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She was so inexplicably, almost mystically drawn to Alaska, First Lady Florence Harding had visions of the territory’s snow-capped mountains in her dreams. And nibbling on the frozen treat sensation of 1923 – the Eskimo Pie, was amusing but did not placate her. After surviving a near-death experience in the fall of 1922, the steely ambition that led her to push her husband towards the presidency was now driving her determination to requite her Alaskan dream.
President Warren G. Harding acquiesced to his wife’s pressing forward with plans for what was billed to the public as a “Voyage of Understanding.” The ten-car presidential train left Washington’s Union Station on June 20, 1923 for a three-month trans-continental train trip, voyage to Alaska, exploration of its interior, a return via Canada, excursion down the full length of the West Coast, and return by a southern route. Many had misgivings. Florence didn’t.
She’d long managed to repress the prediction made by astrologer Madame Marcia during Warren’s 1920 presidential campaign – namely that if elected, he would die “by sudden, violent and peculiar death by poison.” Nothing could go wrong, however, with Charles “Doc” Sawyer, watching over her and Warren. Months earlier, Doc had saved her life even after the famous Mayo Brothers predicted her imminent death to kidney failure. For Florence, Doc was a Rasputin, “the only one who keeps me alive,” and the white-bearded, thick-spectacled homeopath had declared Warren fit as a fiddle. An old Ohio friend and owner of his own sanitarium with signs that read, “Please Don’t Feed the Patients,” Doc was highly suspicious of anyone attempting to usurp his hold on the Hardings. Only begrudgingly had he accepted the annoying presence of the young and ambitious naval physician Joel Boone on the trip. Like the Mayo Brothers, however, Boone was an allopath. He was politely tolerated by Florence in the brief moments that Doc ever permitted them direct contact without his own presence. Boone was never able, for example, to directly tell the First Lady about his findings before the trip began that President Harding showed troubling signs of a weakening heart. So, from Washington, D.C. to West Virginia to Ohio to Missouri, the Harding junket chugged along into the nation’s heartland in the blistering summer.
If emotional depression or heartbreak can affect the organ of the heart, Warren Harding was in great trouble. Florence later admitted that the “greatest betrayal” had come in February when Doc provided irrefutable proof of the massive kickbacks and corruption of Charlie Forbes, whom she’d personally insisted on being named the first director of the newly-formed Veterans Bureau. The care of the wounded and disabled World War I veterans was – along with animal protection and rights, and fuller political integration of women – was the First Lady’s signature policy issue. Warren had literally choked and shaken Forbes against the wall of the Red Room – but permitted him to flee to Europe, where he tendered his resignation. His legal counsel Charles Cramer committed suicide – in the home where Harding had lived with Florence while serving in the U.S. Senate.
Some friends later suggested that Warren and Florence had also heard enough to stir suspicions about their other old friend, Interior Secretary Albert Fall and the leases he’d signed with Doheny and Sinclair oil for naval oil reserves in Elks Hill, California and Teapot Dome, Wyoming. It wasn’t so much the leases but the sudden improvements to and expansion of his New Mexico ranch that seemed odd. Fall had resigned and gone to Red Russia in pursuit of other oil deals. It would be discovered in congressional investigations which began months later that Fall had taken bribes totaling some $100,000 from the oil companies in trade for the leases. He would become the first Cabinet officer convicted and sent to prison. If the Harding scandals were painful because Forbes and Fall were close enough to vacation and play poker regularly with Harding, the absence on this trip which rang a deafening silence was of the breezy, humorous dandy of a bachelor, Jess Smith and his companion the Attorney General Harry Daugherty.
Jess helped pick Florence’s wardrobe for the trip with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic motifs, reflecting the popular craze for all things “Tut,” a result of the recent discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamen. He was also later accused of supplying the Hardings with confiscated liquor in this era of Prohibition. Despite having no official position in Harry’s Justice Department, Smith was enmeshed in nefarious activities related to its Prohibition division. He never had a chance to tell his side of the story. In May, he had blown his brains out.
A soured associate, ex-Justice Department Bureau of Investigation agent, however, later suggested he pulled the trigger. His name was Gaston Means, and he proved to be the lynchpin in shaping the legacy of Florence Harding. No less than her beloved confidante, the owner of the “cursed” Hope Diamond, Evalyn Walsh McLean, for one, believed Means had murdered Smith.
In the transcripts of her tape-recorded recollections which she ultimately struck from her memoir in fear of lawsuits, Evalyn spilled all the beans. She told of President Harding’s one great love affair with Florence’s former best friend in Ohio, his ongoing one-nighters in Palm Beach with other beauties, the accidental murder of a showgirl in Washington, and how Smith, Means, and her own husband – owner of the Washington Post, had stolen Harding’s love letters from his former Senate secretary and mistress Grace Miller Cross and intimidated her enough to prevent another blackmail.
In her misguided effort to protect Florence from the stress of fearing women around the President in the White House, Evalyn had let Harding use her vast estate “Friendship” for golf – or for whatever he wished. According to both Margaret Palmer, a former Attorney General’s wife, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who’d been McLean’s primary companion before being replaced by the First Lady, Harding had at least one meeting with a “niece from Ohio” at Friendship.
And after Alice casually mentioned this during a February call on the convalescing Florence, Evalyn was not invited to Alaska but she followed daily reports of her friend as the presidential trip proceeded west. Sharing Florence’s belief in metaphysics and having introduced her to Madame Marcia, she believed the poison prediction. Unable to serve her usual role in calming Florence and serving as her confidante, Evalyn worried about the toll of the trip on her physical and emotional state. She was as startled as anyone as newspaper stories and newsreels showed that, as the President seemed to weaken, the First Lady seemed to strengthen the further they got from Washington and the closer they got to Alaska.
In Kansas, the President seemed badly fatigued and blistered his lips after riding a tractor for cameramen. Doc said it was just too much sun. In Montana, he had fatigued while shaking hands with silver ore miners, while Florence kept going, save for a change of gloves now and then. She also altered the schedule in Utah, insisting they detour south to see the vast lands of Zion, which she agreed with Senator Reed Smoot should be declared a federal National Park. In Meachem, Oregon, On July 3, she was animated atop an old-time stagecoach in a celebration of the old Oregon Trail.
There were some tense moments between the couple, witnessed by minor state and city officials in private. At Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, after being stopped by a dozen young waitresses who giddily pressed themselves against the car windows, the First Lady was angry. “I saw you with those waitresses Warren! It took you just as long to say hello to them as it did those tourists at Old Faithful yesterday!”
Setting sail for Alaska from the pier at Tacoma, Washington, on July 5, life on the Hendersonslowed the trip’s pace. Learning that the ship had once been abandoned after a fire gutted it only added to a sense of dread, however. In Colorado, on June 24, a car carrying four secret service agents along on the trip had driven off Lookout Mountain and all in it were killed.
In Alaska, Florence Harding continued to flourish, recovering from a brief setback. She relished the scenery, suggested the territory was ready for statehood and, with her knowledge of astronomy, spent hours nightly star-gazing. At Doc’s insistence, the President continued to “exercise,” once climbing a steep wooden outdoor staircase of several hundred steps to view the scenery from a summit. He could barely catch his breath. Florence Harding still believed that her husband was in good care, so implicit was her faith in Doc Sawyer. Both Hardings ate heartily, especially enjoying the fresh seafood, caught and delivered daily.
It was after July 16, when the ship arrived and docked in Vancouver, making Harding the first incumbent President to visit Canada, that the affects of what most believed to be tainted crabmeat took hold of him. A secret message delivered to him by a seaplane and the Henderson’s hitting another vessel while in the fog on its way to Seattle, left him even more depressed. His July 27 address in a stadium in that city had him confusing words and now obviously failing. Florence Harding insisted on canceling their itinerary in Portland. The next day when their train was speeding down to San Francisco, it stopped briefly for servicing. The naval physician was able to make a quick check on the President without Doc Sawyer or the First Lady the wiser. Dr. Boone was alarmed to learn that Harding had an enlarged heart. He told Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, along on the trip, who alerted several top physicians to join the party at Palace Hotel and assist as consultants. Along the way, it was the First Lady who substituted for the President in addressing crowds.
When they arrived in San Francisco, Harding insisted on walking from the back train platform to his car, and then from the car up the hotel steps. It was the last the public would see him. Barely containing his frustration at being literally pushed out from the inside of the door by Doc Sawyer, Boone had made several attempts to offer his fear of the President’s condition. Despite the presence of several leading medical experts, when the First Lady and President were alone, it was only Doc who was permitted to treat Harding – and he continued to ply the sick man with “purgatives” and heart “stimulants” by hypodermic needle.
