Well, one minor mystery of the American presidency was clarified this week.
According to the New York Times, DNA testing seems to have confirmed that Warren Gamaliel Harding, who served in the White House during 1921-23, had in fact fathered a daughter by one of his mistresses, Nan Britton. The child, named Elizabeth Ann Britton Harding, was born in 1919, and so had been conceived when Harding was a senator, not president. But her paternity had been a matter of speculation, and some controversy, ever since her mother published a sensational memoir, The President’s Daughter (1927), about her six-year liaison with Harding.
The Times exaggerated the controversy, to some degree: It reported, in its opening sentence, that Britton had been “denounced as a ‘degenerate’ and a ‘pervert,’ accused of lying for money and shamed for waging a ‘diabolical’ campaign against the president’s family that tore away at his legacy.” That is true, as far as it goes. But it was various members of the Harding family, including the late president’s sister and brother, who spoke in such lurid terms about Britton when The President’s Daughter was published four years after Harding’s death. In fact, historians have tended to be divided on the question of Elizabeth Ann’s paternity, but most have accepted Nan Britton’s assertion that she and Harding were, at some point and to some degree, clandestine lovers.
It’s a sad story, in many ways. Nan Britton was the daughter of a Marion, Ohio, physician whose family was well acquainted with Harding, owner-publisher of the Marion Star, and whose sister had been one of her teachers. At the age of 14, in 1910, Britton seems to have developed an adolescent infatuation with the 45-year-old Harding when he ran, unsuccessfully, for governor of Ohio -- and she never outgrew it. Harding was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1914, and three years later, now 21 and finishing a secretarial course in New York, Britton wrote to Harding asking for his assistance in getting a job. Harding not only agreed to help but met her at a Manhattan hotel for the first of many liaisons. In the memorable prose of The President’s Daughter, “I became Mr. Harding’s bride – as he called me – on that day [July 30, 1917].”
Part of the problem for Nan Britton is that the rococo language of The President’s Daughter has never inspired confidence in its veracity, and the book’s details, while plentiful, are nearly impossible to verify. Both she and Harding destroyed the bulk of their correspondence, and Harding, while indiscreet – as senator and, later, president – was not foolhardy. He used pseudonyms whenever necessary, and of course, Nan Britton’s name is nowhere to be found in any White House logs or registers.
This much we can assume is true: According to Nan Britton, Elizabeth Ann was conceived on a couch in Harding’s Senate office, and after her birth in Asbury Park, New Jersey, he seems to have furnished occasional financial support. We will probably never know whether, or how frequently, they met after Harding’s election as president in 1920, but Britton’s description of their White House meeting-place is not only reminiscent of a recent president’s practice but a classic in the annals of Washington romance:
This was a closet in the anteroom, evidently a place for hats and coats …. We repaired there many times in the course of my visits to the White House, and in the darkness of a space no more than five feet square the President and his adoring sweetheart made love.
Harding, of course, died suddenly in August 1923, and few in the late president’s family or official circles were inclined to believe Nan Britton’s insistence that Elizabeth Ann was his child, or that he had intended to support her indefinitely. The President’s Daughter, which sold 50,000 copies, was privately published by Britton as a fund-raising device under the aegis of her Elizabeth Ann Guild Inc., and dedicated “with understanding and love to all unwedded mothers, and to their innocent children whose fathers are usually not known to the world …”
Nan Britton seems never to have married, and died in Oregon in 1991 at the age of 94. Elizabeth Ann married and settled, ultimately, in Glendale, California, where she resisted the efforts of historians and journalists to interview her, and died ten years ago. In the Times story, her grandson claims that “the family lived with scorn for decades. They were followed, their house was broken into and items were stolen to try to prove the relationship was a lie.”
Of the making of books, there is no end. Thus spake the prophet, and he may have had books about the American Civil War in mind. They come too fast for the amateur to keep up, but one does try. So when I saw, a couple of months ago, that James McPherson was out with a new collection called The War That Forged a Nation, I ordered it. I was late, a few weeks beyond the actual publication date, but didn’t think that mattered. We were not, after all, dealing with breaking news here.
Henry M. Paulson Jr. and Robert E. Rubin co-wrote an article for the June issue of The Atlantic titled (in the print edition), “The Blame Trap,” and subtitled, “Why the U.S. and China need to act on each other’s economic critiques.”
President Obama, speaking today in Selma on the 50th anniversary of the historical Bloody Sunday march:
"Look at our history. We are Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea, pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, and entrepreneurs and hucksters. That’s our spirit. That’s who we are.
It is said that history is written by the victors. Maybe so, but in the United States over the last century, history has largely been written by the liberals. This inevitably leads to bias, which inevitably operates on even the most impartial of minds. While most historians try to be fair and judicious, the fact that the overwhelming majority of them are on the left generates an inexorable tilt to the American historical narrative.
Benjamin Netanyahu is not the first Israeli prime minister to find himself at odds with Washington. In fact, several prime ministers from the Labor Party, Netanyahu's traditional rival, have suffered the wrath of an angry American president.
Sir Martin’s passing was a sad day for who call ourselves Churchillians. His 8-volume biography of Sir Winston Churchill and the Companion volumes are the Everest of all biographies, and an indispensable source for anyone interested in the great man’s life and achievements. That this quiet, self-effacing man found the time and energy to add to that work some 60 other books concentrating on WW2, the Holocaust and histories of the Jewish people is a source of amazement to those of us privileged to know him
The passing of Sir Martin Gilbert at the age of 78 marked a sad milestone. He achieved popular acclaim as the official biographer of Winston Churchill, the man whose in-depth eight-volume biography served as the gold standard reference work about the greatest statesman of the twentieth century. He also was a prolific writer of Jewish history, an observer of world events, and an author of many atlases.