President Warren G. Harding, the 32nd president of the United States.


Steamy letters detail Harding's long, passionate affair

  • Article by: Michael E. Ruane
  • Washington Post
  • July 7, 2014 - 8:38 AM

– On Christmas Eve, 1910, future President Warren G. Harding got out a photograph of himself, and on the back wrote an impassioned love note to his mistress.

“My Darling,” he began. “There are no words, at my command, sufficient to say the full extent of my love for you — a mad, tender, devoted, ardent, eager, passion-wild, jealous … hungry … love …”

“It flames like the fire and consumes,” Harding, 45, who was married and would be elected the 29th president a decade later, wrote. “It racks in the tortures of aching hunger, and glows in bliss ineffable — bliss only you can give.”

His lover, Carrie Fulton Phillips, 37, who was married to one of Harding’s friends, kept the missive and began keeping dozens more love letters from Harding — some of them 30 pages long — despite his requests that she burn them.

Held at the Library of Congress under court-ordered seal for the last 50 years, the trove of the original, often juicy letters is to be opened to the public via the Internet on July 29.

The library is hosting a program to discuss the collection July 22, featuring library and outside experts and a Harding descendant.

The roughly 900 pages illuminate an extraordinary and intimate chapter in the life of a seemingly drab president who was dogged by political scandal, died in office and had campaigned on a platform of “a return to normalcy.”

The original Harding letters were sealed July 29, 1964, the library said. The Harding family donated them to the library in 1972, with the stipulation that they stay sealed until July 29, 2014.

But forgotten microfilm copies were discovered in an Ohio historical repository a decade ago by an author researching the president, and he used many of them in a detailed but little-known book.

Insecure, romantic man

The letters reveal, among other things, an insecure, romantic man who sometimes wrote his mistress in code and slipped away for secret meetings with her in Germany, England and Canada.

They met in New York and had assignations on an ocean liner, where they began the day “with glorious kisses and fond caresses, and you were so superb,” Harding reminisced later.

He came up with code names for them. Sometimes she was “Sis” or “Mrs. Pouterson.” He was “Jerry.” Together, they were “the Poutersons.”

And there is little doubt about what went on.

On Jan. 2, 1913, he wrote:

“My Carrie, Beloved and Adored … I do love you so. I wonder if you realize how much — how faithfully, how gladly … how passionately. Yes you do know the last, you must have felt the proof.”

On Sept. 15, 1913, he wrote her, recalling an especially amorous weekend in New York: “I do not know what inspired you, but you resurrected me, and set me aflame with the fullness of your beauty and the fire of your desire … imprisoned me in your embrace and gave me transport — God! My breath quickens to recall it.”

Affair began in 1905

Harding’s affair with Phillips began in 1905, according to James David Robenalt, an Ohio attorney and author, whose 2009 book, “The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage During the Great War,” details the relationship.

The book also reviews suspicions that Phillips spied for the Germans during World War I. And it reproduces many of the love letters.

Robenalt, who e-mailed a few more of the letters Thursday, had stumbled on the bootlegged microfilm of the correspondence.

“When I first read these, I felt like a voyeur,” Robenalt said last week. “I shouldn’t be reading this. I should look the other way.”

Harding and Phillips both seemed to be in barely functioning marriages. His wife, Florence, who was divorced from her first, alcoholic husband, was chronically ill, Robenalt recounts.

“There isn’t one iota of affection in my home relationship,” Harding wrote Phillips in 1913. “It is merely existence, necessary for appearance’s sake.”

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