work, they could just open up a house, but of course, it was a lot of – or open up the porch, I should say – but it was a lot of work, too.
It was pretty exhausting because they had visitors coming day after day. What would happen was people would gather in the early afternoon and then they would parade to the Harding lawn. And then there would be a little speech by Warren and lots and lots of people would come.
There was one day in particular called First Voters Day when all these young people came, and I’m assuming women of all ages came too ‘cause they were voting for the first time. And it was a really hot day and people would just collapse everywhere, which all around the lawn and on the porch, but Florence just kept going after shaking many, many hands.
And you know, to get back to your question about, about how she was instrumental in this, I mean part of what was extremely, I think, instrumental in Florence’s role in the campaign and this was something that Harding, of course, completely agreed with was their folksy approach. I mean one of the ways that they wanted to contrast themselves with the Wilsons, who, of course, had been in for two terms and by the end had pretty much shut up the White House for quite some time.
Um, in part, as a war measure. To save the cost of mowing the lawn, they brought sheep in to kind of take care of the grass.
But it meant that the White House was closed off to everyone except for those who were, you know, close to the Wilsons. And so, what that meant for Florence, she would walk by and there was a point where she slipped in the mud nearby and some policeman chased her away. And this was when she was a Senate wife, of course, but she was like, “I am determined, you know, to open this White House to everyone if we get elected.”
And so, I think the front porch kind of exemplifies that openness, that accessibility, that visibility. They wanted to be seen. They wanted to connect, and when they were in the White House, of course, it was very similar. They would spend hours, I mean imagine this, hours and hours shaking hands. I mean it was exhausting. You might think perhaps they had better uses of their time. But this was really a priority to them, this kind of folksiness. And I think what’s interesting for us as historians looking back on the front porch is how it brought such a wide array of people together.
So one of the groups that came was the Harding Coolidge Theatrical League. This included Lillian Gish, Al Jolson, a number of other celebrities.
Jolson sang a number of songs for the Hardings, including one that, you know, definitely dedicated to Harding, and again, it’s very interesting to think about this, this cultivation of celebrity culture. These celebrities came to the Hardings, the Hardings embraced and then continued their methods on into the White House bringing in other celebrities.
Celebrities like Madame Curie and Albert Einstein, too, by the way. I know we often think of the Hardings as not particularly intellectual, but they certainly appreciated the scientists of their time. In addition, though, the others who came to the front porch were much more modest people. Groups of women came, groups of bicyclists came, African American groups came. All kinds of people found this kind of an irresistible opportunity to connect with the front porch and the Hardings there.
And one of the other, I think, interesting elements is that this kind of access, this kind of, this ability that the front porch exemplified, continued on into the time when the Hardings were in the White House.
They shook hands for hours with visitors, for example. And this, of course, would continue with their trips across the country, most particularly the trip to Alaska, which was an exhausting jaunt, every time they stopped, they shook hands for hours.
So the front porch, which, of course, wasn’t pioneered by them. I mean this was — William McKinley had also his own front porch campaign, but certainly they took it to a bigger extent and they got, I think, much more of a publicity role. But I do want to mention that the front wasn’t the total sum of their campaign at all. We’ve already talked about the use of sophisticated advertising techniques, the Lasker methods, etc. But in addition to that, they also traveled about 20,000 miles over that fall very, very, very actively.
And they had to deal with some particularly difficult issues. It’s fascinating to look at that campaign. You might not think about this today, but race emerged in the campaign.
Harding was called an African American by some of people who did not like him at all, and to his credit, he didn’t deny it. You know, he basically didn’t really address the charge. He said privately, you know, who knows? There had been in his family abolitionists. It’s very interesting. So it was a very difficult charge, obviously, in 1920 it’s a very racist time in our country.
But I think to his credit and this carried on when he was in the White House as well when he reached out to African Americans. He gave a famous speech in Birmingham. I won’t go as far as to say that he supported social equality between blacks and whites, he certainly, sadly, did not, but he supported political equality.
And I think the fact also that his platform included the first anti-lynching statement since really the 1870s is something that should be mentioned as well.
