Harding, Florence Kling
Florence Kling Harding
American First Lady Florence Kling Harding (1860-1924) used her determined, strong personality to support the political aspirations of her second husband, President Warren G. Harding. Harding survived early setbacks, including a teenage pregnancy and estrangement from her family, to become one of the best-known women of her time as First Lady. After her husband's much-criticized Presidency was cut short by his death, Harding burned many of his papers, causing a controversy that followed her into history.
Showed Youthful Determination
Neither of Florence Kling Harding's parents were native Ohioans. Her father, Amos Kling, originally came from a farming family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In his youth he settled in Ohio, and at the age of 24 purchased his first business in Marion, Ohio. He later became a banker and real estate owner. Both his business acumen and his difficult, somewhat tyrannical nature were widely acknowledged. Harding's mother, Louisa Bouton Kling, came from a colonial family that had helped found the city of New Canaan, Connecticut. She left her family's home in 1859 to marry Amos Kling. The couple had met earlier that year during a visit Kling made to a friend in New Canaan. The couple's first child, Florence Mabel Kling, was born on August 15, 1860, in Marion.
Amos Kling had hoped his first child would be a boy, and was determined to raise his daughter as though she were a son. Indeed, Florence—soon nicknamed “Flossie”— became a tomboy with an assertive, willful temperament to match her father's. Even after the births of her brothers, Clifford Bouton and Vetallis Hanford, in 1861 and 1866, respectively, the young girl remained her father's favorite. Louisa Kling had become something of an invalid as a result of illness or perhaps depression, and Amos became the primary presence in his daughter's life. From the local schools, young Florence learned math, science, English, history, philosophy, and other academic subjects; from her father, she learned banking and business practices. Her mother's only apparent contribution to her psyche was a talent for music. Following her education in Marion, Harding spent a year studying at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.
Survived Difficult Years
After returning to Marion, Harding became involved with a young local man named Henry “Pete” DeWolfe. This involvement led to a pregnancy in 1880, and the couple left Marion together for the state capital with the intent of marrying. Contrary to popular legend, no records exist to confirm that Harding and Pete DeWolfe ever legally married. However, the couple did live together as husband and wife in the town of Galion, Ohio. Their son, Eugene, was born in September of that same year. However, the DeWolfes' marriage was a difficult one; Pete DeWolfe drank heavily, and after only two years deserted his wife and child. Left alone and impoverished, Harding returned to Marion.
There, she lived apart from her family, teaching piano in order to support herself and her son. Amos Kling was enraged at his daughter's behavior and refused to support her, although Louisa Kling and the DeWolfe family did provide some financial support. In 1884 Amos Kling offered to take Harding's son—called Marshall rather than Eugene by his family—and raise him as his own. Harding accepted the offer. As Carl Sferazza Anthony noted in Florence Harding: The First Lady, the Jazz Age, and the Death of America's Most Scandalous President, “although there would be holidays, vacation trips, and overnight visits with her in a new life, when she let go of Marshall in 1884, she essentially ended her obligations of motherhood.” In June of 1886, Harding filed for divorce from DeWolfe.
Married a Budding Politician
In 1890 Florence met Warren G. Harding, the new owner of a local newspaper, the Marion Star, and became romantically interested in him. Five years younger than Florence, Harding was an easygoing, attractive womanizer who seemed an odd match for the driven, plain divorcee. Neither the Kling nor the Harding family approved of the couple's relationship; when the pair married on July 8, 1891, Amos Kling did not attend the wedding.
Their marriage was one based more on business than on romance. Florence Harding became head of the circulation department of the Marion Star, and according to her biography in Biography Resource Center Online, “She was a penny-pincher and a domineering force who reportedly spanked a newsboy on at least one occasion.” She managed the business side of the newspaper effectively, building circulation and allowing her husband the freedom to focus on his editorial duties. Florence Harding brought the same fierce persona to her marriage, and Warren Harding often complained that his wife nagged him incessantly; he called her “The Duchess” and she referred to him as “Wurr'n.” However, her determination buoyed Harding as he embarked on his political career.
In 1899 Warren Harding was elected to the Ohio state senate, bolstered by the success of the Marion Star. Five years later he became Ohio's lieutenant governor. Florence Harding was well aware of her husband's failings: laziness, indecisiveness, and an inclination to drink and womanize. Warren Harding also suffered from heart problems and nerves, while Florence Harding had significant kidney problems-she may have had a kidney removed in the early 1900s-as well as a weak heart. Despite any misgivings she may have had about her husband's abilities, Florence Harding helped manage Warren Harding's election campaigns and gave him political advice while he was in office. As Robert P. Watson commented in First Ladies of the United States: A Biographical Dictionary, after Warren Harding lost the 1910 election for governor of Ohio, Florence Harding “pushed him back into the political scene, and even courted important contacts for him.” The loss caused Warren Harding to consider leaving politics; without Florence Harding's efforts of his behalf, it seems unlikely that he would have successfully run for a seat in the United States Senate in 1914.
