For most of two decades, a future president carried on an affair with a family friend. For 50 years, the love letters they wrote each other – discovered in a closet, sealed by a court order and, finally, locked in a vault at the Library of Congress for safekeeping – have been closed to the public.
Today, the Library opens the letters Warren G. Harding wrote to his mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips, to the public for the first time since they were sealed by a probate judge in 1964 and later donated to the Library by the Harding family. The Library also has recently obtained a separate collection of material, such as photos and letters, from Phillips’ descendants.
An Affair Between Friends
Harding and Phillips began their affair in 1905 in Marion, Ohio, where both lived. He was the lieutenant governor of Ohio. She was the thirtysomething wife of a prominent dry-goods merchant and mother of a little girl.
The families were close enough to even vacation together in Europe. All the while, Harding and Phillips carried on their intimate relationship.
Harding and Phillips exchanged letters when either was away from Marion, sometimes writing dozens of pages at a time. While Phillips lived in Germany for several years and after Harding was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1914, the affair – and the letters – continued, long distance.
“They talk about their relationship,” said Karen Linn Femia, Library archivist who organized and described the material. “They talk about family things, hometown things, political things, the war in Europe.”
The Harding-Phillips collection at the Library includes about 240 items: drafts, empty envelopes indicating letters not saved, letter fragments and about 100 full letters that total about 1,000 pages.
The letters date between 1910 and 1920. Most were written by Harding, many while he served in the Senate. The affair ended just before he was inaugurated as president in1921.
“It was a 15-year relationship,” Femia said. “We just see the last 10 years. It’s almost sort of like looking in on a marriage, at some point, because it was such a long-term thing.”
Harding and Phillips remained on cordial terms after the affair ended, as did the families – even though Harding’s wife and Phillips’ husband had earlier discovered the relationship. Indeed, Phillips, her husband and her mother in 1922 visited President Harding at the White House.
Harding’s presidency ended early and tragically: He died of heart failure in 1923 after only two years in office.
Discovery in a Closet
Phillips over the decades became something of a town eccentric, living in Marion in a neglected house overrun with German shepherds. Her health failed, and in 1956 her lawyer and court-appointed guardian moved her to a nursing home.
While preparing for the move, the lawyer discovered a box hidden in the back of a closet. Inside, he found a surprise: a stash of letters from Harding. Not knowing what to do with them, he took them home for safekeeping.
Phillips died in 1960 and, three years later, the lawyer made the letters available to a potential Harding biographer.
Word of the letters’ existence spread and the New York Times eventually wrote a story about them, drawing the attention of the Harding family and Phillips’ daughter, Isabelle Phillips Mathée.
“That’s when Isabelle, the daughter, finds out these letters exist,” Femia said. “That’s when the legal proceedings begin, when the Hardings find out these letters exist.”
A Tangled Web
Harding’s nephew, George Harding, brought a lawsuit, thwarting the use of the letters by the biographer. An Ohio probate judge closed the papers on July 29, 1964, as the court tried to determine who, exactly, owned the letters.
Finally, after extended litigation, Harding agreed to purchase the letters from Phillips’ daughter – a settlement that included a 50-year closure, dating from the probate judge’s original sealing in 1964. In 1972, Harding donated the letters to the Library of Congress for safekeeping, with the stipulation that it keep the papers closed for the remainder of the 50 years. The letters have been locked in a Manuscript Division vault ever since. Other copies, however, do exist.
Ohio archivist Kenneth Duckett microfilmed the collection during its temporary storage at the Ohio Historical Society in 1963. Author and historian James D. Robenalt discovered the microfilm in Duckett’s papers at the Western Reserve Historical Society and in 2009 published a book on the subject, “The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage During the Great War,” that contends Phillips may have been a German spy.
“There are aspects of presidents’ personal lives that lead them in a certain direction as far as decisions they make in a political realm,” Femia said. “Scholars may find things here that led Harding in certain ways. There’s importance to that.”