Although she would become a very public and influential first lady with Harding’s election to the presidency in 1921, Florence Kling endured private and very painful tragedies throughout her life. According to the National First Ladies Library, Florence was 30, divorced, estranged from her abusive father and the mother of a young son when she caught the eye of Warren Harding, the editor and publisher of the Marion Star newspaper. At the time, she was teaching piano lessons to support herself; her father had taken custody of her son. The handsome Harding fell in love with Florence, a plain-looking, but intelligent, independent and vivacious woman. They were married in a small house that they built together with their own finances.
The Hardings never had any children of their own. In 1905, she came close to dying from kidney failure and had chronic health problems thereafter. During their marriage, Harding had two affairs, one with a friend’s wife and another that resulted in the birth of a child. Florence learned of the first affair in 1911 and, although she was deeply hurt and forever mistrustful of her husband, she stayed in the marriage and continued to support him throughout his political career. Harding, who tended to be unorganized and lacked ambition, relied on his wife’s confidence and tenacity. She was once quoted as saying, “I know what’s best for the President. I put him in the White House. He does well when he listens to me and poorly when he does not.”
For Florence, Harding’s election to the U.S. Senate in 1915 was overshadowed by her 35-year-old son’s death from alcoholism and tuberculosis. The victory, however, initiated Harding’s rise to political prominence, which would culminate in his winning the presidency in 1920. He acknowledged that his success was due in a large part to his strong-willed and supportive wife, who he affectionately called “the Duchess.” Florence was a very popular first lady and used her time in the White House to promote a variety of issues, including women’s rights, veterans’ benefits and the protection of animals.
Harding’s presidency ended in scandal when members of his administration were accused of corruption in the Teapot Dome Scandal. During a tour of the country in defense of his presidency, Harding died suddenly from a heart attack. When Florence refused to allow an autopsy, rumors flew that she had actually poisoned him. The accusations were unfounded and Florence remained loyal to Harding even after his death, working hard to establish his memorial foundation until her death from kidney disease in 1927.