Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Hanging with Harding

A Warren G. Harding figurine (that looks
more like Dick Cheney) standing in front of
his (Harding's) memorial.
Ohio is a hotbed of presidential history, and I recently spent a long weekend there, basking in much of that history.

My first, eagerly anticipated stop was a visit to Warren G. Harding's home. (Some people would think I say that facetiously. If you're one of them, you don't know me very well.) A few weeks ago I posted about Harding's affair with a German sympathizer while he was a senator during World War I. Just before I left for Ohio, I read The President's Daughter, the book written by Nan Britton, supposedly another of Harding's mistresses and the woman who claimed to be Harding's baby-mama. So Harding had been very much on my mind, and I was genuinely eager to visit his house.

I was also a bit apprehensive. For some reason, visiting presidential sites usually leaves me feeling a bit let-down. I always have such high hopes, but I almost always come away not quite satisfied. Since this is Harding we're talking about, I really wasn't expecting much, but I wound up blown away.

I started my tour in the visitor's center, which is located in what served as the press house during Harding's 1920 presidential campaign. There was a short, informative video plus a few display cases about various aspects of his and First Lady Florence's life. It wasn't big and flashy, but it got the job done.

The porch from which Harding conducted
his 1920 presidential campaign.
Then my tour guide told me to head over to the porch of the residence and we'd get started. At this point I should mention that my tour guide, Brett, appeared to be about 15 years old, and that I was the only person on the tour. I didn't think this would bode well. But as it turned out, Brett was in college, and even though he was young (but probably older than 15), he was extremely knowledgable---possibly the most knowledgable presidential guide I've ever had. He had answers for all my questions---and there were a lot. I realized later that if there had been other people on the tour, I probably would have held back with some of my inquiries, but since it was just Brett and me, I asked away.

Brett explained the history of the house and the current restoration efforts, and he said that the site has 5,000 items that belonged to the Hardings. Although they're not all on display, it sort of felt like they were. There are tons of belongings of theirs throughout the house, which is probably the main reason why the visit was so satisfying. In a lot of presidential homes, they might have a few original items, but the rest are reproductions or period pieces that belonged to someone else. In the Harding home, almost everything belonged either to the Hardings or to family members. Brett was able to explain what every little trinket was, where each piece of furniture came from, what the different designs in the custom-made stained-glass windows meant, at what store in Europe the Hardings purchased their china, etc.

The house is large and pretty, but not so imposing that it felt pretentious. Unlike some historic houses that feel like museums, Harding's house feels like a home. His half-dozen straw hats hanging on pegs above his bicycle made it seem like Warren might be about to burst through the back door to get ready for a ride. It was all very approachable.

The Harding home feels like time truly just stopped, and we get to witness it.

I imagine Warren's early demise has something to do with the site's success in maintaining authenticity. Some residences wind up in other people's hands and aren't turned into historic sites until decades later. For example, Taft's house had been converted into apartments, and though it has since been renovated, it makes it harder to get a feel for what the house was like when he lived there. Since Harding died in office, and Florence died not long after, the house became a tourist attraction almost immediately. Florence's will left the house and most of the contents to the Harding Memorial Association, ensuring that furniture and other items wouldn't be lost or sold or whatever else might happen to presidential "stuff" over the course of many years.

Toward the end of my tour I asked Brett about Harding's affair with Carrie Phillips and his alleged affair with Nan Britton. I was a little apprehensive about asking because I assumed that as a caretaker for Harding's possessions, the staff would be also be protective of the man's legacy. Brett didn't seem to mind a bit, though, and didn't try to make excuses or apologize for the fact that Harding clearly engaged in at least one extramarital affair. He mentioned "Jim" (James Robenalt, author of The Harding Affair) having spent time researching at the site, and had nice things to say about him. When I asked about Nan Britton, he didn't laugh and blow it off like I thought he might. We did agree that the affair---at least as Britton presented it---probably didn't occur, but he didn't categorically state that it wasn't possible. He did mention that Elizabeth Ann Britton, the daughter of Nan Britton and allegedly Warren G. Harding, had visited the Harding site before she died, and she claimed to have never believed her mother's story that Harding was her father. Apparently the issue caused them to be estranged for many years.

I left the tour feeling happy and satisfied. All my questions that could be answered, were answered, and I felt like I had gotten a genuine glimpse into Harding's life. My only complaint was that no photography was allowed, so unfortunately I can't share Florence Harding's awesome seance chair or cricket cage, or Warren's briefcase, or the guitar he gave his step-son for his birthday, or the bedroom set that had belonged to Warren's grandparents, or any of the hundreds of other items currently on display.

You probably won't ever find yourself in Marion, Ohio, without reason, but if you're in the general mid-Ohio region, make a special trip to the Harding home. It's well worth a visit.

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