First First Lady in Newsreels: Florence Harding’s Jazzy Moves & Love of Hollywood

First Lady Florence Harding cranks out a newsreel camera before a group of women press.

First Lady Florence Harding cranks out a newsreel camera before a group of women press.

She knew she was never considered a beauty and she balked at having to pose for news photographers during her husband’s 1920 presidential campaign, but when someone threatened to use a picture of her biking from the 1890s, she grinned for the cameras. She declared to the newsreel cameramen who set up their tripods to take “moving picture” images of her, however, that she would never pose for them if she got into the White House.

Florence Harding believed a First Lady had a duty to the American people, especially underserved constituencies.

Florence Harding believed she had a duty to the people, a new idea in the 20s..

It was vanity which gave her pause about how she looked in public and she took to wear a black velvet neckband to cover her throat. Ironically, however, finding her a role model whose life and attitude they found accessible and relevant to their own, it was the young women of the country who soon copied her unique bit of fashion, calling them “flossie clings,” a double-entendre for the fact that the neckbands were shiny and clung to the neck, as well as it being the new Firsrt Lady’s maiden name.First Lady Florence “Flossie” Kling DeWolfe Harding may have been a bit too modern and accessible for the staid Society stiffs who deemed themselves the ruling class of Washington when she entered the White House in 1921, but the nation responded well to her, captivated by her assertive efforts to encourage equality for women in politics, economics and professional life, and to make the White House, the President and herself more accessible to the average citizen.

Florence Harding wearing her "flossie cling."

Florence Harding wearing her “flossie cling.”

Having publicly declared herself “a suffragist” even before passage of the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, bravely ascending the sky to become the first First Lady to take a ride on an airplane, introducing jazz music at her White House garden parties, adapting her wardrobe to reflect the more liberated look of the Roaring Twenties, and even buying the very first radio to be used in the presidential mansion, Florence Harding was one of those White House residents who embraced the pop culture then electrifying the nation.Introduced to the burgeoning film industry and its leaders, like D.W. Griffith, through her companionate friend the millionairess owner of the Hope Diamond, Evalyn Walsh McLean (who created her own home film studio), First Lady Florence Harding also invited the stars of Hollywood movies to the White House as guests for the first time and likewise set a new precedent by screening a feature film for guests as entertainment after a formal dinner.

Evalyn McLan and Florence Harding.

Evalyn McLan and Florence Harding.

Even before she became First Lady, however, while the wof a U.S. Senator, she had come to attend the opening day ceremoes of Universal Studios while on a junket tour of California with her husband.

Florence Harding was a modern First Lady seeming to be perpetually in motion.

Florence Harding was a modern First Lady seeming to be perpetually in motion.

So fascinated did she become with the power of film by the time she was in the White House that she even gamely churned out some celluloid on a newsreel camera herself, delighting the gathering of women reporters who watched her.And sure enough, it wasn’t very long before she grudingly agreed to pose for the “moving picture” cameramen.

She put that attitude in motion, committing her schedule to various public awareness efforts, legislative lobbying and leadership roles on behalf of women, disabled and wounded serviceman, abused and neglected animals and other causes, the “star” of  public appearances at various ceremonies on her own, without the President.

Sixty years old at the time she became First Lady on March 4, 1921, Florence Harding quickly learned to overcome her insecurities and make a bit of history, becoming the very first First Lady to appear in her own newsreel shorts shown in the nation’s movie palaces between double-features.

Set to the popular music of Hal Roach shorts (most familiarly as the sound of “Our Gang” comedies) Here is a compilation of five such appearances, including three at the White House on behalf of Armenian relief, with Filipina women in Washington calling for independence of their nation, and planting a tree with the aged actress Lillian Russell:

Categories: History, The Hardings

8 replies »

  1. Although she was not a beauty, she sounds like she added both grace and fun to the White House. I wold have loved to have met her.

    • Thanks so much for writing Lisa. Yes, I entirely agree with you. Even before I wrote the first biography of Florence Harding I remember thinking how I would have liked to meet her. When I neared the end of the writing, I wished too I could have met he r to ask a lot of questions.

  2. The newsreels make me feel that Florence Harding had a real sense of humor and playfulness about her, yet there is an underlying seriousness and determination that seems to hold the fun in firm check at all times. I love that sculpted hair of hers: however did she sleep at night with that helmet on? She looks purposely made to appear on a bronze medal, and I wonder if one was ever made. When you refer here to ‘the staid Society stiffs who deemed themselves the ruling class of Washington’ you bring up a point I’ve often mused on: who exactly makes up today’s ruling Washington elite, the successors to the McLeans at ‘Friendship’, Alice Longworth on Dupont Circle, the Auchinclosses at Merrywood and Marjorie Merriwether Post at Hillwood? Is there a comparable social class today?

    • Thanks for writing Mark – especially with your especially observant sensibilities you always add an extra dimension here. People used to gossip that Florence Harding’s marcel was really a wig (it wasn’t) but I think her extroverted nature, along with her taking to more contemporary style were just two of the qualities that the old Washington establishment didn’t like about her – the fact that a First Lady was also accessible to the general public and represented “Main Street” as opposed to showing an interest in leading High Society charitable causes or summering in elite watering holes in New England also made her seem alien to them. I don’t know that a medal was ever struck of her (she had what might be called “Roman” or “noble” facial features but her hair and spectacles seemed to distort that). The Society stiffs tended to be the wealthy families who belonged to private clubs and lived in shady enclaves and were 2nd and 3rd and 4th generation Washingtonians – mostly in business as opposed to politics. I would say this class still exists in DC but the media leaders are in many respects the new “society” of Washington.

  3. The newsreels were wonderful to see! Thank you for a treat.

    I caught you on the second to last CSPAN “First Ladies” episodes and (off the record) you were one of the few who didn’t make me doze off. 🙂

    Looking forward to reading your books, as well as seeing you in future episodes of the “First Ladies” series.

    Harry Martin
    Escondido CA

    • Thank you very much Harry – I greatly appreciate it. And I will again be on C-Span this coming Monday evening to discuss Ida McKinley. And, in the weeks ahead I will have more historical videos embedded in stories here. I appreciate your taking the time to write. Cheers, Carl

  4. Mr. Anthony, I am enormously enjoying reading your books!!! After seeing you on a CSPAN program recently, I was inspired to call Lucinda Frailly at The National First Ladies’ Library in Canton, Ohio. We had a great chat!! She told me many interesting things about the library and about the events held there.

    The CSPAN program was originally televised in 1994. It consisted of a lecture that you gave on First Ladies, followed by a panel discussion with several former First Ladies’ Social Secretaries and also with female newspaper reporters.

    I just finished reading your biography of Florence Harding. I plan to get a notebook and make detailed notes about all of the things that most intrigued me in that book. I am currently reading: First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power 1789-1961 (First Volume), America’s First Families: An Inside View of 200 Years of Private Life in the White House, and As We Remember Her: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the Words of Her Family and Friends. & I have ordered the rest of your books from the Interlibrary Loan office of the main city library here.

    • Dear Jane – Thank you so much for your thoughtful and enthusiastic response. Sometimes when one has completed writing a book it is easy to forget that one’s ideas, one’s discoveries and the words chosen to express and convey it all are still there, and will always be there, hopefully to help, entertain, educate or enlighten those we may never meet. I seriously appreciate that message of yours. Thank you.

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