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President Warren G. Harding: Paramour With A Pen


And now an encore performance of a story we brought you earlier this year. It caused many driveway moments, and in some cases, even some steamed up car windows. That's because back in July, at the Library of Congress, things got seriously racy. A collection of love letters was made available to the public after being sealed for half a century. The paramour with the pen was the 29th president, Warren G. Harding. He was not a popular president and he died before completing his first term, but boy could he write. He sent letters for 15 years to his mistress. And they even made NPR national political correspondent, Don Gonyea, blush.


DON GONYEA, BYLINE: In the most stately setting of the Library of Congress, a single cardboard box sits on a long table in a conference room just off the ornate main lobby.

JAMES HUTSON: This is just a box of Harding's letters to Carrie Phillips pulled almost at random.

GONYEA: Some letters are on plain paper, some on hotel stationery, some on U.S. Senate letterhead. All written by Harding, who was married, and all were sent to his long time paramour, Carrie Fulton Phillips, who was also married to a close friend of Harding's. Our guide is James Hutson, chief archivist of the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress.

HUTSON: The collection contains about 1000 pages of letters - pages that is - and approximately 106 letters.

GONYEA: Yes, many of the letters are very long - five pages, 16 pages, 24 pages.

HUTSON: There are some letters as long as 40 pages.

GONYEA: The letters to his mistress cover politics and current events, including Harding's alarm over her support for Germany in the years leading up to World War I. But the romantic stuff is in there for those willing to slog through page after page of sometimes barely legible handwritten scrawl. Now, this isn't exactly "50 Shades Of Gray," but the letters would have been very scandalous in their day, and even today. I enlisted my colleague Brian Naylor to read a few passages. We added some special effects to help set the time period. Brace yourself.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: (Reading) January 28, 1912. I love your poise of perfect thighs when they hold me in paradise. I love the rose your garden grows, love seashell pink that over it glows.

GONYEA: It's enough to make you blush or cringe or chuckle. It goes on.

NAYLOR: (Reading) If I had you today, I'd kiss and fondle you into my arms and hold you there until you said Warren, oh, Warren, in a benediction of blissful joy.

GONYEA: Then there's this one from September of 1913, recalling a tryst in a hotel room.

NAYLOR: (Reading) Wouldn't you like to make the suspected occupant of the next room jealous of the joys he could not know as we did in morning communion at Richmond?

GONYEA: There are also letters full of jealousy, insecurity and bickering. Ultimately, James Hutson at the Library of Congress says it's possible all of this could spark interest in Harding's presidency more broadly, which doesn't mean Warren G. Harding will suddenly climb the rankings of U.S. presidents. He still doesn't crack the top 40 out of 44. But if people do start seeing him as something other than a bland figure in U.S. history, then, well, who knows? Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.