Book Excerpt: ‘The Harding Affair’

By ABC News

Jul 26, 2014 3:36pm
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Palgrave Macmillan

Excerpted from The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage During the Great War by James David Robenalt. Copyright (c) 2011 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

Chapter 12: “Fate Timed That Marvelous Coincidence” 

The last moments of the year 1911 were ticking away. The bells began to ring, a few here, a scattering there, and then a grand crescendo, and the two lovers in Montreal found that the climax of their lovemaking, by pure happenstance, matched exactly the uproar all around them. Writing about the experience exactly one year later, Warren Harding could hardly find the superlatives to describe his astonishment.  ”You can guess where [my thoughts] centered,” he wrote Carrie, “—on the New Year’s beginning a year before, when the bells rang the chorus while our hearts sang the rapture without words and we greeted the New Year from the hallowed heights of heaven.” The timing was astonishing and dreamlike to both of them. “Fate timed that marvelous co- incidence,” he recalled, “it was impossible for us to have planned, and I count it to be one of the best remembered moments of my existence.”

Leading up to this sublime experience, Harding found little to be cheered about on a personal or political front. When he came back to the United States after his third European vacation, he could see the fight forming within his party. President Taft and Theodore Roosevelt were engaged in serious sparring. Taft fired Gifford Pinchot, a conservationist and the head of the U.S. Forest Service, for insubordination in the second year of his presidency and that act started the fissure with the Progressives and Roosevelt supporters. Pinchot, a close ally of Theodore Roosevelt’s, openly challenged

Taft by suggesting that the president’s secretary of the interior was in league with big-timber interests. After he was let go, Pinchot became a martyr around whom Rooseveltians rallied.

At home, not much other than work at the newspaper and some desultory speaking engagements awaited Harding. Jim Phillips, seemingly oblivious to Harding’s ongoing affair with his wife, sent Harding a belated but cheerful birthday greeting and a present on November 22.  Harding made plans to deliver a rather mundane speech in Cincinnati at a memorial service for a lodge of Elks on December 3. Nothing on the surface, at least, suggested that he was engaged in anything other than the routine of ordinary life. Yet behind the scenes, he and Carrie were making plans for her to come home, undertaking the treacherous and expensive voyage back across the Atlantic in the middle of December to rendezvous with him in New York. The logistics alone must have been daunting. Carrie had to find some accommodation for Isabelle and make up some excuse for leaving her at the holidays for several weeks. Harding also had to invent some ruse to allow him to travel, though nothing in the record hints at what he told Florence.

His letters to Carrie imply there was some heartbreak between them, a misunderstanding or drama playing out that needed to be addressed. She told him that her love began to change in 1911. After meeting up in New York, the two headed for Boston, and it was there, according to his letters, that they confronted the hurt between them and apparently resolved it (he referred to it as “a buried grief in Boston”). Whatever the cause of the pain, Boston was the cure. “If I could only have you,” he wrote to her later, “I’d kiss and caress to happiness. I’d turn the tables, reciprocating for that wondrous baptism of kisses in Boston that healed two hurting hearts.”

From Boston, they took a train to Montreal. By the time they reached there, the love spell was on, and he would write repeatedly that Montreal was “our best,” a “feast,” always associating the ethereal experience with New Year’s and new beginnings. “Wouldn’t you like to hear the New Year bells in Montreal greeting a really new and glad year for us, while we poured a libation like only Gods may pour for the goddesses of their universe?” he wrote to her. “I want to know. I want you to have the same wishes as I do. I want you to suffer the same hunger, the same wild desire.”

Despite his claim that he was through with politics after his electoral thrashing in 1910, and perhaps because of his loneliness for Carrie once she returned to Germany, Warren found himself again drawn to the game of politics. The Ohio Society in New York invited him to deliver a toast to “the Buckeye State” at their annual banquet in New York City at the end of January 1912, which he accepted. President Taft was slated to be the guest of honor. The organizer of the event wanted to avoid adding fuel to the growing division in the Republican party. “I have been particularly anxious this year to avoid political speeches and make the occasion a real home affair in honor of the President as an Honorary Member of the Ohio Society,” William Hawk wrote Harding. “I am going to try to limit the time of our speakers and avoid epoch-making speeches.” Hawk hoped Harding’s toast would be “in the lighter, optimistic vein rather than to take up the political question, which seems to be a terrible tangle.” A room for Harding was arranged at the Manhattan, one of his favorite hotels.

On Saturday, January 27, 1912, Harding checked into the Manhattan and attended a matinee showing of The Wedding Trip at the nearby Shubert Theater. Harding found the musical delightful. One of the songs—likely the duet “A Lesson in Love,” sung by the bridegroom and his widowed mother— was so memorable that Harding wrote his own doggerel verse to the tune the next day in a long love letter to Carrie.

Before composing his letter, though, he attended the Ohio Society banquet on Saturday night at the Waldorf-Astoria. Described as a “very formal evening,” the twenty-sixth annual meeting of the group saw its biggest attendance in recent years, some 800 Buckeyes and their guests, and although the reception was “noisy and cordial,” there was a real tension under the surface. Taft used the occasion to attack Theodore Roosevelt’s radical demands for the recall of unpopular judges by a vote of the people and for the reversal of judicial decisions by plebiscites if the electorate disagreed with a decision. Roosevelt’s proposal was anathema to a conservative like Taft, who had aspired his whole life to be a judge (he had been a state court judge and a judge on the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and President Harding would appoint Taft as chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States in 1922, making him the only person in American history to serve both as president and chief justice).

Taft felt Roosevelt’s proposal was nothing short of a reckless, political ploy that threatened the carefully structured separation of powers set forth in the Constitution. Speaking to an audience seated at tables filled with only men (women were relegated to boxes in the galleries surrounding the main floor), Taft was adamant in his opposition to the irresponsible Roosevelt experiment: “To take away from the courts that element of independence, that power to determine right and justice without regard to the vote of the majority of the people is utterly to destroy the administration of justice, and make it as dependent upon despotic rule as if we had one man power in this government rather than popular control.”

Harding gave his toast to Ohio before Taft spoke (the newspapers did not record its content) and then the night ended with the president leaving to attend three other functions, including a ball given by the Daughters of Jacob at the Seventy-first Regiment Armory. Harding attended a party of some sort, likely in the Waldorf, where he spoke with some women who flattered and bored him, and then he retreated to his hotel where, the next day, he wrote a love letter to Carrie. The first five pages, which do not survive, were likely a “public” letter. Carrie kept the remaining pages, including Harding’s spoof on the song from The Wedding Trip, which he could not get out of his head. “It’s a darling love song,” he wrote to her back in Berlin, “love, love, love, is the inspiration of all, the spirit and soul of life.”

A national campaign was underway.

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