World Book Encyclopedia; Quarrie Corpoation
NAME: Florence Kling Harding
DATE OF BIRTH: August 15, 1860
PLACE OF BIRTH: Marion, Ohio
FAMILY BACKGROUND: Florence was the eldest child of Amos Kling and Louisa Bouton Kling; her younger brothers were Clifford and Vetallis. Her father owned a hardware store, which led to his owning other businesses and banks, making him the wealthiest man in Marion. Her father was extremely tyrannical and her mother, depressed and submissive. If the Kling children did not meet curfew, Amos would lock their mansion doors and expect them to care for themselves until morning.
At the age of 19, Florence became pregnant by her young boyfriend, Henry Atherton DeWolfe, a neighbor one year older than she -- most likely to gain freedom from her father. They eloped in March of 1880, moved to Galion, Ohio, and on September 22, 1880, she gave birth to a son, Marshall. Henry turned out to be a spendthrift and a heavy drinker who left her on December 22, 1882. She returned to Marion with Marshall. Refusing to ask her father for help, and he also refusing to help her, Florence instead rented a room and began giving piano lessons. After two years of this, Amos finally asked her to move back with Marshall, suggesting both she and her son go by her maiden name Kling. Florence refused. In September 1884, she filed for separation. Amos then proposed another offer. He would not support Florence raising Marshall, but he would take his grandson as his own, easing her financial hardship. Florence agreed. She and Henry were divorced in 1886.
From this whole ordeal, Florence developed a lifelong empathy for people struggling against society's expectations, and refused to judge the choices people made when attempting to survive. The seeds of feminism were also planted; developing strong beliefs about the rights and abilities of women to determine their own futures without male interference. "No man, father, brother, lover or husband can ruin my life," she said. "I claim the right to live the life the good Lord gave me, myself."
attended the public schools in Marion and also received training in
finance by her father. He firmly believed women should learn business
methods so they could earn a living if needed. From the time she could
walk, Amos had her at his hardware store, watching and learning everything.
Florence loved her business work, but the reality of society meant she
would never hold a powerful position or have independent prosperity. She
was also a skilled horsewoman, was physically strong, yet also skilled
in the womanly arts of needlepoint and housekeeping. After graduating
from high school in 1876, and already showing great musical talent,
Florence attended the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. However, Amos
ordered her back home within the first year.
Unlike other First Ladies, Florence's own career helped to establish her husband's success as a politician. She became the driving force behind the growth and establishment of his newspaper as one of the leading papers in Ohio. She stopped teaching piano after they married and began going to work with Warren and looking at the accounting, whereupon he put her in charge of circulation. She organized local boys as news carriers, even spanking them when necessary, and devised Marion's first home delivery service. She was confidante, big sister and boss to the boys, even sending them baskets and a top doctor when they were ill. She boosted their self-esteem, and organized a social club and a value system, with awards for achievements and demerits for bad work. She increased the paper's revenue immediately and consistently.
In 1894, Warren checked into Dr. J.H. Kellogg's famous Battle Creek Sanitarium for the second time (he first went there in 1889). While he was gone, the business manager quit. Florence took over and never left. It was the opportunity she had been waiting for. "I had always told Warren that he wasn't getting the money out of his circulation that he should get," she said. "The papers were just sold over the counter in the business office. There was no delivery. I went down there intending to help out for a few days, and I stayed fourteen years."
When Warren returned to the paper fulltime, he was amazed at her success. At home, she nursed him, trying to prevent another relapse. Warren realized how much he needed her, both at home and work, and his respect for her opinion and independence cemented their marriage. Through Warren, Florence saw the promise of her own aspirations flourish. His optimism, sense of humor and conversationalist skills had an effect on her, bringing the same out of her. His name for her was "The Duchess."
With his charm and ease in conversing, Warren would travel about on free railroad passes he received as editor, attending Ohio Republican meetings and caucuses, where he spoke and introduced others. (The Republican party was newly dominant in Ohio.) He became very popular and a transition into politics seemed only natural. He first became state senator, then lieutenant governor, and won election to the U.S. Senate in 1915. Florence was closely involved in each of his campaigns and, with each success, her pride in and ambition for her husband grew.
