He wrote her poetry, called her “sis,” and, at the end, hotly defended his decision to vote in support of entering World War I, saying he was doing it to keep America safe and urging her to keep her pro-German views a little more discreet.
Her writings, meanwhile, have largely disappeared, save a few drafts and notes left behind.
But the love letters between America’s 29th president, Marion native Warren Harding, and Carrie Fulton Phillips, the wife of one of his good friends, opened to the public for the first time Tuesday by the Library of Congress, reveal a man deeply passionate about both his lover and the policies he supported.
Those letters — approximately 1,000 pages in total — were kept for decades after they were written, first in a closet in Phillips’ home, then under close secrecy by the Library of Congress. An agreement between the Harding family and the Library of Congress permitted their release on July 29, 2014 — approximately 50 years after an Ohio probate judge ordered them sealed at the family’s request.
“There are times when I wish he had sealed them for 75 years,” quipped Richard Harding, Harding’s grand-nephew and the son of the man who fought for the letters to be sealed.
He said the family released the letters “with some ambivalence, but a sense of history.”
For Ohioans, the letters may take on extra meaning because the 1920 race featured two Ohioans, Harding and Ohio Gov. James M. Cox. Harding was also the last Ohioan to be elected president.
Harding said despite the “titillating” nature of some of the letters, he was hopeful that historians would “use all the information to reassess the measure of the man.”
“Warren Harding does not need protection,” he said. “He needs honest, hard-working and fair historians to tell us the story as they see it.”
While Phillips and Harding were lovers from 1905 through 1920, the letters span a 10-year window of that time – 1910 through 1920, the period when Harding served as Ohio’s lieutenant governor and as a U.S. senator. The affair ended before he became president. Harding never left his wife, Florence.
In sometimes flowery, sometimes lurid prose, Harding wrote of his “mad, tender, devoted, ardent, eager, passion-wild, jealous, reverent, wistful, hungry, happy” love for Phillips.
“My Darling,” he wrote on the back of a portrait of himself, dated Dec. 24, 1910. “there are no words, at my command, sufficient to say the full extent of my love for you.”
In another, he writes her three pages of poetry, listing everything he loves about her. And in another, he sends her a long list of code words, lest their correspondence be discovered.
Most of the letters are from Harding — one is 41 pages long — but the collection does include some drafts and notes from Phillips. Some of the Harding letters are written on Senate letterhead and some are written on Harding Publishing stationery. Harding was the publisher of the Marion Star.
The letters range from passionate – Harding writes of Phillips’ “thrilling lips” – to petulant. At one point, irked by something she wrote, Harding replied, “Feeling as you do, we ought not meet…I used to argue to myself that deep in your heart you did not feel all the resentment and indifference which you utter, and now I know that you do.”
The relationship was also troubled by political disagreements. Phillips, who spent three years living in Germany, was sympathetic to the Germans and pressured Harding not to support the U.S. entry into World War I. But Harding, then a U.S. senator, voted to enter the war anyway, and fiercely defended his position.
“I have pondered the situation with soberness and solemnity ever mindful of the great responsibility,” Harding wrote to Phillips on March 25, 1917, about the looming war vote. “How unthinking and unfair you are when you accuse me of playing politics! I represent a state with hundreds of thousands of German Republicans. Nobody knows better than I do that I seal my political fate by displeasing them. I know it makes me a one-term official to oppose their desires, but I prefer to perform a duty in good conscience even though I know it means the end of my public service.”
But though their relations were tense before the war, Harding and Phillips remained in contact even after they broke off their affair. In 1920, reflecting on their breakup he wrote: “There was no cheating. We both understood. We were both married. No lies were told. We felt the sense of family obligations. Happily there has been no irreparable damage.”
Phillips, her husband and her mother visited Harding in the White House in 1922, according to the Library of Congress. Harding died of a heart attack in August 1923, his administration engulfed in the Teapot Dome scandal that sent a member of the cabinet, Secretary of Interior Albert B. Fall, to prison.
The letters became the subject of a court fight after Phillips’ death.
In 1956, Phillips, her health failing, moved into a nursing home in Marion, where she died four years later. Her lawyer found the letters in her house, and released them to a Harding biographer in 1963.
The Harding family was outraged. They fought the release of the letters in court, and in 1964, an Ohio probate judge closed the papers. After years in court, the Harding family bought the letters from the Phillips family. In 1972, George Harding, Harding’s nephew, donated the letters to the Library of Congress, with one stipulation: they could not release them publicly until July 29, 2014, which would be 50 years from the day the probate judge first closed them. They have been locked in a vault in the Library’s Manuscript Division until today.
Though the letters are valuable to historians, it’s hard to get past the descriptions of sex, real or imagined, coming from the pen of a future American president.
The letters reveal a man who referred to his lover as “Sis,” and who signed his letters “WGH,” “Gov,” and “Constant,” among other nicknames. He sometimes used the name “Pouterson” to refer to the two of them and Mrs. Pouterson to refer to her.
On Christmas Eve in 1910 he wrote: “I love you more than all the world and have no hope of reward on earth or hereafter so precious as that in your dear arms, your thrilling lips, in your matchless breasts, in your incomparable embrace.”
Excerpts of Hardings letters to Phillips
* Harding to Phillips, on the back of his portrait photo, Dec. 24, 1910: “My Darling, There are no words, at my command, sufficient to say the full extent of my love for you …”
* Harding to Phillips, Jan. 26, 1915, from San Francisco’s Palace Hotel (where Harding died in 1923), regarding their correspondence: “Won’t you please destroy? You are not always careful with letters, and if you destroy, you won’t need to be careful.”
* Harding to Phillips, Feb. 2 1920: “We have blundered. We will not talk about the blame. I accept my full share of it. We did blunder. I give you the most tribute that a man can. There was no cheating. We both understood. We were both married. No lies were told. We felt the sense of family obligations. Happily there has been no irreparable damage.”