For 35 years, Carrie Fulton Phillips kept a stash of love letters hidden away in her home.
“Phillips never sold the letters, never published a book and, as far as we know, she never showed the letters to anyone,” says Karen Linn Femia, an archivist at the Library of Congress.
Had she, President Warren Harding would have had some explaining to do.
That’s because Harding was having an affair with Phillips. He wrote the letters—about 1,000 pages worth—between 1910 and 1920, while married to his wife, Florence. In 1905, the then-lieutenant governor of Ohio became romantically involved with Phillips, a family friend in his hometown of Marion. The relationship carried on for 15 years, up through the time when Harding served as a U.S. senator.
Even Richard Harding, grandnephew of the president, on behalf of the family, calls Phillips the love of Warren’s life and a trusted confidante during his rise to political power.
After Phillips died in 1960, the trove of letters fell into the hands of a lawyer, who shared them with Francis Russell, a Harding biographer. Before Russell could publish bits of the letters, Harding’s descendants filed a lawsuit. Ultimately, Warren’s nephew, George Harding (Richard’s father), purchased the collection and donated it to the Library of Congress, under the stipulation that it be sealed in a vault for 50 years.
On July 29, 2014, the half-century embargo was lifted. The Library of Congress went public with the letters, publishing digital scans of the 100 or so notes, poems and telegrams online.
“He [George Harding], in 1964, could not even imagine that the Internet was coming,” said Richard Harding, at a Library of Congress symposium. “He would not have believed in 2014 any person in the world would be able to read the letters at their leisure in their office or at home.”
The release of the love letters has sparked new dialogue about the 29th president, who died two and a half years into a rather uninspiring term. “The Teapot Dome scandal put a cloud over his entire administration,” says Femia. Now, the talk is all about Harding, the passionate lover.
It turns out ‘ole Warren G. was not shy when it came to expressing his desires. The letters are riddled with racy references to his mistress’ “cradling thighs” and “pillowing breasts,” and the pair’s “fevered fondling.”
Of course, the Harding family hopes that historians aren’t distracted by the sexually explicit content, and instead, read the letters for what they can convey about Harding’s thinking on politics and the issues of his time.
“A collection of private letters from a key senator and future president to his confidante during a critical period in American history does not come along often,” says Richard Harding.
I spoke with Karen Linn Femia about a few of the letters, shown in the document viewer, above. Click on the highlighted portions of the documents to learn more.