When he was nominated as a presidential candidate in the 1920 campaign, Florence enthusiastically backed him. But secretly she was concerned that Warren's extramarital affairs would be exposed. He had had many affairs, including a 15-year relationship with Florence's childhood friend, Carrie Phillips (the only known mistress in U.S. history to successfully blackmail a president), and his Senate aide Grace Cross (who was unsuccessful in her blackmail attempt). He had also begun another relationship in 1917 with Nan Britton, almost 30 years younger than Warren, and which would last throughout his presidency, even allegedly producing a daughter, Elizabeth Ann, in 1919. (Nan received financial support from Warren until he died; then she failed in trying to secure money from the Harding estate after Florence died, so she wrote "The President's Daughter," a tell-all published in 1927.)
Florence was also concerned about her age (now 60) and her health. She had had a kidney removed in 1905 and was prone to debilitating infections. But she put all her concerns aside and campaigned vigorously, even fostering the first use of Hollywood movie stars in a presidential race. The people, weary from The Great War, responded to Warren's campaign slogan, "Back to Normalcy," and elected him in a landslide victory. Florence became the first First Lady to vote for her husband becoming president. (Interestingly, Warren had actually voted against the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.)
The White House and grounds had been closed during Woodrow Wilson's presidency, so Florence delighted in opening them to the public again and exhausting herself with a lively social calendar. Popular events were garden parties for veterans and group tours. She also visited injured veterans in the hospital. (With Prohibition in effect, the Hardings held dry receptions downstairs, while upstairs guests enjoyed liquor and poker games.)
She always maintained her independence, proving to be one of the great feminists of the day. She was her husband's key advisor, was involved in many charities, and crusaded for women's rights. She was the first First Lady to fly in an airplane (and with a woman pilot, no less), and was the first First Lady to appear in newsreels without the president. At the White House, she invited other active women scholars, minds and athletes. In one letter to a women's group, she commented about the partnership between a husband and a wife and their careers:
"If the career is the husband's, the wife can merge her own with it. If it is to be the wife's, as it undoubtedly will be in an increasing proportion of cases, then the husband may, with no sacrifice of self-respect or of recognition, ... permit himself to be the less prominent and distinguished member of the combination."
Despite convention, Warren himself always stressed the influential role his wife had in his career and his deep respect due to her guidance. Due to her influence over appointments, the Veterans Bureau was born under the direction of Charles Forbes. Forbes eventually showed himself to be a criminal, convicted for collusion and profiteering. His corruption was a wounding betrayal. Unfortunately, other scandals were coming to light as well, through many of Warren's appointments of Ohio cronies -- the biggest scandal being the Tea Pot Dome Scandal (in which Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall had leased three naval oil reserves, including Tea Pot Dome in Wyoming, to private oil companies without bids in exchange for a bribe).
Rumors of scandals prompted the Hardings to begin a public relations tour, a transcontinental trip called "Voyage of Understanding" in 1923. They visited Alaska and Canada, and were heading east from the west coast when Warren became ill and died on August 2, 1923, in San Francisco. Opinions differ that he died of anxiety about the scandals, a stroke, heart attack, food poisoning or from deliberate poisoning by Florence. The fact that she refused to allow an autopsy of the president contributed to suspicion of her. The official cause of Warren's death is listed as a stroke.
Florence returned to Washington by train with her husband's body. The public, still unaware of the expanse of the impending scandals, greeted the funeral procession in droves. After Warren's death, she tried to preserve their reputations by burning every personal paper she could find. She then returned to Marion, Ohio, where she died of kidney disease 15 months after Warren's death.
DATE OF DEATH: November 21, 1924
PLACE OF DEATH: Marion, Ohio
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza. Florence Harding: the First Lady, the Jazz Age, and the Death of America's Most Scandalous President. New York: W. Morrow & Co., 1998
Warren G. Harding Papers [Housed at the Ohio Historical Society]
Presented by Lakewood Public Library