President Warren G. Harding’s Lover Publishes Tell-All Memoir Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In her 1927 book The President’s Daughter, Nan Britton spoke of her longtime romantic affair with U.S. president Warren G. Harding. Britton claimed she had had sex with Harding in the White House and that Harding had fathered her daughter. The affair was the first sex scandal involving a U.S. president revealed not by the press but through a book’s publication.

Summary of Event

After the tumult of World War I, much of the United States wanted to move back to a simpler and quieter era. It seemed that Warren G. Harding would provide that comfort when he was elected president in 1920. However, Harding’s administration was wracked by scandal, and the Roaring Twenties, as the name suggests, were anything but quiet. Harding-administration scandals included personal indiscretions and misconduct by his political appointees. Harding’s mistress, Nan Britton, published an account of her trysts with him in her 1927 book The President’s Daughter. [kw]Harding’s Lover Publishes Tell-All Memoir, President Warren G. (1927) Britton, Nan Harding, Warren G. Blaesing, Elizabeth Ann President’s Daughter, The (Britton)[Presidents Daughter, The (Britton)] Britton, Nan Harding, Warren G. Blaesing, Elizabeth Ann President’s Daughter, The (Britton)[Presidents Daughter, The (Britton)] [g]United States;1927: President Warren G. Harding’s Lover Publishes Tell-All Memoir[00410] [c]Publishing and journalism;1927: President Warren G. Harding’s Lover Publishes Tell-All Memoir[00410] [c]Government;1927: President Warren G. Harding’s Lover Publishes Tell-All Memoir[00410] [c]Politics;1927: President Warren G. Harding’s Lover Publishes Tell-All Memoir[00410] [c]Public morals;1927: President Warren G. Harding’s Lover Publishes Tell-All Memoir[00410] [c]Sex;1927: President Warren G. Harding’s Lover Publishes Tell-All Memoir[00410]

Nan Britton and her daughter, Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, in 1931.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Harding was not considered to be presidential material in 1920 by most political pundits. The Republicans had been unable to agree on a first-rate presidential candidate but settled on him as their next-best choice. Harding benefited from the nation’s rejection of Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats, and he promised a return to better times, or, in Harding’s terms, “normalcy.” The new president, however, had long been distanced from middle-class America’s public definition of “normalcy.” Harding had been cheating on his wife for nearly two decades, generally with his first mistress, Phillips, Carrie Carrie Phillips, and he also enjoyed a good poker game, with drinking, even while the nation was deep in Prohibition.

Harding’s second long-term mistress was Britton, who was about thirty years younger than the president. Britton had met him in 1912, and their affair began in 1916. It continued throughout his service in the U.S. Senate (which lasted until he became president). It was while Harding was a senator that one of the most disputed events allegedly took place. Britton gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth Ann Britton Blaesing, in 1919 and then claimed in The President’s Daughter that Harding was the father.

The Britton affair was but one of many unacceptable actions by the president. Most people in the United States, after finding out about the affair, also condemned the frequent poker parties and drinking at the White House. However, because the press was much less investigatory during the 1920’s, most of his indiscretions remained virtually unnoticed by the public. Harding was not as hands-on as other presidents, and he delegated much of his work to his cabinet secretaries and aides. Also, Harding was not interested in remaking the world or substantially remaking the United States—after all, he had promised normalcy, not change. He was interested, though, in continuing his life and affairs, particularly the one with Britton. The office sometimes wore on Harding, and he allegedly once remarked that the presidency was “one hell of a job.”

Harding’s appointment of Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall Fall, Albert B. turned out to be a bad one, as Fall was caught taking a Bribery;Albert Fall bribe to arrange for oil leases to government land (the infamous Teapot Teapot Dome scandal Dome scandal). Harding, Warren G. [p]Harding, Warren G.;and Teapot Dome scandal[Teapot Dome scandal] Harding’s administration found itself in the middle of controversy by 1923. To address and counteract the controversy (and in part to get away from it), Harding began a speaking tour of the West Coast. In San Francisco;Warren Harding’s death San Francisco, California, he collapsed and died after suffering either a heart attack or stroke.

