Friday, August 14, 2015

Book Review: "The President's Daughter"

As I mentioned yesterday, I wanted to dedicate a post to my thoughts on Nan Britton's book, The President's Daughter. If you're just joining us, Nan Britton was a young lady who claimed to have had an affair and a child with Warren G. Harding. Harding and his wife were both dead by the time Britton's tell-all memoir came out, so obviously neither was available for comment.

For nearly 100 years, people were left to wonder and debate whether Britton's claims were true. Did Harding really father a child with a woman 30 years his junior? Was Britton just an obsessed fan, looking to get rich or possibly tarnish Harding's reputation?

Britton did not succeed in staking her (or her daughter's) claim to a portion of Harding's estate. Instead, she inadvertently contributed to the nosedive his legacy took after his death. The Teapot Dome scandal---which he was not involved in---rocked his administration. Britton's book and rumors of other affairs and White House orgies painted a picture of a lecherous adulterer. Someone wrote a book suggesting that Harding's death was actually a murder committed by his wife, who was jealous and upset about his transgressions. And there was a persistent rumor that Harding had "Negro blood" in him, which was quite an undesirable claim at the time.

Many people believed Britton's story to be true because it seemed to fit with the image Harding was posthumously developing. Many others---including the Harding family---dismissed her accounts as falsehood. For one, Harding was thought to be sterile due to a case of the mumps. He had no (known) biological children. Also working against Britton was the fact that, in an attempt to protect Harding, she had destroyed all letters and evidence that pointed to their affair. The only documents she could produce were of the professional variety.

The book was considered quite risqué for the time, and there were attempts to have it banned as pornography. It's pretty tame by today's standards, but back then it was considered scandalous. Really, the steamiest line is, "I experienced sweet thrills from just having Mr. Harding's hands upon the outside of my nightdress."

The Plot
So let's talk about the book. I won't go into all the details---this isn't some short pamphlet; it's nearly 500 pages long---but I'll touch on the main points. Even so, the synopsis is pretty long so feel free to scroll down to the "My Conclusion" section if you want.

Britton and Harding both hailed from Marion, Ohio. Harding was the editor of Marion's newspaper, and Nan's father sometimes contributed pieces, so the families knew each other although they don't seem to have been particularly close. Nan developed a crush on Harding when she was 14 and he was running for a senate seat. She taped newspaper photos of him on her wall, the same way girls today might tape up photos of Marco Rubio. (I kid---but I don't know any current teen heartthrobs.)

Britton didn't keep her crush a secret. EVERYONE knew: her parents, her teachers (one of whom happened to be Warren's sister, and who would become a close friend), other kids at school, even Warren Harding himself. At the time he probably thought it was cute. Maybe he was a little flattered. I don't know.

Nan got a wee bit obsessive. Besides taking advantage of opportunities to meet Harding, she would also hang out in a doorway across the street from his newspaper office so she could catch glimpses of him. Her parents didn't know about the stalking, but they were a little concerned about the crush. Her mom tried to make Harding seem unappealing by saying things like, "I saw Mr. Harding standing at such-and-such a place, chewing tobacco!" (Which reminds me a lot of the time my dad ruined my crush on Barry Bostwick by convincing me he was really Ronald Reagan.) But where my dad succeeded, Nan's mom failed. Nothing could sway her.

Britton's family moved away from Marion in 1915, and Nan continued to move around after that, finding secretarial jobs in Cleveland, Chicago, and eventually New York. It was from New York that she first wrote to Harding, hoping he could help her secure a job. He wrote back, and although it was a professional letter, the kind he would send to any constituent or acquaintance, that correspondence is what set their affair in motion. The two met with each other the next time he was in New York, and he took her up to the bridal chamber of the Manhattan hotel. They didn't consummate their relationship at that point, but they did kiss. I guess it helped that Harding had been aware of Nan's intense crush on him. He already knew it was a sure thing.

They maintained their relationship for the rest of Harding's life. Harding would make trips to New York to see Nan, and she would sometimes make her way to Washington. (Their daughter was likely conceived in his senate chamber.)

When Britton found out she was pregnant, she discussed it with Harding, who seemed both thrilled and trepidatious. He bought her some "Dr. Humphrey's No. 11 tablets," which were supposed to induce abortion, but she didn't take them and he seemed okay with that. Ultimately he was supportive of her decision to keep the baby.

A single mother keeping a baby was a much more difficult undertaking then than it is today. Britton had to leave her job and rented a room in New Jersey under the guise of being the pregnant bride of a deployed soldier. She had the baby, Elizabeth Ann, then left the baby in the care of a nurse in New Jersey while she went to Chicago to stay with her sister to find someone to take care of the baby there. Harding was supportive of Britton---emotionally and financially---during this time.

