Florence Harding Leaves Mark as First Lady
According to some, Florence Harding was a force to be reckoned with, with a quick temper and a hard-to-satisfy personality. Others said she was merely strong-willed, a modern woman who knew her own mind and voiced her opinions.
Probably both descriptions fit the wife of our 29th President, Warren G. Harding. Without a doubt, Florence Harding left her mark as First Lady during the tumultuous early 1920s when the nation struggled to get its footing after World War I.
Kathleen Lawler, social secretary to Mrs. Harding in the White House, described the complex First Lady as “ambitious, quick-tempered, noble spirited, naturally gay and happy, impulsive, with a keen sense of right and wrong, and an abiding sense of justice.”
Calling the hectic Marion campaign the highlight of her life, Mrs. Harding was the perfect hostess to newsmen, campaign workers and the masses of visitors to the small town during the summer and fall of 1920. On one hand, she was an ordinary housewife, happily sharing her waffle recipe for women’s magazines; on the other, she was a model for the more independent woman of post-war America, proudly talking of women going to the polls for the first time and her years working at The Marion Daily Star.
Away from the public, Mrs. Harding exhibited her tendency to micro-manage. Lawler, on hand during the Marion campaign, wrote, “In her nervous, high-tensioned state, with her desire to see things go, she felt she must do everything herself. Had Mrs. Harding been commander-in-chief of the army, she would have insisted upon firing every private’s gun in every military engagement.”
Mrs. Harding thrived on order. Lawler said that packing and unpacking the household between Marion and Washington was confusing for everyone except Mrs. Harding. The new First Lady could mentally locate even the smallest misplaced item, citing the exact shelf in the exact room in the exact building. Mrs. Harding also exhibited an unusual fixation. “Florence Harding had an aversion, amounting to physical illness on occasion, to seeing an object hanging over the back of a chair or a doorknob,” Lawler said.
Mrs. Harding’s well-known interest in astrology, superstitions, séances and fortune telling was not out of the ordinary. Many members of Washington society, including former First Lady Edith Wilson, sought such guidance. A popular destination for many Washington women was the back parlor of fortune teller Madame Marcia. Marcia, in later years, claimed that she told Mrs. Harding that her life would take a tragic turn.
Both of the Hardings took seriously the belief that they worked for the American people, and Mrs. Harding literally opened the doors of the White House to them. Shortly after President Harding’s inauguration on March 4, 1921, the gates of the White House were opened for the first time since 1917, and people were permitted to tour the grounds. For the next two years, the public was invited to many events on the White House grounds and could shake the hands of President and Mrs. Harding on public receiving days.
Long before it was popular for a First Lady to have a “cause” while in the White House, Florence Harding worked to improve the lives of injured and permanently disabled World War I veterans. Calling the men “my boys,” she often visited them in the Washington hospitals and arranged for them to attend frequent garden parties at the White House. She told White House gardeners that before the House was decorated with flowers, the soldiers’ hospitals should first be supplied. She also was vocal about relieving the plights of neglected animals, serving as honorary president of the Animal Rescue League. In fact, Mrs. Harding sent her own pet Airedale, Laddie Boy, as her representative “and as a representative of the animal world” to a League party.
Mrs. Harding enjoyed tending a rose garden at her Marion home, and she carried her love of flowers to the White House. She personally selected plantings for an old-fashioned flower garden on White House grounds. A new rose was named for her, and she planted some of the new variety herself at the White House. Strangely, all of them died in June 1925 -- just seven months after Mrs. Harding’s death -- despite the care of White House gardeners.
Mrs. Harding loved politics and was quite knowledgeable about world affairs. Although she undoubtedly often expressed her opinion to the President, she discounted the notion that she was the decision-maker in the White House. “She always stoutly maintained that Warren Harding was ‘abundantly capable of making his own decisions,’” Lawler stated.
President Harding’s death from a heart attack on Aug. 2, 1923, just 29 months into his presidency, was a devastating blow to Mrs. Harding. As the funeral train raced from San Francisco, the site of the president’s death, to Washington D.C., the First Lady apparently willed herself to stay strong. “By an effort that is plainly visible and hence all the more pathetic, she seems to literally get a grip on her jangled nerves and she says, “I won’t break down,” reported The Marion Daily Star.
Her plans to settle permanently in Washington were derailed in July 1924 when the kidney disease that plagued her for nearly 20 years again reared. A restless Mrs. Harding stayed in a bungalow at the Sawyer Sanitarium, under the care of her longtime physician, Charles Sawyer. In September, Doc Sawyer died, and Mrs. Harding seemed to lose momentum. By early November, her health worsened and a specialist was called. Surgery failed to remove kidney blockage, and she died Nov. 21.
Just two years after Mrs. Harding’s death, the Harding Home opened as a museum, just as Mrs. Harding desired. She had willed the house and many contents to the care of the Harding Memorial Association to ensure that the story of the Hardings’ rise to the White House would be preserved.
Sherry Hall is Education Specialist at the Harding Home State Memorial, an attraction of the Ohio Historical Society, at 380 Mt. Vernon Ave. For more information, call toll free 1-800-600-6894 or visit the www.ohiohistory.org Web site.