Harding’s quick death, combined with Britton’s personal allegations, led some to suspect that his wife, Florence, had poisoned him, but that theory was not given much credence. Harding’s wife died the following year. The nation quickly forgot about the Hardings until 1927, when Britton published her tell-all book, revealing her escapades with Harding. Throughout her life, Britton had been smitten with the president, which she reveals in her memoir. However, this revelation did not help her effort, which she said was aimed at providing for herself and her daughter. The book caused an immediate scandal. Previous scandals had merely been whispered about and were kept from the press.

To refute Britton’s claims, Anton Shrewsbury Jenks Jenks, Anton Shrewsbury published A Dead President Makes Answer to “The President’s Daughter” (1929). That same year, a lawsuit was filed by Britton against those who backed the claims in Jenks’s book. Britton could not prove her claims, and the attorney hired by her opponents painted her as vile, out for money, and a person who had created the entire affair and was besmirching Florence Harding’s good name (and, thus, speaking ill of two dead people). Regardless of the truth, Harding’s earlier affair shows that he was indeed a cheater. Claiming that Britton was lying about her affair helped win the lawsuit, but that claim likely had little truth.

Britton’s allegations about her daughter’s paternity were never proven, but most scholars do accept that Britton had an affair with Harding. The question remains whether the details in Britton’s book support her affair with Harding. Most historians believe that those White House particulars were mostly imagined, even while believing in the existence of the affair and his possible paternity. Britton’s daughter, coincidentally, was not interested in discovering her father’s identity. The situation became even more complicated because many of Harding’s personal letters and papers were sealed by court order (until 2023) and because Florence Harding burned some of his other papers to protect his reputation. The sealed papers generally consist of love letters between Harding and his first mistress, Phillips.

Impact

The Harding-Britton affair marked the first sex scandal involving a U.S. president revealed through a book’s publication. However, this was not the first highly publicized scandal, as U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant’s affairs were well known during his administration, nor was it the first time that a president slept with someone not his wife.

Britton’s book also provides insight into the gender relations of the time: During the trial and after, Britton was condemned for trying to make money off the scandal and for suggesting that a president would be adulterous, even while the evidence was clearly there that Harding had not been faithful to his wife. Phillips’s experiences, for those who do not find Britton’s case convincing enough, suggest that Harding did have extramarital affairs, and Harding’s character implies that Britton very well could have been telling the truth. Finally, the sealed Phillips letters suggest that Harding’s extramarital affairs will remain a vital topic.

This scandal also has relevance for studies of the lives and times of U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and John F. Clinton, Bill [p]Clinton, Bill;and Monica Lewinsky[Lewinsky] Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;extramarital affairs Kennedy. Clinton’s administration was marred by his affair with Monica Lewinsky, and Kennedy likely had extramarital affairs as well. Britton, Nan Harding, Warren G. Blaesing, Elizabeth Ann President’s Daughter, The (Britton)[Presidents Daughter, The (Britton)]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anthony, Carl Sferrazza. Florence Harding: The First Lady, the Jazz Age, and the Death of America’s Most Scandalous President. New York: Morrow, 1998. Anthony paints a favorable picture of Florence Harding by showing her rise to prominence and also notes her advocacy of many different causes. In many ways, according to Anthony, Florence was the first modern first lady.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dean, John W. Warren G. Harding. New York: Times Books, 2004. This book, written by the John W. Dean of Watergate infamy, attempts to revive Harding’s image. It argues that Harding was indeed involved in his administration and was not a problem drinker or extreme womanizer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ferrell, Robert H. The Strange Deaths of President Harding. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996. This work attempts to improve Harding’s reputation and presents a very favorable view of him. It argues that he knew little about the Teapot Dome scandal, and it discounts his affair with Britton.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murray, Robert K. The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration. Edited by Katherine Spiers. Newton, Conn.: American Political Biography Press, 2000. Originally published in 1969, this work refutes reports that Harding was a major player in the scandals of his administration and attempts to resurrect his reputation.

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