The next couple years are a bit of a whirlwind. Nan and the baby moved a lot, and not always together. When she first moved to Chicago, she placed Elizabeth Ann in the home of a woman who watched her 24/7, but for obvious reasons that wasn't an ideal set-up. Eventually Britton and Harding decided it would be best for Nan's sister Elizabeth to adopt baby Elizabeth Ann. Although this provided a secure environment for Elizabeth Ann, it also created a lot of tension between Nan and her brother-in-law. Nan's sister was content to let Nan act like the baby's mother, while the brother-in-law didn't appreciate the interference. Britton wound up moving back to New York, where she could get a better job, and left Elizabeth Ann with her adoptive parents.

In June of 1923, Harding left for a trip to Alaska and the west coast, and Britton sailed to Europe. Within a few weeks, Harding was dead. Devastated, Nan borrowed money to return to America early. She had hoped that Harding would have left a will or some kind of fund for their daughter, but he hadn't.

Britton became determined to regain custody of Elizabeth Ann, but that would require enough money that she could support them both. When a wealthy man she called Captain Neilsen proposed to her, she let him know that she would marry him only if he would help her get her daughter back. He agreed, they got married, and Elizabeth Ann came to live with them, but it soon became apparent that Neilsen was actually destitute himself and had lied about his wealth. Britton divorced him and did her best to raise Elizabeth Ann on her own. (The girl was sent back and forth between Nan in New York and her sister in Chicago a few more times---I lost track after a while.)

At some point, the financial support from friends and the physical help of Nan's mother weren't enough, and Britton knew she needed to discuss this issue with Harding's family, who until that point knew nothing about the affair. Nan first approached Harding's sister, the one who had been her teacher and who had become a friend. Harding's sister was shocked but seemed to believe Nan, and sent monetary support when she could. At first she was willing to help her get the support of other family members, but her support faded after Harding's brother interviewed Nan and determined she was lying.

A man Britton referred to as Tim Slade was a secret service agent and a confidant of Harding's who knew about the affair and had acted as an intermediary between the two. He also tried to help at first, even suggesting he could ask friends of Harding's to start a fund. Nan tried using that potential public exposure as leverage with the Hardings, but that failed as well.

Left with no other recourse, Britton wrote her book. The book did secure some income for her, but it also left her highly scrutinized. She was labeled a loose woman, a harlot, a liar. Someone wrote another book in rebuttal of hers, and she sued for libel. Unable to produce any proof of her claims of the affair, she lost the suit and wound up withdrawing from society.

My Conclusion
I read the book with a strange mix of sympathy and annoyance. Nan came off as a well meaning young woman, but she was also unbelievably obsessive about Harding. It sort of reminded me of how obsessive Harding seemed in the letters he wrote to Carrie Phillips, so maybe in that way they were a good match.

Britton also appeared very materialistic. When Harding would send her money, she would indulge in new dresses, coats, handbags, etc. Her focus on those things made me question her motives.

The amount of detail in the book made it feel believable, but I wondered if maybe she had taken encounters with other people and substituted Harding into the memories instead. A few things seem unrealistic. For example, Britton and Harding went out in public together. They dined together in the Biltmore hotel after Teddy Roosevelt's funeral and Nan heard a woman say, "There goes Harding!" The woman turned out to be a friend of his. It might not have been a smart move for a man in his position to be seen with his mistress, especially at such a high-profile event. On the other hand, this was the same guy who continued to write intimate letters to and rendezvous with Carrie Phillips after he knew she was under surveillance.

Ultimately, there were some seemingly insignificant parts of the book that convinced me Britton was lying. As I mentioned, she destroyed all personal letters that pointed to the affair, but she kept the few formal, non-incriminating ones. She also kept a rather generically-autographed photo he had signed for her, and one he signed for her sister. It was the strange gushing over these comparatively mundane correspondences that made me doubtful. I mean, if you have a crush on a celebrity and they write a letter or sign a photo with a personal autograph? Sure, be crazy excited about it! But when you already have that celebrity's love-child, haven't you moved beyond getting excited about an autograph?

But, now we know that I (and many others) were wrong. Britton wasn't lying about Harding being her daughter's father. Perhaps her excitement over those few remaining letters and photos stemmed more from the fact that they were all she had left to prove she had ever had contact with him beyond the few encounters in Marion when she was a child. Perhaps the excitement was added or exaggerated by an editor or ghost writer who might have had a hand in the manuscript. Or perhaps the excitement really did fit with her tendency to go a little nuts over him.

There could be other explanations. Perhaps Britton and Harding's affair was not as lengthy or involved as she claims. Maybe they had a one-night stand. Maybe he didn't know about the child and never sent money. Who knows? But Britton's veracity about her daughter's paternity makes me inclined to believe the rest of her story.

Read it for yourself and see what you think.

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