In 1920, Warren G. Harding won the White House in a landslide with his pledge for a “return to normalcy.” And Harding remained a popular president until his sudden death on August 2, 1923 in the presidential suite of San Francisco's Palace Hotel. Over the ensuing months and years, however, scandals involving payments of hush money to conceal extramarital affairs, a child born out of wedlock and criminal activity by cronies he appointed to high office tarnished his legacy. The 29th chief executive now occupies the bottom rungs of historians’ rankings of U.S presidents.
In the months preceding his death, allegations of corruption began to swirl around several members of the “Ohio Gang”—long-time political allies and poker buddies whom Harding had appointed to his cabinet and other powerful positions.
Charles Forbes, head of the newly established Veterans Bureau, was accused of accepting kickbacks from contractors building veterans’ hospitals and illegally selling surplus medical supplies. Forbes resigned in February 1923 after an irate Harding reportedly grabbed him by the throat when he learned about the charges. A Senate investigation in 1924 found that Forbes and his associates stole more than $200 million (nearly $2.8 billion in current dollars) from the bureau. The following year, Forbes was sentenced to two years in prison for fraud, conspiracy and bribery.
Harry Daugherty, a political operative who was appointed attorney general after engineering Harding’s presidential nomination, stood trial twice for conspiracy of selling illegal permits and pardons but was never convicted. Daugherty’s private secretary, Jess Smith, committed suicide in May 1923, a day after Harding informed him of his pending arrest for corruption in a White House meeting.
The Teapot Dome Scandal
The most enduring stain on the Harding presidency was left by Secretary of Interior Albert Fall and the Teapot Dome Scandal. In 1921, Fall convinced Harding to shift oversight of strategic oil reserves set aside for the U.S. Navy to the Department of the Interior. Fall then secretly granted lucrative no-bid contracts for exclusive drilling rights to the federal reserves, which contained high-grade petroleum worth hundreds of millions of dollars, to a pair of longtime friends and oil tycoons.
In return for leasing two California reserves, Pan-American Petroleum and Transport Company founder Edward Doheny gave Fall a $100,000 interest-free, cash “loan” that his son, Ned, and Ned’s friend Hugh Plunkett delivered in a black parcel bag. After gaining the exclusive drilling rights to the reserve in Teapot Dome, Wyoming, Mammoth Oil Company owner Henry Sinclair gave Fall $300,000 in Liberty bonds and cash and delivered a large herd of livestock to his ranch.
After the Wall Street Journal broke news of the contracts in April 1922, the Senate investigated. In February 1929, Plunkett fatally shot Ned Doheny in a Beverly Hills mansion before turning the gun on himself. Later that year, Fall was convicted of accepting a bribe from Edward Doheny and served nine months in prison, becoming the first cabinet official to be incarcerated for a felony committed while in office. Sinclair also served six months in prison for jury tampering and contempt of Congress.
Although guilty of being a poor judge of character, Harding was not personally implicated in the bribery scandals that beset his appointees. Affairs of the heart, however, proved just as damaging to Harding’s reputation as his political affairs.
Harding's Hush Money
Harding’s milquetoast persona belied his driving libido. “It’s a good thing I’m not a woman,” he once told the press. “I would always be pregnant. I can’t say no.” A biographer of First Lady Florence Harding pegged the number of her husband’s alleged mistresses at seven, and the steamy love letters Harding penned during his 15-year affair with Carrie Fulton Phillips—the wife of one of his best friends from his hometown of Marion, Ohio—revealed his lechery.
Harding began his extramarital romance with Phillips in 1905 when he was Ohio’s lieutenant governor, and it continued after his 1914 U.S. Senate election. Although he refused to divorce his wife, who suffered from chronic kidney issues, Harding assured his mistress it was a loveless marriage. “There isn’t one iota of affection in my home relationship,” he wrote to Phillips in 1913. “It is merely existence, necessary for appearance’s sake.”
The stakes and the threat rose exponentially that summer when Harding received the Republican nomination for president. The Republican National Committee agreed to give Phillips a $2,000 monthly stipend and $25,000 to pay for a cruise to Japan and China during the fall of 1920. By the time Phillips returned to America, Harding had been elected to the White House, where his womanizing ways continued.
The President's Out-of-Wedlock Daughter
The lurid details of Harding’s love life generated headlines in 1927 when another mistress, Nan Britton, revealed in a salacious kiss-and-tell book that he had secretly fathered her child out of wedlock. A fellow resident of Marion, Ohio, Britton wrote in her explosive bestseller, The President’s Daughter, that she first met Harding during his 1914 U.S. Senate campaign when she was a teenager. By the time she was 20, Britton had entered into an intimate relationship with the 51-year-old senator.
Britton wrote that Harding paid for her to live in a New Jersey house where in October 1919 she secretly gave birth to their daughter, Elizabeth Ann, whom she suspected was conceived on a couch in Harding’s Senate office. Harding never met Elizabeth but provided monthly child support payments that were hand-delivered by Secret Service agents.
Their trysts continued through Harding’s presidency, and Britton claimed to have had numerous assignations with the president in a White House coat closet while a Secret Service agent kept watch for the first lady. Harding’s descendants refuted Britton’s paternity claims for decades, but a 2015 DNA test determined that the president’s grandniece and grandnephew and Britton’s great-grandson were second cousins and Elizabeth was in fact the president’s daughter.