The Library of Congress announced on Tuesday, June 23, 2014, “More than 50 years after their discovery and donation to the Library of Congress, a collection of approximately 1,000 pages of love letters between U.S. President Warren G. Harding and his mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips, will open to the public” on Tuesday, July 29, 2014. The Library of Congress will present a program to discuss the collection at 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday, July 22, 2014 in the Mumford Room of the James Madison Building, located at 101 Independence Avenue S.E., Washington, D.C.
The event is free and open to the public. Tickets are not required.
In covering this story for The Washington Post, Michael E. Ruane noted, “The unsealing of the letters comes two months after a collection of private letters of Jacqueline Kennedy was pulled from auction… Kennedy’s letters were those she sent to a confidant, a Roman Catholic priest in Dublin, over the course of 14 years. They were withdrawn from auction after the Kennedy family objected.”
HuffPost Live produced a video with Caitlyn Becker inspired by Ruane’s article. She said, in part, “So fellas, you have til the end of the month to brush up on your writing, or you could be put to shame by a 148-year-old man.”
President Harding and Mrs. Phillips wrote the letters between 1910 and 1920 during an affair that began in 1905 between then-Ohio Lt. Gov. Warren Harding and Carrie Fulton Phillips, the wife of a friend and neighbor.
Ruane quotes Harding as writing Mrs. Phillips on Christmas Day in 1910, “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 . . .”
The vast majority of the letters were written by Harding, many while he served in the U.S. Senate (1915-1921). Mrs. Phillips is represented mainly by drafts and notes. The Library of Congress stated it “has recently obtained additional material from descendants of Mrs. Phillips, which now forms the separate Phillips/Mathée Collection in the Manuscript Division.”
Although the affair ended prior to Harding’s presidential inauguration in 1921, Harding and Phillips remained on good terms. In 1922, Phillips, accompanied by her husband and mother, visited President Harding at the White House. When her health failed in 1956, Phillips was admitted to a nursing home in Marion and died in 1960. Her lawyer and guardian found and retained the letters, which were hidden in a box in Phillips’ home in Marion, Ohio. The lawyer made the collection available to a potential Harding biographer in 1963, although the use of quotes from the letters in this biography was thwarted by a lawsuit brought by the president’s nephew, Dr. George Harding. An Ohio probate judge closed the papers on July 29, 1964, and after extended litigation, the Harding-Phillips letters were purchased by Dr. Harding from Phillips’ daughter, Isabelle Phillips Mathée. In 1972, Dr. Harding donated the letters to the Library of Congress for safekeeping, with the stipulation that the Library keep the papers closed until July 29, 2014, which would be 50 years from the day the probate judge first closed them.
The letters have been locked in a vault in the Library’s Manuscript Division since their donation. Taken as a whole, the correspondence sheds light on a man on the eve of his presidency and a country on the brink of World War I.
In addition to Library of Congress archivist Karen Linn Femia, who recently organized and described the original material, Ohio lawyer and historian James D. Robenalt viewed a rare microfilm copy of the correspondence. Ohio archivist Kenneth Duckett microfilmed the collection during its temporary storage at the Ohio Historical Society in 1963. Robenalt, who contends that Phillips may have been a German spy, found the microfilm in Duckett’s papers, which had been donated to the Western Reserve Historical Society. In 2009, Robenalt’s book, "The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage During the Great War," was published.
At the July 22 Library event, Robenalt and Femia will share their impressions about the Harding-Phillips correspondence and what they reveal about Harding’s character and political views; his relationship with his wife; and implications for national security during World War I, given Phillips’ German partisanship. Manuscript Division Chief James Hutson will moderate the discussion. Also joining the panel will be Dr. Richard Harding, a grandnephew of the president, who is a former president of the American Psychiatric Association, who will describe the family’s reaction to the opening of the president’s personal correspondence. Members of the Mathée family have provided a statement that will be read at the event.
After the papers are open to the public, the Harding-Phillips Correspondence and the Phillips-Mathée Collection will join a number of presidential collections that the Library has made accessible on its website.
The Library of Congress holds nearly 69,000,000 manuscript items, including the papers of twenty-three American presidents, from George Washington to Calvin Coolidge. Many of these items are accessible on the Library of Congress Web site.