The Shadow of Blooming Grove
My research into James Ellroy’s work as a historical novelist has led me to discover a wonderful book, The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in his Times (1968) by Francis Russell. As the 29th President of the United States, Warren Harding has been all but forgotten. For the majority of historians who do study his 1921-23 presidency, the Harding administration has become the byword for corruption and incompetence. Russell argues that this is a lazy and unfair analysis. Harding was not a personally corrupt man, but he surrounded himself with his cronies, ‘the Ohio gang’, and appointed them to influential positions upon assuming office. As a consequence he was soon mired in political scandals such as the Teapot Dome affair. Many Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents were on the payroll of the bootleggers, and the Veterans Bureau was selling off its stock on the black market. This last scandal led to the suicide of the Bureau’s General Counsel, Charles F. Cramer. Cramer shot himself in Harding’s house in Ohio. His body was discovered by the crime writer Mary Roberts Rinehart, who was living nearby.
Ellroy was fascinated by Warren Harding, particularly by the longstanding rumour that plagued Harding all his life that his ancestry contained black blood. The rumour originated in Harding’s birthplace of Blooming Grove, Ohio, hence the title of Russell’s biography. The Shadow of Blooming Grove was one of the research sources that Ellroy consulted for the novel he planned to write on Harding. Ellroy planned to write the Harding novel when he had completed The Cold Six Thousand (2001) but for some reason the project never happened. The Harding years have been fictionalised before, such as in Gore Vidal’s Hollywood (1990). Ellroy’s novel would have been very different in tone to the caustic work of Vidal. If American Tabloid (1995) was written to deglamourise the Kennedy Presidency, then Ellroy’s Harding novel would have paradoxically restored the reputation of a decent man who was surrounded by corruption. America was tired of constant reforms after the successive governments of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson. Harding promised to return America to ‘Normalcy’– he claimed to have coined this term. Harding knew he neither had the intellect nor the inclination to be America’s best President, his ambition was to be America’s best-loved President. He had a natural charm with people and was a ladies’ man (Harding’s mistress Nan Britton gave birth to his alleged illegitmate child two years before he entered the White House). Harding’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1923 (probably brought on by a severe case of food poisoning) was a national tragedy. But within a few years Harding’s reputation lay in tatters as the full scale of corruption in his administration became public knowledge.
The Shadow of Blooming Grove is a fascinating book which reads like a great novel. A Harding novel might just have been Ellroy’s greatest and most mature work if he, like Russell, set out to humanise a man who has been vilified by history. Ellroy never wrote the Harding novel, but I hope someday someone will.
Harding’s popularity during his lifetime partly stemmed from the fact that he was a great orator. Below is a rare audio recording of a speech Harding gave during the 1920 Presidential election campaign: