Florence Kling Harding, wife of President Warren Harding, was born August 15, 1860 in Marion, Ohio. She was the eldest child of three, with two younger brothers. Her father owned a hardware store, which led to owning other businesses and banks, making him the wealthiest man in Marion. Unfortunately, he was also tyrannical and her mother, depressed and submissive. If the Kling children did not make their curfew at night, her father would lock their mansion doors and expect them to care for themselves until morning.
At the age of 19 Florence became pregnant by her young boyfriend. Most likely to escape from her father, the two eloped in March of 1880 and moved to Galion, Ohio. On September 22, 1880 she gave birth to a son, Marshall. Henry turned out to be an alcoholic and heavy spender and left her on December 22, 1882. Florence returned to Marion with her son and refused to ask, or receive, any help from her father. Instead she rented a room and began giving piano lessons. After two years her father finally asked her to move back home with Marshall, suggesting that they both use the Kling family name. Florence refused and in September, 1884, she filed for separation. Her father, Amos, then proposed another offer. He would not support Florence raising Marshall, but he would take his grandson as his own, easing her financial burden. Florence agreed. She and Henry were divorced in 1886.
From this whole ordeal, Florence developed a lifelong empathy for people struggling against society's expectations and refused to judge the choices people made when attempting to survive. She wholeheartedly supported feminism and developed strong beliefs about the rights and abilities of women to determine their own futures without male interference. "No man, father, brother, lover or husband can ruin my life," she said. "I claim the right to live the life the good Lord gave me, myself."
Florence loved her business work (she had worked in her father's stores since she was a young girl) but the reality of women in society in that day prevented her from being independently wealthy or holding powerful positions. She was also a skilled horsewoman, was physically very strong and yet also skilled in the arts of needlepoint and hosuekeeping. She had great musical talent and attended the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music for one year before her father ordered her to return home.
She met Warren Harding (five years older than her) in the late 1880's through one of her piano students, Charity Harding (Warren's sister). Florence pursued Warren relentlessly, even though he had a girlfriend at the time and was known to be quite "an amiable rake." Florence's father, Amos, was adamently opposed to having Florence and Waren together but despite his disapproval, the two were married on July 8, 1891 in the house they had built together. They never had any children together.
Florence rallied behind Warren's political career and became the driving force bethind the growth and establishment of his newspaper business. In 1894, when Warren checked into the famous Battle Creek Sanitarium for health reasons she took over the newspaper and never left. It was the opportunity she had been waiting for all her life.
When Warren was nominated as a presidential candidate in 1920 Florence enthusiastically backed him. But she was secretly concerned that his extramarital affairs would be publicly exposed. He had had many affairs including a 15-year relationship with Florence's best friend Carrie Phillips (the only known mistress in US history to successfully blackmail a president) and his Senate aide Grace Cross.
Florence was also concerned about her age (60 years) and her health. She had a kidney removed in 1905 and was prone to debilitating kidney infections. However, she put all her concerns aside and campaigned vigorously, even fostering the first use of Hollywood movie stars in a presidential race. The American people were very weary after the war and responded to Warren's campaign slogan "Back to normalcy" and elected him in a landslide victory. Florence became the First Lady to vote for her husband becoming President.
Florence loved opening the White House grounds to the public and enjoyed a lively social calendar. Social events were frequent and she also visited injured veterans in the hospital. She always maintained her independence, proving to be on the greatest feminists of the day. She was her husband's key advisor, involved in many charities, and crusaded for women's right. She was the First Lady to fly in an airplane (with a woman pilot no less) and the First Lady to appear in newsreels without the president.
Rumors of Scandals (Tea Pot Dome, events that transpired with Charles Forbes and the extramarital affairs) prompted the Hardings to begin a public relations tour in 1923. They visited Alaska and Canada and were heading east from the west coast when Warren became ill and died on August 2, 1923 in San Francisco. Opinions on what caused his death were varied (stroke, heart attack, food poisonining or deliberate poisoning by Florence) ran rampant. The fact that Florence refused an autopsy only contributed to the people's suspicions about her. The official cause of Warren's death is listed as a stroke.
Florence returned to Washington by train with her husband's body. The public, still unaware of the depth of the scandals greeted the funeral possession in droves. After Warren's death she tried to preserve their reputations by burning all the personal papers she could find. She then returned to Marion, Ohio where she died, on November 21, 1924, of kidney disease 15 months later.
Copyright M. A. Webb, 2005. All Rights Reserved
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