On the night of August 2, Florence was alone with Warren when he raised his hand and made a sudden jerking movement, then collapsed. In the moment of truth, the First Lady ran screaming from the room, calling for Boone. When Doc arrived, he tried to revive the President with an unspecified stimulant, but Harding had died. After time alone with Doc, Florence Harding refused to permit an autopsy.
In fact, a local undertaker was quickly contacted and within minutes began work on the late President. There was no time permitted for the other physicians to conduct any post-mortem. The official cause of death was given as “apoplexy,” or stroke. All the attending physicians signed it, although there was some dispute behind the scenes.
Florence Harding shrouded herself in a long, black veil and sat close to her husband’s body during the four-day funeral train ride across the nation. Hundreds of thousands lined the train track – cowgirls, mine workers, farmers, veterans, factory workers, schoolchildren.
When she arrived back in Washington, without any forewarning, Evalyn was there waiting for her. In the wee hours of the morning, the two women descended the grand staircase and entered the East Room. There Florence had the casket opened and began to speak to her late husband, concluding that “Nobody can hurt you now.” Strangely, she told Evalyn, “Now that it is all over, I am beginning to think it was all for the best.”
Rumors began almost immediately implicating the First Lady, many claims suggesting she had been poisoning the President all along. With the impending Senate investigation into Albert Fall’s oil leases, some later whispered that it was a mercy killing. With widening knowledge of his real love affairs (some of which were fraudulently claimed), others thought she may have acted out of jealousy.
Her friend Evalyn McLean, however, later spoke of Florence’s utter adherence to astrology and thought that the power of her astrologer’s initial suggestion that Warren would die by poison may have led Florence to remain passive while subconsciously realizing Warren was dying – and simply let him.
Evalyn McLean’s intense bond to Florence Harding made her both protective and defensive of her friend. In loyalty to Florence, Evalyn helped maintain a loyalty to Warren, for it was on the vast manicured lawns of her “Friendship” estate where the widowed First Lady had several dozen long wood boxes of presidential correspondence transported. There, culling those papers which she feared might incriminate Harding, Florence was again helped by Evalyn as the two women burned them in bonfires that August.
Initially returning home to Ohio for several months, Florence Harding returned to Washington with plans of remaining at the McLean estate. Finding himself under greater suspicion as whispers about his incompetence circulated, however, Doc Sawyer had become persona non grata in political circles and resigned his official position. When he returned to his Ohio sanitarium, Florence feared she could not live without his seemingly miraculous treatment of her. Ironically, Doc Sawyer died alone in her presence in September of 1924. Florence Harding died two months later.
Seven years later, however, Gaston Means wrote and published the scandalous book The Strange Death of President Harding. In it, he made up the false story that Florence Harding had poured poison into a spoon and murdered her husband. Weaved between this tale, however, were thinly-veiled references to many other powerful figures whose embarrassing exploits were known to Means. Nobody in official Washington came out to defy Means. Even his claim against Florence was an artful metaphor. Yet it also deteriorated her own substantial work in support of disabled veterans, Armenian relief, the education, employment and economic empowerment of women, and the protection of abused and neglected animals.
Gaston Means’ book, however, was eclipsed a year later by his sensational role in the famous Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Desperate to help find the child, Evalyn McLean put her Hope Diamond and other jewels into hock, to raise the $100,000 that Means claimed he needed to pay the kidnappers and get the child released. Evalyn called Means the “best criminal mind in America,” but she may have been crazy as a fox herself. After several days of a wild goose chase following Means in her chauffeur-driven limousine through the Dustbowl of Texas and Oklahoma in the depths of the Great Depression, however, the gig was up. Ensconced in an El Paso hotel with her nurse Inga and secretary Miss Poor, Evalyn refused to cross the border to meet Means in Laredo – even though she heard a baby crying the background of his phone call pleading that she come….and bring nearly $40,000 more. Evalyn went home to Washington and called her friend – and the nemesis of Gaston Means….J. Edgar Hoover. When eventually Means’ car crossed the District of Columbia line, a phalanx of federal agents led him to a federal jail. Out on bond, a trial ensued and Means was finally sent up the river by Evalyn.
In her way, Evalyn McLean righted the wrong Means had done her friend Florence Harding – even though she never got back her $100,000.
It was never found.
The above article is adapted from the author’s book, Florence Harding: The First Lady, the Jazz Age and the Death of America’s Most Scandalous President, and his full-length feature screenplay, both copyrighted materials.
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