Teri Finneman: So if she wasn’t the first first lady with prior media experience, Florence was definitely one of the first who had some kind of media savvy to her.
So with this kind of background, what was her relationship like with the press during her White House years?
Katie Sibley: Oh, it was, it was — this is what is so interesting, Teri, because we think back and the reputation of Florence Harding and her husband, of course, is often pretty dismal, which is something that I try to work on in my book and others have done so as well, but it still remains in the popular culture. We’ll be talking more about that later in the hour, I know.
But with the press at the time, she had a very good relationship and it probably won’t surprise your listeners. Given her background as a newspaperwoman, she knew what kinds of things were important, what kinds of things would appeal to the press. What sort of efforts she could make to facilitate to open doors. I mean, again, I’ve mentioned her accessibility and their accessibility with the public.
So for instance, when the Hardings would have these big state dinners where maybe the State Department people or visiting diplomats or whatever particular organization, the Washington Naval Conference, which was a big international confab that happened in 1921-22.
She would bring the press in to see the layout of the dinner and who was going to be there and what was going to happen. She’d made sure they were well aware of these kinds of things. And you might say well, of course, she wanted, you know, good publicity. But she went out of her way to really open doors and give them access.
Now, she herself, did not give interviews. In part, she was concerned, I think, to do anything that could perhaps be construed in a way that could hurt her husband. Now she didn’t want to be — I think she didn’t want to sort of overtake him in any way there. But on the other hand, she was definitely attuned to what the press was up to.
And this is part of this kind of celebrity culture as we talked about that she and Warren cultivated. They wanted to be seen, they wanted to be visible, and they – one of the things I think that is most striking about her reaching out to the press, I mentioned before when she was ill, you know, the movie men came and you know, sort of understand the story.
Now contrast that to when John F. Kennedy, for example, had Addison’s disease or even Eisenhower had a heart condition. I mean a number of presidents have had issues and often, and first ladies as well, and often the public is not told about these things. But she went out of her way to make sure the public knew that she had another onset of her very, very damaging illness.
This was nephritis, it was a kidney ailment, and in those days they had very little they could do. There wasn’t dialysis. Basically, they had to sweat it out and you can imagine how horrific that would be. It was, it was a very, very dangerous condition. She’d had this since about 1905 off and on. And so, always recovered, but one reason why she had to rely very much on her doctor, Charles Sawyer, because she often needed medical help.
So in 1922 they went on a trip on the Mayflower, their little boat they would take to the Potomac and sail around, and she came back very ill. And basically, the rest of that year, it was like September of ’22 she was very ill. She began to get better, but she told the public about this and she told the press.
So as a result, people were concerned, they were praying for her. She, of course, had a very strong will to get better and she did, at least at that time. But I mention that as an example of her openness with the press and their appreciation of her concern.
And again, I’ll just underly that when she died and there was great — and even when they left office after his death, of course, a year or so before she died in 1924, there was the kind of encomiums in the press, the kind of appreciation for them. And you might say, oh well, sure, you know, somebody’s leaving office who died, Warren dies in August of 1923, of course they’re going to be sympathetic.
But there really was a special connection, I think, that she had with the press. And part of that was that she made the White House a destination. She reached out to people. She made it accessible, people walked the grounds. I mean hundreds of thousands of people walked the grounds. It’s estimated that maybe a million over the course of their entire time there because she had band concerts and, you know, there were flowers. She wanted people to come.
And again, this, I think, opened up to the press as well and made her more of a, you know, a visible and a very accessible and much appreciated member in the White House.
Teri Finneman: You know, and today she’s one of the forgotten first ladies and, and as you’ve just been saying, I mean there was so much public interest in her during her time. You know, beyond what you’ve already said, what do you think that she brought to the first lady position and why the public was so interested in her?
Katie Sibley: Oh yes, a wonderful, wonderful question and I love to sing [chuckle] Florence’s praises. Although, of course, you know, she was a human being as well and she had her, she had her flaws and she had her issues. But I think what drew people to her was her, her energy, and her focus. Now I did mention she, of course, was ill for you know, some six months or so. But she wasn’t ill all the time and she was extremely, as we’ve mentioned, outgoing and very concerned about a number of causes, which we haven’t really had a change to delve into just yet.
