“My father left, he never even married mom. I shared the guilt my mama knew.”
-Love Child, Diana Ross & The Supremes
We Americans idealize our presidents. We place them on lofty pedestals while forgetting that the men depicted in the marble statues were once real humans. All too human, in some cases … especially when it came to fooling around.
The problem was present early on. Thomas Jefferson fathered at least one, and probably more, of his slave Sally Heming’s children (although the evidence suggests the affair didn’t begin until after Jefferson’s wife Martha had died.)
James Garfield is next on the presidential philanderers list. He was already cheating while engaged to Lucretia Rudolph, and he didn’t stop after saying “I do.” Things reached the crisis point when the long-suffering Mrs. G. discovered the then-Congressman was sleeping with a young newspaper reporter named Lucia Calhoun. She finally had enough, and issued an ultimatum: it’s either her or me. Garfield stayed married, and reportedly stayed faithful from then on, too.
Did Woodrow Wilson have a pre-presidential affair? It’s hard to say. He seemed to have conducted some kind of romance during a rough time in his first marriage with a woman named Mary Hulbert. Historians are divided over whether it was platonic or physical.
FDR came within a whisker of destroying his marriage (and his presidential prospects) over his well-known affair with Lucy Mercer Rutherford. Although he promised wife Eleanor he would never see her again, Lucy was with him when he died suddenly 27 years later.
Eisenhower is widely thought to have carried on a wartime dalliance with his much younger British chauffer, Kay Summersby. Ike’s son John, who served on his father’s staff, put it this way: “Kay was the Mary Tyler Moore of headquarters. She was perky and she was cute. Whether she had any designs on the Old Man and the extent to which he succumbed, I just don’t know.”
Finally, there were the Big Three cheaters: JFK, LBJ and Bill Clinton. Their extramarital exploits are far too numerous to fit in this limited space, and too well-known to need rehashing here.
But one president’s trysts stand out from all the others. Because it produced a Love Child.
Warren Harding was considered among the handsomest presidents we’ve ever had. A newspaper owner from Marion, Ohio, he parlayed his good looks and “Aw, shucks” small town demeanor into a Senate seat.
As he was quietly rising to the top, a young girl in his hometown was watching every step with adoring eyes. By age 15, Nan Britton had developed an infatuation on Harding that bordered on obsession. Long before he entered public life, she was stalking him on Marion’s sidewalks, eager to catch even a passing glimpse. When he jumped into politics, she plastered her bedroom walls with his photos.
Her dad eventually pulled Harding aside and asked, “Is there anything you can do to help Nan get over her puppy love?” The way Harding told it, he sat her down for a nice fatherly chat, saying, “The right man will come along one day, dearie.”
(At that particular time, Harding was busily engaged in an extramarital affair with Carrie Phillips, whose husband ran a department store in town. That hush-hush relationship lasted for more than a decade, with Harding writing her hundreds of love letters; some were even penned on U.S. Senate stationary – a spectacularly stupid move for a guy in the national spotlight.)
One year after graduating from high school, it was off to New York and a secretarial job for Nan. That, her family hoped, would be the end of her crush on Warren Harding.
But Harding apparently had different ideas. She was 19 now, and legal. He began making trips to the Big Apple, and Nan began turning up in various cities around the country when Harding was on the lecture circuit (a common way for Senators to pad their income back then).
The pair got a major jolt in early 1919: Nan was pregnant.
Quietly, without anyone knowing, the baby was born in Passaic, New Jersey on October 22. The doctor obligingly put the name Elizabeth Ann Christian on the birth certificate, so there would be no paper trail.
Almost exactly one year later, Harding was elected President of the United States.
Despite Harding’s new job, the affair continued at full speed. Nan later claimed she and Harding had sex in a closet just off the Oval Office. (John Kennedy reportedly was very interested to learn which closet it was when he moved into the place 40 years later. Though there’s no reason to believe he ever used it for the same purpose.)
