Dismissed as a failure and all but forgotten, President Warren G. Harding has re-emerged as a much more interesting man over the past 13 months.
Just over a year ago, the Library of Congress released a trove of steamy love letters that Harding wrote to his mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips, in the decade before he became the nation’s 29th president. (How steamy? Let’s just say they feature a character named Jerry, and it’s a body part, not a person.) And on Thursday, The New York Times broke the news that DNA testing had confirmed that Harding, who was married for 33 years until his death in 1923, had fathered a child with a second paramour, Nan Britton, during the same period in which he was penning love notes to Phillips.
The revelation may cement Harding’s place alongside Clinton and Kennedy as the nation’s top presidential philanderers, but it does not come as a shock to historians. “No, he was a womanizer,” said Heather Cox Richardson, a professor at Boston College and author of a recent history of the Republican Party. “It’s absolutely no surprise he fathered a daughter out of wedlock.”
Harding served for just over half a term before he dropped dead of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1923, and even in that short time, he had already earned a “bad boy” image, Richardson said. “By the time he died, rumors had circulated that he was poisoned by his wife,” she said. Four years later, Britton published a scandalous book, “The President’s Child,” in which she named Harding as the father of her daughter, Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, and described their years-long affair in detail. Britton was vilified at the time, but the genetic tests now back her claim, to the satisfaction both of her own descendants and many of those of the former president, according to the Times.