But I do want to mention that, of course, this was the first person, Florence was the first first lady to vote for her husband in 1920. And this was, of course, the moment of women’s vote. Of course, I want to emphasize white women. Black women in most of the country or I should say most black women in the country could not vote at this time because of the Jim Crow laws in effect.
But for those who could vote, she reached out, she wanted to see more women become Republican, of course, she was a partisan. She worked with Republican groups, but she was very excited about this whole idea of women’s activism. And beyond the partisan edge of that, she also was very interested in women’s involvement in in the workplace and in having careers. And she didn’t see any reason why they shouldn’t.
So in some ways despite the fact that she was 60 when she went into the White House and you might think of her as kind of a woman raised in the Victorian era, she was a very modern woman. I mean she had had to support herself at teaching piano after her first husband left her and she was sort of on her own.
She also, of course, tried to support her son as best she could. By this time, she did have — he had married and had children and she was close to her grandchildren. So nevertheless, she was a very modern woman in her interest in women’s activism and her cultivation of it. At one point, one of the local Republican groups in Philadelphia reached out to her and wanted her to come to their gathering, but she decided not to do it. She thought that she would have to go to all of these kinds of gatherings and it would be, you know, pretty difficult.
But she definitely encouraged women’s activism. Now in addition to that, she was always concerned about animal rights and she made efforts to reach out to protect, for instance, sea life. She was very concerned about the treatment of animals, for instance, in rodeos. She went to one rodeo with her friend, Evelyn, and she was just sickened what she saw with the animals there.
And she, in addition to that, she was very concerned about prisoners. And one of the sort of lesser known aspects of her activism was her concern for women prisoners and her efforts to help bring about Camp Alderson, which is a federal prison for women still going to this day.
But usually it’s given, the credit for that is given to Eleanor Roosevelt, but in fact, it was, it was really Florence who behind the scenes was helping to get this going.
And I want to emphasize Florence’s interest here in these reform causes ‘cause, of course, this was, you know, sort of the tail end of the Progressive Era and she picked up many of those pieces and promoted the women’s activism, the furtherance of, you know, reforms in prisons, this kind of thing.
So you might say, “Well, if that was not so well known, why does — how did people at the time, you know, how did they kind of gravitate to her?” Well, again, I emphasize her visibility but also you know, her outspokenness, I think, on women and she was very accessible to the press as we talked about. So people knew that she was someone who had had a lot of interest and concern.
Another way that she contributed that was really very appealing to people was her concern about veterans from World War I. So she would go and visit them at the hospitals but also, she would invite those who were no longer in the hospital but, you know, permanently maimed in many cases, to her parties that she would have at the White House.
And she would bring them close in. She would allow them to touch her face. She would sign autographs for them. She was extremely connected with veterans and I think in this way she set the stage. I mean so had Mary Lincoln been concerned about veterans, too, this practice isn’t new. But she set the scene with her activism here and remember, it’s going along with her husband’s interest in setting up the Veterans Bureau to support veterans.
Now there was a scandal around the Veterans Bureau, it’s true, but I would argue that the Hardings did not know about that until it developed. And then, of course, they immediately made sure that Mr. Forbes was out of office. So I always cite this as an example of a scandal that happened to the Harding administration, a leader at the Veterans Bureau who was a really problematic character absconding with money. I mean just, just a bad guy, Forbes. But on the other hand, so Florence, you know, right away and she heard about it, she said, you know, he’s got to go and he was gone, he was forced to resign.
So they didn’t put up with scandals. Later, of course, other scandals emerged after they left office but I would argue that they did not know about these at the time. So unfortunately, to our present moment and, and recent, and years before us, the Hardings are shrouded in this sort of veil of scandal. But there was so much they did at the time that was positive and, and helpful that often gets forgotten.
