Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Strange Life and Death of President Harding

A Bibliography of Harding and His Times

There are several authors who claim that their biographies of Warren G. Harding are comprehensive, but almost all of these books are flawed. Either a lack of primary sources or a peculiar point of view hampers the effectiveness of these works. Thus, there is no definitive biography of Warren G. Harding. This is not so surprising. He was, after all, an insignificant president. Many of the records of his presidency were destroyed by his wife. His descendants have been vigilant in suppressing materials that might reflect unfavorably on him. A number of works about him and his times seemed to have agendas, and were thus unreliable in presenting the full story of his life and activities. The literature, for the most part, is a not very reliable.     

Shortly after his death, three works appeared that are extremely curious. One was by his young mistress, by whom it was claimed he fathered an illegitimate daughter. This was the rather pathetic and romantic expose by Nan Britton. Another work was by Hardings disreputable attorney general and political manager, Harry Daugherty, in which Daugherty attempted to justify both his role as Hardings guiding genius and his own questionable behavior as a political extortionist. The last, the most curious of all, was by Gaston B. Means, a con artist of the first rank, who claimed (as we have seen) that Mrs. Harding poisoned her hapless husband.

Sometime after these three accounts, Samuel Hopkins Adams wrote a biography of Harding that presents the seamy side of the Harding administration in detail. It is a very good read, written in a sort of 1930s tabloid purple prose, but it is a biography based almost entirely on hearsay. The next significant biography was by Francis Russell (1969), a writer who specialized in biographies with his own very personal agendas. He treated Harding the same way as he had his other subjects, building his story on a single element of the persons life. In Hardings case, Russell analyzed him from the sole perspective of his purported mixed blood.

The two most recent biographies of Harding that I read were by John B. Dean (he, of Watergate fame) and Carl Anthony. Deans book is a strange whitewash of Harding, built entirely on the debatable premise that Harding is a maligned figure of history, and was, in fact, quite a wonderful president. Somehow, Dean manages to take every reported flaw of Harding and his presidency and turn each into an admirable attribute. The result is less a defense of Harding and more of a remarkable spin.  There have been some reviewers who have praised Deans book, finding it a welcome restoration of Hardings reputation.

The second, by Anthony, is actually a biography of Florence Kling Harding, and is a book that tells the reader more about the real (as far as one can tell) Warren Harding than any of the other works. Of all the references consulted, Anthonys book is the most carefully documented and the least colored by the writers agenda. For all of her flaws, Florence Harding was a much more admirable and interesting character than her husband.

There have been a few attempts to use the strange life and death of Warren Harding as material for artistic endeavors, but none of them has been very successful. At least two novels, now long forgotten, by the Harding biographer Samuel Hopkins Adams and by F. Scott Fitzgerald, were written. And recently a play about a camping trip that Harding, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford took was produced, but it was not a success.

Quite a few books about the Teapot Dome scandal have been written. They are convincing in documenting the malfeasance of Albert Fall and the oil barons, but, lacking access to the Harding presidential papers, they do not contribute much to understanding Harding himself.

As to the central issue of how Warren G. Harding died, the most reasoned treatment that considers the various theories, and comes to the most reasonable conclusion, is the book by Anthony.

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