Moved to the Capital
In 1915 Florence Harding moved to Washington, D.C., with her husband. At first she felt isolated from the social and political life of the capital. However, she became a close friend of Evalyn Walsh McLean, a prominent hostess and socialite who was married to the owner of the
Washington Post and the Cincinnati Enquirer. McLean helped Florence Harding become acquainted with other important Washingtonians and build her personal network.
As a political wife, Harding supported the war effort after the United States' entry into World War I in 1917. She helped women from her native Ohio locate housing in the capital, and passed out coffee and sandwiches to men preparing to depart for the front in Europe. However, Florence Harding found her calling when accompanying McLean on visits to Walter Reed Naval Hospital in Washington. There, veterans wounded in European combat recuperated; for the rest of her life, Harding maintained an interest in veterans' affairs, hoping to help her “boys” as much as possible. Anthony commented that “the ‘boys’ became her work and purpose …. She found a sense of personal satisfaction that had long been sorely lacking in her life.”
After the close of World War I, Warren Harding decided to run for President, encouraged by leading Ohio Republican politician Harry Daugherty. At first, Florence Harding was against her husband's candidacy, perhaps believing him incapable of winning or even effectively serving should he attain the office. Watson noted Warren Harding's “lackluster Senate career marked more by missing votes than by legislative leadership.” In early 1920, however, she visited an astrologer, Madame Marcia Champrey, who told her that Warren Harding would one day become President but not live to complete his term. After this visit—although perhaps not necessarily due to it—Florence Harding began working with Daugherty on her husband's campaign.
Florence Harding was instrumental in creating her husband's public persona as a regular American during his “Front Porch” campaign; whether she knew that the campaign paid out a large sum of money to Carrie Phillips, Warren Harding's longtime mistress, in order to ensure her silence, seems debatable. In November of 1920, Florence Harding joined the wide majority of voters who selected Warren G. Harding over fellow Ohioan and newspaper publisher James M. Cox as the twenty-ninth president of the United States. Because the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, had become law only months before the election, Florence Harding was the first woman to vote for her husband in a presidential election.
As First Lady, Florence Harding was both publicly prominent and privately influential. She helped her husband select Cabinet members prior to his inauguration in March of 1921. Throughout Harding's presidency, his wife advised him on policy matters and wrote his speeches. As an advocate of gender equality, she helped bring continued public attention to women's issues. Florence Harding's support for her “boys” surely helped bring about the creation of the Veterans' Bureau (the precursor of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs) during the Harding administration. She became greatly popular with the general public, reopening the White House to tours (it had been closed during World War I) and often appearing in newsreels with her dog, Laddie.
However, Florence Harding—called “Ma” or “the boss” by those close to the President—also served as bartender for her husband and his friends during their frequent poker games. She disliked Vice President Calvin Coolidge and his wife, and treated them poorly; many of the president's staff disliked the First Lady intensely. Warren Harding's affairs continued during his presidency, and his wife often helped silence the women involved. Neither of the Hardings could halt the growing corruption within the administration. Although Harding himself apparently did not profit from any of the scandalous deals that occurred during his administration, he could not control the members of his Cabinet. During the summer of 1923, as Warren Harding became concerned about the increasing possibility that the corruption within his White House would become public knowledge, the Hardings traveled to the western part of the United States. Years of poor health, exacerbated by food poisoning and stress, finally caught up with the president, who died from heart failure and a cerebral hemorrhage on August 2, 1923.
Death and Scandal
After Warren Harding's death, speculation that he had been poisoned by one of many people—including his wife—became common. Some suspected that Florence Harding had poisoned her husband, either to protect him from potential impeachment proceedings or to punish him for his continued marital infidelities. However, no evidence exists that his death was not a natural one.
Florence Harding returned to Marion, Ohio, to arrange for her husband's funeral. After his funeral, however, she immediately returned to Washington, D.C., where she stayed with McLean. While in Washington, she destroyed many of the president's papers, presumably hoping to salvage some of the remaining shreds of his dignity. In Anthony's biography Harding is quoted as saying, “We must be loyal to Warren and preserve his memory.”
Soon after burning her husband's papers, Florence Harding returned to Ohio. Her health had been poor for years and continued to deteriorate. On November 21, 1924, Harding died as a result of her failing heart and kidneys. Watson noted that Harding “is remembered as an active, assertive, nontraditional woman but also as a failed first lady.” Florence Harding's unusual life, from single mother to controversial First Lady, often seems overshadowed by the somewhat dramatic circumstances of her husband's presidency and death. However, Florence Harding's influence on history and on the office of the First Lady cannot be ignored.
American First Ladies, edited by Robert P. Watson, Salem, 2002.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza, Florence Harding: The First Lady, the Jazz Age, and the Death of America's Most Scandalous President, William Morrow and Company, 1998.
Watson, Robert P., First Ladies of the United States: A Biographical Dictionary, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001.
Biography Resource Center Online, Gale Group, 2002, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet.BioRc (November 19, 2007).
“Florence Kling Harding,” The White House: Biography of Florence Kling Harding, http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/firstladies/fh29.html (November 19, 2007).