And I do want to mention again, the Hardings reaching out to blacks and Warren G. Harding and, and Florence as well. And also his pardoning of Eugene Debs, who had been put in jail as a resistor to World War I, that was one of the things that Harding did.
So they were really, you know, they were forward thinking in a number of ways. Unfortunately, not on immigration, I mean we must be clear there certainly Harding did not favor expanding, the continuing expansion of immigration and helped to shut it down, which continued, of course, with the rulings in 1924 with Calvin Coolidge.
But back to your point just briefly to sum up on this issue of why she, what she brought to the position. I would say that, you know, her activism, her visibility, her kindness, her folksiness, this accessibility that she had. And you know, I think there was a genuine love she had for the American people and they gravitated to that.
And the veterans connection really harkens back, I think, to her own troubles, someone who had, remember, very serious physical ailments. And so, she could connect with the troubles of others, empathize with them. And it was very affecting for people, I think they appreciated that.
Teri Finneman: So as you alluded to, the Hardings’ collective memory is very much tied to scandals. So I mean, despite her own media savvy, it’s unfortunate that today no one remembers Florence and if they do it’s because she was the victim of a vicious PR stunt: the accusation that she poisoned Warren, who died when they were on a cross-country trip in 1923.
How did that rumor get started and why do you think it managed to stick?
Katie Sibley: Oh yes, that’s a great question. So there was this just horrible man called Gaston Means, I mean he was, he was a criminal, basically. He was a criminal who had actually tried to force Evelyn McLean to fork over $100,000. He extorted, he extorted from her. Evelyn, by the way, was, of course, a friend of Florence’s, a very wealthy woman. So he said, you know, “Give me money and that will help recover the Lindbergh baby.” Of course, it was ridiculous. He was charged with grand larceny and he was put in jail.
So Gaston Means, a criminal, okay, now we’ve established that. However, he goes on to write this book called The Strange Death of President Harding, which was a widely, before it was sort of recovered and taken off the shelves because of his going to jail, many people read it and said oh yeah. Yes, of course, he died because she poisoned him. Because of course, you know, we know he was having all these affairs.
So I should mention the affairs because this was part of the reason that her reputation – it’s so unfair why she should be blamed for her husband’s affairs, but yet it has continued to this day. Earlier he had a relationship with a woman called Carrie Phillips and Florence was aware of that relationship and, of course, she was very, very saddened by this. It went on for about 15 years, but by the time they ran for president she was apparently paid off and she no longer sort of haunted their — well, I shouldn’t — she wasn’t haunting Warren’s life but no longer haunted Florence’s.
But after the Hardings left office and after Florence died, there was pressure from another quarter on this issue and that, of course, was Nan Britton, a very young woman who had an affair with Harding as well and had a child. So she wrote a book called – first, she pressured the family to pay her off and they did for a while, the Harding family uncles and aunts and brothers, etc., of Harding. And so, when that happened that kept her quiet but once they stopped paying her because they were sort of disgusted with it, she published her book The President’s Daughter.
So in 1927 we have this book emerge and, of course, eventually she was charged with making it up, there was a lawsuit and this and that. But you may know and your research will probably know as well that in 2015 a man emerged who through a DNA test was able to demonstrate that he was a second cousin of a grand nephew of Harding.
So it seems likely that Harding did have this relationship with Nan Britton, a very much younger woman, much younger than Carrie Phillips was, and that there was a child, but I’m not, I don’t know if Florence knew about that or not. But all I’m trying to suggest here by bringing all these in is that this suggestion of the president’s daughter even thought at the time, it was debunked, the rumors about Carrie, which we know were accurate because there were, there were letters, many letters that he wrote to Carrie.
And then we have, you know, Gaston Means alleging that she poisoned her husband. On top of that, there was a man called Samuel Hopkins Adams who wrote a couple of books about the Hardings in the ’20s and ’30s that were extremely scarlet.
Again, played up those scandals and in this case not so much the scandals, perhaps about the president’s daughter but more the scandals about the Teapot Dome, the idea of people in Harding’s administration being willing to sell off oil and get benefits for themselves. The cabinet secretaries, etc., Albert Fall, the Interior Department. Harry Daugherty, also considered a scandal although he was never actually formally charged with that.
