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Forget Tea Pot Dome: Harding's Love Letters Make For A New Steamy Scandal

Jul 29, 2014
Originally published on July 29, 2014 7:50 pm

President Warren G. Harding presided over Prohibition, died before completing his first term, and is consistently ranked by historians and the public as one of the worst U.S. presidents.

But suddenly he's getting a lot of attention, thanks to a cache of steamy love letters he wrote to a mistress over 15 years. Sealed for a half-century, today the Library of Congress made the entire collection available to the public.

James Hutson, chief archivist of the manuscript division at the library, pulled a box of the letters from the collection this morning.

Some are written on plain paper, and others on hotel stationery or U.S. Senate letterhead. All are written by Harding — who was married — and all were sent to his longtime paramour, Carrie Fulton Phillips. She was also married — to a close friend of Harding's.

The collection contains 106 letters spanning about 1,000 pages, which means many of the letters are very long — "as long as 40 pages," Hutson notes.

The letters to Harding's mistress cover politics and current events, including his alarm over her support for Germany in the years leading up to World War I.

But the romantic stuff is certainly there for those willing to slog through page after page of sometimes barely legible handwritten scrawl.

Now, this isn't exactly 50 Shades of Grey, but the letters would have been very scandalous in their day (and even today).

From a letter dated Jan. 28, 1912:

I love your poise
Of perfect thighs
When they hold me
in paradise ...

I love the rose
Your garden grows
Love seashell pink
That over it glows.

It's enough to make you blush ... or cringe ... or chuckle. The letter continues:

"If I had you today, I'd kiss and fondle you into my arms and hold you there until you said, 'Warren, oh, Warren,' in a benediction of blissful joy."

Then there's another from September 1913, in which he recalls a tryst in a hotel room:

"Wouldn't you like to get sopping wet out on Superior — not the lake — for the joy of fevered fondling and melting kisses? Wouldn't you like to make the suspected occupant of the next room jealous of the joys he could not know, as we did in morning communion at Richmond?"

The full collection of letters like these can be viewed through the Library of Congress database. Also among them are dispatches filled with jealousy, insecurity and bickering.

Ultimately, Hutson says it's possible all of this attention could also spark interest in Harding's presidency more broadly, and perhaps help him climb the rankings of the U.S. presidents. Right now, he doesn't crack the top 40 (out of 44). But if people do start seeing him as something as other than a bland figure in U.S. history — then, well, who knows.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It got a little steamy at the Library of Congress today - make that downright racy. A collection of love letters was made available to the public after being sealed for half a century. The paramour with the pen was the 29th president, Warren Harding. He was not a very popular president, he died before completing his first term, but boy could he write, and he did for 15 years to his mistress. NPR's national political correspondent Don Gonyea took a look at some of the love letters, and even he blushed.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: In the most stately setting of the Library of Congress, a single cardboard box sits on a long table in a conference room just off the ornate main lobby.

JAMES HUTSON: This is just a box of Harding's letters to Carrie Phillips pulled almost at random.

GONYEA: Some letters are on plain paper, some on hotel stationery, some on U.S. Senate letterhead. All written by Harding, who was married, and all were sent to his long time paramour, Carrie Fulton Phillips, who was also married to a close friend of Harding's. Our guide is James Hutson, chief Archivist of the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress.

HUTSON: The collection contains about 1000 pages of letters - pages that is and approximately 106 letters.

GONYEA: Yes, many of the letters are very long, five pages, 16 pages, 24 pages.

HUTSON: There are some letters as long as 40 pages

GONYEA: The letters to his mistress cover politics and current events, including Harding's alarm over her support for Germany in the years leading up to World War I. But the romantic stuff is in there for those willing to slog through page after page of sometimes barely legible handwritten scrawl. Now this isn't exactly "50 Shades of Gray" but the letters would have been very scandalous in their day and even today. I enlisted my colleague Brian Naylor to read a few passages. We added some special effects to help set the time period. Brace yourself.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: (Reading) January 28, 1912. I love your poise of perfect thighs. When they hold me in paradise. I love the rose your garden grows. Love seashell pink that it glows.

GONYEA: It's enough to make you blush or cringe or chuckle. It goes on.

NAYLOR: (Reading) If I had you today, I'd kiss and fondle you into my arms and hold you there until you said, Warren, oh, Warren, in a benediction of blissful joy.

GONYEA: Then there's this one from September of 1913, recalling a tryst in a hotel room.

NAYLOR: (Reading) Wouldn't you like to make the suspected occupant of the next room jealous of the joys he could not know as we did in morning communion at Richmond?

GONYEA: There are also letters full of jealousy, insecurity and bickering. Ultimately James Hutson at the Library of Congress says it's possible all of this could spark interest in Harding's presidency more broadly. Which doesn't mean Warren G. Harding will suddenly climb the rankings of U.S. presidents. He still doesn't crack the top 40, out of 44, but if people do start seeing him as something other than a bland figure in U.S. history, then, well who knows? Don Gonyea NPR News, Washington.

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