“WELL, I HAVE GOTTEN YOU THE PRESIDENCY. WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO WITH IT?”
This is the story of a woman who became pregnant in her teens and gave birth out of wedlock, answered to the name “Flossie,” had a personal astrologer, was an expert poker player, an amateur bartender, loved jazz, wore trendy clothes, and was accused of poisoning her husband.
She was also the smart and ambitious First Lady of the United States, married to our 29th President, Warren G. Harding. She was the 1st First Lady to vote, fly in an airplane, operate a movie camera, own a radio, and entertain Hollywood celebrities at the White House. Florence Kling Harding was a force of nature.
Her story began in 1860 in Marion, Ohio, where she was born. Her ancestry was French Huguenot and German. Her father, Amos Kling, was the wealthiest man in Marion; but he was also the most tyrannical and ordered Flossie to be raised as a boy until adolescence. As a result she thought of herself as the equal of any boy or man. At 19, she ran away with a neighbor boy, Henry DeWolfe. She allegedly married him (although no marriage certificated has ever been found) and shortly after gave birth to his son. Henry was a heavy drinker and abusive, and abandoned his wife and child early on.
For several years, Florence supported herself and her child by teaching piano at $ .25 an hour. One of her students was the sister of the young man who published the town’s newspaper. He was strikingly handsome and had a reputation for being an “amiable rake.” His name was Warren Harding. Florence found him attractive but he had little interest in her, especially since she had a small child. But she pursued him boldly until he finally grew fond of her. They married in 1891. Florence was 30, Warren was 25. All was not picture perfect during the marriage though. Warren had a series of dalliances with other women; not only at first but throughout his life.
Three years into the marriage, Warren went off to the Kellogg Sanitarium in Michigan for treatment of some unspecified nervous ailment. Florence was left behind in Marion to manage the newspaper. She took on the job with vigor. She created a circulation department, mapped out delivery routes, and hired and trained a team of newsboys. She gave them whistles to blow when the paper was being thrown to customers’ doors. Florence renegotiated lower interest loans to buy new printing equipment, purchased all company supplies, repaired broken machinery to save on expenses, and subscribed to the first news wire service to bring global news to the community within 24 hours. When Warren left for Michigan, the newspaper was struggling to survive but when he returned it had been revived and was growing. Thanks Florence!
Warren Harding became a leading citizen in Marion. He was elected to the Ohio State Senate for two terms (1900-1904), and then served as Lieutenant Governor (1904-1906). Florence managed his social and political contacts, his finances, his public addresses, and his clothing. In 1905, she underwent emergency kidney surgery and a long recuperation. It was a condition that lasted for the rest of her life. During her convalescence, Warren began a long, passionate relationship with a neighbor and a close friend of his wife. When she learned of the affair, Florence considered divorce. She changed her mind when Warren apologized and told her it would never happen again - but it did, with at least five other women.
In 1914, the Harding’s moved to Washington as Warren had become a U.S. Senator. Florence formed a close friendship with Evalyn McLean, whose husband owned the Washington Post newspaper. The two ladies had much in common. There was the newspaper business, of course, but they also shared a strong belief in astrology and the supernatural. They both consulted with fortune-teller Marcia Champrey on a regular basis. In 1920, Champrey predicted that if Warren won the Republican nomination for president, he would win the general election and become the next president; BUT, he would not live to complete a full term. Florence publically wanted her husband to win the nomination but when interviewed once she said she saw “only one word above my husband’s head and that word is tragedy.” No one knew what she meant at the time.
The 1920 presidential campaign went on in spite of Champrey’s dire prediction. Harding’s campaign headquarters was on the family’s own front porch in Marion, Ohio. With her years of running a newspaper business, Florence was comfortable with the press corps. On the porch she could play both the role of a traditional homemaker and a contemporary activist. It was said that, “one day she wore an apron to pare apples and chat with farmers’ wives, another she told how she refused to wear a wedding ring because it was a symbol of bondage.” She worked hard to create a good public image for Warren, and herself. She edited press releases and wrote portions of the presidential candidate’s speeches. Unlike previous potential First Ladies, she offered her political opinions on a variety of issues. She was intensely opposed to the U.S. joining the League of Nations and just as intensely in favor of women’s suffrage.
Warren G. Harding, with no small credit to his wife, won the election and became the 29th President of the United States. He probably should never have been elected President. He attained the highest office in the land not because of past performance or potential for leadership but because he looked the part. Meanwhile, Florence became known as that “blue-eyed, gray haired, bespectacled First Lady with the black velvet neckbands” (called “Flossie Clings”). During Warren’s inauguration speech, she was seen mouthing the words that her husband was saying; suggesting that she in fact had written at least some of it herself.
When the couple arrived at the White House, she was quoted as saying, “Well, Warren, I have gotten you to the Presidency. What are you going to do with it?” But Florence knew exactly what SHE was going to do. She made clear her choices on appointments both to Warren and his cabinet. The Attorney General once said about her, “I always give her instructions preference over his (the President’s).” The extent to which Florence involved herself in political matters was reported in the press but, unlike other First Ladies, she was praised rather than criticized. Prevailing support for women’s activism was strong in the 1920’s. Her greatest influence was on the President. He consulted with her on all of his political decisions. She read and edited all his major speeches.
Florence Harding was one of the first of the President’s wives to believe that her constituency and her role were greater than being the White House hostess. She was anxious for the women of the country to understand their government. “I want women to meet their Chief Executive and to understand the policies of the administration,” she said. She campaigned for the appointment of women to important political and government positions. Her efforts to promote economic, political, and social equity for women won her praise across the country. She predicted that in the future women would be the primary breadwinners for most families, even though it was traditionally a man’s role. Florence Harding was a woman ahead of her times.
She also reflected the popular culture of 1920’s America. She played jazz on the radio, loved mah-jongg and ate Eskimo Pies. She was the first First Lady to have Hollywood feature movies played after state dinners, with the performers as honored guests. Florence was also fascinated with airplanes. She would dress in pants, helmet, and goggles to experience flying first hand. But some did not appreciate her independence and modern ways. She was chastised for having jazz combos perform at the White House playing those “sinful syncopations” or the fact that she and Warren took part in some of the “new” dances. Although Prohibition was in force, the Harding’s always managed to have a well-stocked bar to entertain their guests. Florence would act as bartender. Allegedly, the alcohol was provided by the Justice Department from supplies confiscated in government raids.
But all of this ended sadly, and according to the fortune-tellers prediction. In 1923, Warren and Florence decided to travel to Alaska (she was an early advocate for Alaskan statehood). The President was in failing health however. Florence had sought the advice of a new astrologer who assured her that there would be no problem. The attending Naval physician was alarmed by Warren’s enlarged heart and advised against the trip. But plans could not be changed. After eating some seafood, the President fell ill. He was rushed back to San Francisco but died at the Palace Hotel there. Medical records indicate that Warren Harding may have had a heart attack brought on by being given a stimulus by accident. Florence would not allow an autopsy to be performed which led to suggestions that she had poisoned him; either due to his continuing affairs or because he was caught in the arms of another woman. Such accusations have never been proven.