But there were some questionable things definitely that went on, the enforcement of Prohibition. So all of those scandals have routed the reputation of the Hardings. Whether it was about Prohibition enforcement, whether it was about, you know, selling off, giving off goodies to oil companies, and then the reputation around her married life.
And then, on top of that, in 1930s there’s a very well-regarded book at the time, Crowded Hours by Alice Roosevelt Longworth, which sort of portrayed Florence, herself, as this kind of angry, drinks toting, you know, of course, they were violating Prohibition.
Actually, they weren’t because, remember, you could drink in Prohibition if you had an existing stock and these ideas that Harding was a big drinker I think are definitely overblown. Earlier in his life, he had kind of carried on a bit, but he had to go to a sanatorium back in the 1890s for some of that excess. But I don’t see any evidence that was continuing in the White House.
However, all these reputations were nevertheless kind of, kind of enshrined by books like Alice’s, Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s Crowded Hours, the Adams books, the Gaston Means portrayal of her as a poisoner of her husband, angry about the affairs, angry about his treatment, right, of course she must have poisoned him.
Now you might say well, okay, that’s all in the ’20s and ’30, I mean surely by now we’ve gotten past that, but actually, sadly, another really pivotal book was written in the late ’60s by Francis Russell, who was a very popular writer at the time. A journalist who worked for Time Life Books and his book was called The Shadow of Blooming Grove.
And this book, I mean by the title perhaps your listeners may hear an allusion to the allegation that Harding was black.
So it’s interesting that in the ’60s the height of Civil Rights movement, Francis Russell would sadly go down that path but there he did. So what we have in that book is a really scathing portrayal of Florence that she was, you know, brittle as an autumn leaf. That she was this kind of controlling harridan, this shrew.
And, of course what Russell was trying to do was explain why Harding might have had these affairs. Why he had this controlling life, after all, her nickname was The Duchess. He did call her The Duchess, I think it was a term of endearment, but Russell didn’t see it that way.
So that book was a pretty powerful pivotal book in a lot of ways. Russell had gotten hold of the Carrie Phillips letters although interestingly, he wasn’t allowed to publish them at the time, they remained secret locked up until 2014, such a crazy story, these Hardings.
But he had these very suggestive ellipses in the book pointing out aha, you know, obviously, there were love letters there, and there were, so he was right about that. But the portrayal of Florence and I’ve also looked at some letters that were not in the book, letters that Russell wrote to friends back in Marion, Ohio, when he was working on it, which portrayed his view of her. He actually suggested that if she had been more buxom, you know, Harding might have stayed happy in Marion and never, you know, foolishly gone off to become president. But instead he was married to this brittle hermaphrodite, he calls her.
Much of this, of course, is a lot of anti-female rhetoric, right, he didn’t like, clearly Russell didn’t like strong women and he was determined to, you know, find some something problematic about them.
So that, all this is to say, this long, sorry, probably too long for your listeners, perhaps, historiographical train here, right. Now we’re in the ’60s and you think well, all right, now it’s been 50 years surely, things have gotten better. But even more recently Carl Anthony wrote a more sympathetic portrayal called First Lady in the Jazz Age, Carl Sferrazza Anthony.
And this book is much more sympathetic to Florence but largely the book is still about Harding and his affairs. And while he doesn’t allege, of course, that Gaston, like Gaston Means did, you know, back almost 100 year ago, that Florence poisoned Harding, Anthony suggests that she was not perhaps assertive enough at the end in the California hotel, the Palace Hotel where Harding had had his sort of his collapse that she was not assertive enough to push the doctors to kind of do more.
But I would argue that those doctors really were not very, very knowledgeable about what was going on with Harding. He basically had — some people thought it was a stroke but basically, he had a heart attack. And you know even today people have, you know, half a million heart attacks a year like the one he had and don’t, and today you can do more about this. But at that time, it was, it was difficult to understand and certainly those doctors were not as well versed in these kinds of things.
