top of page

A century ago, Warren Harding paid “not one, but two women to keep affairs he had with them secret”

His affairs are just one of the problems with his "legacy"

… one was “a likely German spy”

In 1971, I was a senior at Penn State University in my final term. I had signed up for some graduate-level courses, and one was an American history presentation that was just fabulous.

Dr. Robert K. Murray was a fabulous lecturer, and this course covered the period from 1900 to the present, a period of two world wars, a Great Depression — but before Watergate.

Professor Murray was one of the best professors or teachers whom I have ever had in my life. However, he was somewhat “off the wall” with some of his historical theories.

For instance, he had studied and had written a history of the President Warren G. Harding era. However, what I distinctly remember about that is that he insisted that Harding did not die in office as history indicated on a flight to Alaska — a natural death.

Instead, he insisted that Harding’s wife had murdered him because of his constant affairs. He could never convince his fellow academics of his hypothesis.

He was, however, right about the affairs. As a recent story indicated, Harding’s list of mistresses was indeed long and crazy.

Author James David Robenalt

James Robenalt is a lawyer who also writes for a living. One of his books is entitled “The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage During the Great War.”

A president and espionage? Well, he makes his thesis clear in an Op-Ed in the Washington Post published on Sunday,

Warren G. Harding became the nation’s 29th president in 1921 while paying not one, but two women to keep affairs he had with them secret …

One of Harding’s paramours was a woman who had been followed during World War I as a likely German spy. The other, a much younger woman, had given birth to Harding’s child in 1919 while he was serving as a U.S. senator from Ohio.

Harding’s payments to these women probably did not violate the campaign finance laws of the time, but certainly had these affairs been exposed to the public, he would not have obtained the Republican nomination for president in the summer of 1920, nor could he have survived a revelation during the campaign that fall. So secrecy was paramount.

James D. Robenalt, A century before Trump, a president paid

a mistress to stay silent,” Washington Post, April 2, 2023

Ranked as one of the worst presidents

However, it was not the womanizing that destroyed Harding’s reputation. He is routinely ranked among the worst five presidents of all time by historians.


First, the scandals were unbelievable. I remember learning in high school history about the Teapot Dome scandal. However, it was worse than that,

Once in the White House, the 29th president busied himself with golf, poker, and his mistress, while appointees and cronies plundered the U.S. government in a variety of creative ways. (His secretary of the interior allowed oilmen, for a modest under-the-table sum, to tap into government oil reserves, including one in Teapot Dome, Wyo.)

"I have no trouble with my enemies," Harding once said, adding that it was his friends who "keep me walking the floor nights."

Jay Tolson, “Worst Presidents: Warren G. Harding (1921-23),

U.S. News and World Report, Feb. 16, 2007

However, even worse was what the presidencies of Harding and the man who succeeded him, Calvin Coolidge, did to America. Their economic policies, particularly laissez-faire (lack of regulation) and tax cuts that kept money out of the government’s hands led directly to the stock market crash of 1929 — and to the Great Depression. I also learned that at Penn State from another professor.

The affairs

While the names of Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal have been and will continue to be, household words, these affairs were not as well known.

He was a womanizer par excellence,

One of them, with his neighbor Carrie Phillips, lasted 15 years.

It started in 1905 in Marion, Ohio, when Harding was the editor of the local newspaper, the Marion Star, and Carrie was married to his friend Jim Phillips, who ran a dry goods store. It continued as Harding campaigned for and served as a U.S. senator and, eventually, ran for president. Through it all, Harding wrote love letters to Carrie, long missives filled with moony sentiment, erotic longing and sometimes despair.

James D. Robenalt, Washington Post, April 2, 2023

Nan Britton

Then, another woman arrived after the affair with Carrie ended in Berlin, Germany. Carrie was rumored to be a German spy, but you will have to read Robenalt’s story to understand that.

As for the other scandal, here it is,

“… {A] young woman named Nan Britton, also from Marion, sought out Harding for assistance in finding a job after high school. The two became lovers. Then Nan became pregnant …

Nan Britton, with her 1-year-old, Elizabeth Ann, also was in need of support. In the weeks after Harding’s election, Nan’s sister Elizabeth visited Harding in Marion to discuss what to do about Nan’s situation. Elizabeth and her husband had agreed to adopt the baby, but Elizabeth would need money. Harding offered her $300 per month. Nan was resistant to the adoption, but it was finally arranged …

Just before Harding left for his final trip in the summer of 1923 — a cross-country excursion through the West and into Alaska — Elizabeth came to the White House. According to a document Elizabeth dictated to her mother, Harding gave her $3,000.

James D. Robenalt, Washington Post, April 2, 2023

Harding was essentially paying off two women to keep quiet.

So, Professor Murray was right about Harding’s womanizing. However, he could never convince anyone that his wife had murdered him.

The truth today historically is that Harding was ranked as 43rd out of 45 presidents in ranking, and history has treated him as he deserved to be treated: As a loser.

7 views0 comments


bottom of page