Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Mrs. Clinton Could Relate to Mrs. Harding's Troubles

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Mrs. Clinton Could Relate to Mrs. Harding's Troubles

Article excerpt

FLORENCE HARDING: THE FIRST LADY, THE JAZZ AGE AND THE DEATH OF AMERICA'S MOST SCANDALOUS PRESIDENT

By Carl S. Anthony.

William Morrow

626 pp., $30

People titillated by the controversies and scandals surrounding the Clintons will be enthralled by this encyclopedic biography of Florence Harding, wife of America's mediocre 29th president.

Her life story makes for fascinating reading. An opinionated, domineering woman who consulted astrologers and palm readers, she was the force behind husband Warren's business career and later directed his successful 1920 presidential campaign. On the day they moved into the White House, she was overheard saying, "I got you the presidency, now what are you going to do?"

Such qualities prompted Life magazine in 1922 to caption a cartoon of the presidential couple: "The Chief Executive and Mr. Harding."

Florence's imperious personality led Warren to nickname her 'Duchess.' He loved and needed her but looked elsewhere for recreation and sexual fulfillment. Harding spent much of his married life carousing with male drinking buddies (even during the prohibition era) and having affairs with a gallery of other women.

Harding also paid hush money to a former mistress who threatened to publish his salacious love letters. Florence's friend Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the acid-tongued daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, concluded that "Harding was not a bad man. He was just a slob."

Biographer Carl Anthony, a former speechwriter for Nancy Reagan and a veteran chronicler of presidential wives, argues that Florence Harding deserved better. "If she could be judged on her own merits," he declares, "I think Florence would really rise to the top as one of the greatest first ladies."

After all, he points out, she was remarkably progressive. She invited African-Americans and immigrants to the White House and opened the presidential mansion to the general public.

She broke precedent to join her husband on the campaign trail and gave her own speeches and press conferences. She also lobbied for female suffrage, promoted equal business and social opportunities for women, encouraged women to exercise and compete in sports, played a major role in the selection and management of Cabinet officials, and became an impassioned advocate for wounded World War I veterans.

Born in Marion, Ohio, in 1860, Florence was the daughter of Amos Kling, a rising young merchant-banker who wanted a son. Yet the tomboyish Florence became her tyrannical father's favorite.

She learned how to run a business, traveled, rode horses, and hunted with him. In the process, she took on many of his personality traits. Friends and relatives described her as shrewd, ambitious, willful, and domineering. She herself noted that she was 'something like a man.'

In an adolescent effort to assert her independence, 19-year-old Florence took up with a young wastrel named Henry De Wolfe, and became pregnant. …

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