So they were her doctors, too, and she completely trusted them. I mean Charles Sawyer took care of her till the end. But what is, I think, really important is that even today when you look this up on websites, etc., you still find allegations from Means, not his name anymore, but the allegation of poisoned is still there.
Oftentimes it’s brought up she wouldn’t allow an autopsy, which suggests, right, oh, no autopsy, clearly, she must have known what was going on with him and didn’t want people to know she poisoned him. But no, I would argue she didn’t want an autopsy because she didn’t want his body to be deformed as it would have been in an autopsy. She, to kind of to that point, I mean at the end, remember ‘cause they’re in California, the body has to be brought all the way back across the country.
It’s very moving, many people out in the wee hours of the night watching the train go by. She purposely slowed it down when they went through crowds so people could look in and see his casket. And then it comes back to the White House where she stays for a few days there and there’s another big funeral there.
And when that’s going on, she goes to visit his casket. Now you can’t imagine why, how would you want an autopsy if this is, you know, her sense of wanting to connect with him. And I would argue that certainly she knew his flaws. I mean she knew of these affairs. She certainly knew about Carrie Phillips that was a long affair. But there isn’t evidence that she poisoned him. But yet, I think people just have fun, sort of lumping together all these scandals and kind of hurling them upon the Hardings. But they’re actually so much more interesting than that. It’s like I hope I’ve suggested in this discussion we’ve been having.
Teri Finneman: So to kind of tie that all together we’re doing this show, of course, because it’s now the 100th anniversary of the Hardings’ election to the White House. So to tie that all together, why did they deserve to be remembered in history?
Katie Sibley: Oh, yes. So I would say a fascinating story, the Hardings were not in office that long, it wasn’t even a full term, but they came in at a pivotal moment, right, this is the first time that women are voting.
This is also a moment of great change in the United States, change in that the United States is becoming a more modern place, the advertising, the movie industry, all of those things we’ve talked about. It’s a moment as well of kind of contraction and resistance to that change. This, of course, the decade of the, you know, the Scopes trial and a lot of clashes between urban folks and city rural folks.
And the Hardings are sort of in the middle of all that. They come from a small town, but they’re, you know, clearly sophisticated enough to travel around the country and connect with scientists and other people and speak truth about race relations and about championing the rights of people who resist the war efforts.
But I think more particularly to Florence, I would argue that she really made the cracks in the mold that Eleanor Roosevelt broke, right. I mean Eleanor Roosevelt to all of your listeners will be the first lady who really went the furthest in so many ways, right. In her progress towards better race relations, in her activism, in her visibility well before say someone like Hillary Clinton.
But what we have, though, with Florence is someone who begins to make that possible by standing alongside her husband and saying, you know, yes, women can have careers and I had one myself. Or yes, it’s important to, you know, reach out to those in our society like these poor veterans who are struggling. Other first ladies have reached out to struggling people before, obviously, Ellen Wilson and Nellie Taft, but you have with Florence somebody who’s able to have more of a platform for that as a voter at a time where more women were voting.
So it’s this pivotal moment in time when a lot of things are changing. It’s the opportunity and platform, which, you know, I wish all first ladies would use — or first gentleman when we have some of those — for good, for pushing forward activism. And while Ellen Wilson had certainly tried to do that and Nellie Taft, both of them had very poor health, which had sort of short circuited their efforts to go further with, for instance, Ellen trying to improve things for blacks in Washington or Nellie trying to improve things for office workers.
But Florence had more of a time, she had more time to do this and there were effects, long lasting effects, like the prison I mentioned that came from her time period and her urgency toward women to get involved in politics as well.
So I think that you can say that why they need to be, why they should be remembered, I think, or why she deserves in particular to be remembered is her visibility and her concern for a number of causes, which paved the way for later first ladies to be activists as well.
Teri Finneman: Okay, well thanks so much for joining us today.
Katie Sibley: Thank you. Thank you for having me, Teri, it was a pleasure.
Teri Finneman: Thanks for tuning in and additional thanks to our sponsor, Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal Journalism History. Until next time, I’m your host Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow. [Music playing] Good night and good luck.