According to Nan, Harding secretly slipped her cash to pay for the baby’s upbringing. Month after month, envelopes containing large denomination bills kept coming her way.
Then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed.
At 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, August 2, 1923, Harding died out of the blue in a San Francisco hotel room while on the final leg a West Coast visit.
Everyone –Nan, Harding’s widow, and the entire country- was plunged into mourning.
But the shock of her lover’s unexpected departure was followed by an even more rattling realization: the child support money was now gone, too. There was no way she could expect a dime from the Widow Harding. So Nan was left alone and broke with nothing but her memories and her baby.
Her attempts to hit up various Harding relatives and political insiders didn’t get results, so she dramatically upped the ante.
In 1928, she released The President’s Daughter, considered the very first political tell-all expose. And Nan told ALL, in the truest sense of the word, with lurid details that shocked even Roaring Twenties sensibilities.
At least one scholar strongly doubts Nan’s authorship. He notes her mentor and employer, Richard Wightman, head of the Bible Corporation of America where she worked as a secretary, was so deeply involved in the project, it’s possible he may have written the whole thing. (It’s also worth noting Nan was named in Patricia Wightman’s divorce suit against Richard Wightman later the same year the book came out.)
This was the last thing Harding’s reputation needed. Because shortly after his death, word broke of one scandal after another from his time in office, including the granddaddy of them all, Teapot Dome. While Harding himself was personally honest, many of the men around him weren’t. They spent their days scheming ways to make a fast buck at the government’s expense. Word that Warren experienced Afternoon Delight in an Oval Office closet only increased his legacy’s downward spiral. It didn’t take long for the Harding Administration to become a presidential punch line.
While the public gobbled up Nan’s sordid revelations with a spoon, there was official outrage. Congressman John Tillman of Arkansas even introduced a bill trying to keep the book from going on sale, calling it “a blast from Hell.” (Fortunately for Free Speech, the measure failed. However, speaking as an author, I can tell you having the blurb “a blast from Hell!” on the front cover would rocket your book to the New York Times Bestseller list.)
The Harding family never responded to Nan’s claims, but a family friend did. Charles Klunk, a hotel owner back in Marion, Ohio, wrote his own book which essentially called Nan a tramp and her claims a pack of lies. That infuriated the former presidential paramour, and she sued him for libel in 1931.
Saying the trial was nasty is an understatement. Nan’s reputation was dragged through the mud, and there was lots of mud for her to be dragged through. Let’s just say testimony showed Nan was, in the terminology of the day, “a girl who liked to get around” and leave it at that.
In the end, the jury found there was no cause for action, believing Nan had shown herself to be “of low moral character” by publishing her book in the first place. It also found no evidence to prove Elizabeth Ann was the president’s daughter.
The Great Depression and World War II eventually pushed the matter out of the public’s mind. Time moved on, and people lost interest. In 1964, a reporter found Nan living in suburban Chicago, but she refused to talk to him, or anyone else in the media. She insisted to the day of her death in 1991 that she had borne Harding’s love child.
Elizabeth Ann grew up, married, and had a family of her own. In time she moved to Oregon (where all weirdness ultimately winds up). Like her mother, she shunned most media requests for interviews, although she did tell one reporter in the 1960s that her mother had confirmed Harding’s paternity to her in 1934, adding, “It’s not something that you bring up in casual conversation.” DNA testing eventually came of age, yet she went to her grave in 2005 refusing to take a test. Her children likewise declined to be tested.
But a decade later, some Harding and Britton relatives experienced a change of heart. The August 13, 2015 New York Times carried this headline: DNA Is Said to Solve Mystery of Warren Harding’s Love Life.
Harding’s grandnephew and grandniece decided that 90 years was long enough. It was time for a definitive answer. They contacted James Blaesing, Elizabeth Ann’s son, and all were tested. (Other relations on both sides were said to be very unhappy with that move.)
The president did, indeed, have a Love Child.
History is littered with much gossip and innuendo. And every so often, some of it turns out to be true.
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