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Warren G. Harding and the History that Inspired James Ellroy

October 18, 2015
James Ellroy at the Dancehouse Thatre, Manchester

James Ellroy at the Dancehouse Theatre, Manchester

One of the most intriguing projects James Ellroy has worked on in his writing career was a novel he planned on President Warren G. Harding. In a 2001 interview with Craig McDonald, Ellroy stated he was interested in writing a novel on Harding as he wanted ‘to write about the ascent of a political figure for a long time’, and he was fascinated by the rumour the 29th President of the United States ‘was black or that there was black blood.’ When interviewed by Robert Birnbaum for identitytheory.com, Ellroy expanded on his interest in Harding describing the dramatic potential of the black blood rumour as ‘an Ellroy story’. However, in a 2006 interview with McDonald, Ellroy claimed that although the Harding novel had been ‘the big plan’ he had now abandoned the project (in favour, as we now know, of a second Los Angeles Quartet). Ellroy mentioned to Birnbaum that one of the inspirations behind his Harding novel was ‘a wonderful book’ by Francis Russell titled The Shadow of Blooming Grove. Blooming Grove is a little town near Marion, Ohio, where Harding was from, and the title of Russell’s biography specifically refers to the rumour he had black blood, ‘the shadow’, that in less- enlightened times haunted Harding throughout his life. When I visited the Ellroy archive at University of South Carolina in 2009, I read through lots of Ellroy’s  correspondence and unpublished work, including ‘The Confessions of Bugsy Siegel’ and ‘L.A. Death Trip’; however, I was unable to find any notes or outline or character bio’s on a Harding novel. If Ellroy did any hard research or writing on his planned Harding novel, he must have subsequently destroyed it. This is a terrible shame, for having recently reread Russell’s The Shadow of Blooming Grove, I was able to spot many parallel’s in Harding’s story, and more importantly Russell’s, with themes in Ellroy’s work.

Russell begins his biography on the day of Harding’s inauguration March 4, 1921. An ailing Woodrow Wilson, exhausted after leading the US through World War I and having his plans to join the League of Nations sabotaged, makes polite conversation with the new president. Harding, the handsome mid-west Republican possessing bags of charm, is a very different character than the coldly intellectual Democrat Wilson. Harding has very little idea of what he hopes to accomplish with the presidency other than a vague notion of becoming America’s ‘best-loved president’. Russell gives a fascinating portrait of this affable but venal man. Harding was a charismatic speaker comfortable with large crowds, as evidenced in his front-porch campaign and the fact that he threw open the White House doors to greet thousands of ordinary Americans. He was more sketchy on policy: when pressed by a suffragette for his stance on women’s rights, he replied, ‘I had much rather that the party to which I belong should, in its conferences, make a declaration, than to assume a leadership or take an individual position on the question.’ Russell spends a lot of time on the complicated love-life of a president whose priapic disposition would have done Kennedy or Clinton proud. Never fully happy with his wife Florence, nicknamed ‘the Duchess’, Harding embarked on a long affair with Carrie Phillips, the beautiful and enigmatic wife of a Marion businessman. Phillips resided in Berlin for many years and was under investigation by the FBI for her alleged German sympathies during the Great War. In addition, she blackmailed the Republican party to the tune of thousands of dollars once Harding was nominated as the Republican candidate for the 1920 election. But perhaps more scandalous than this is Harding’s relationship with his other mistress Nan Britton. Britton was 31 years  younger than Harding and in 1919 she gave birth to his illegitimate daughter. Russell’s account of the time Britton and Harding were almost discovered by the Duchess having sex in a White House closet is straight out of a Carry-On film:

Once the Duchess nearly surprised them in their makeshift rendezvous. Ferguson, on Harding’s instructions, had gone on to the station to meet Nan on her way home from Chicago. The train was an hour late. When the two finally arrived at the White House through the back entrance, Harding was waiting for them in his office, boiling over with frustration and anxiety. “Where have you been?” he shouted red-faced at Ferguson. Finally mollified enough to lead Nan to the coat closet, he left Ferguson on guard outside the office door. The Secret Service man had not been there five minutes when the Duchess rushed up, arms akimbo and eyes ablaze. When she demanded that he stand aside, he refused, barring the door and telling her it was a strict Secret Service rule that no could enter there. Furiously she dashed round to the front entrance through Christian’s anteroom office. As soon as she disappeared, Ferguson banged on the closet door to warn Harding, then hustled Nan out the side door, telling her to go to his car and wait for him. Christian, suspecting what was up, took his time about admitting the Duchess, and when she finally burst into Harding’s office he was at his desk and there was no sign of Nan. Taking this in at a glance, she rushed out the same side door she had been forbidden to enter, glaring at Ferguson as she brushed past him.

As with some of the best biographies the characters surrounding Harding are as just as interesting (perhaps more so) as he is. Ellroy would definitely have been interested in the glimpses Russell gives the reader of the young ambitious J. Edgar Hoover, angling to assume the role of Director of the Bureau of Investigation (later renamed the FBI), a position he would hold for forty-eight years. In addition, Russell gives brilliant portraits of members of the Ohio Gang (the venal clique that surrounded Harding before and during his presidency and whose inherent corruption would lead to the Teapot Dome scandal and the posthumous destruction of his reputation). There is the ill-fated gofer Jess Smith: ‘His bulging brown eyes were gentle but the rest of his face was pulpy – pink, loose hanging cheeks, and a black mustache above moist, thick lips […] He liked to loll on the courthouse square, any courthouse square, his favourite expression as he buttonholed a passer-by being: “Whaddaya know?”‘ Then there is Harry Daugherty, the most inappropriate choice for Attorney General in US history, who when charged with being ‘either the most maligned man in America or the cleverest crook, Daugherty gave a half-smile, shrugged his shoulders, and told him: “You can take your choice.”‘ Although perhaps the most memorable character is the devious Bureau agent Gaston Bullock Means: ‘a Munchausen in modern dress and the arch-rogue of all the roguish and bizarre figures that infiltrated Washington in the Harding years.’ From his suspected role in the murder of a ‘wealthy scatterbrained widow’ to his attempts to exploit the tragedy of the Lindbergh kidnapping Means is a hissable villain who never once admitted wrongdoing but in reality had no redeeming features. But it is Russell’s fascination with the nature, potential and fate of written sources and their subsequent role in shaping history that would have had the biggest influence on Ellroy. I was gripped by the story of Professor William Estabrook Chancellor, a bigoted Economics Don who threw away a distinguished career in academe to pursue his obsession of exposing Harding’s supposed black family heritage. Chancellor tried to sabotage Harding’s 1920 presidential campaign with a pamphlet titled To the Men and Women of America – An Open Letter containing his dubious racial allegations. This backfired and led to Chancellor’s dismissal from Wooster College, Ohio. Chancellor, not to be deterred, was planning a scurrilous biography titled the Illustrated Life of President Warren G. Harding, but once Daugherty learned of this, Chancellor was forced to burn the manuscript in front of ‘secret service agents and Post Office Inspector C. S. Zimmerman’, although Zimmerman suspected it had been a “fake bonfire”. Chancellor then slipped away to Montreal, re-emerging in 1922 with ‘a manuscript copy that had not been burned, […] traveling under an assumed name, he came with his completed manuscript to Dayton where he registered at the Beckel Hotel and got in touch with two local shysters, Hugh Snepp and Cedric R. Brown.’ Snepp and Brown gave Chancellor the financial backing to publish his Harding book, now under a new title. The subsequent backlash would be even more ferocious this time:

No sooner did Daugherty learn of the book’s surreptitious publication than he ordered Jess and Burns to suppress it. Agents of the Bureau of Investigation combed Ohio, buying, borrowing, or seizing every copy they could lay hands on, removing the book from stores, libraries, and institutions. […] Chancellor’s book became one of the rarest bibliographical items in twentieth-century American history.

Shadow of Blooming GroveRussell cites three US libraries and one anonymous Marion lawyer who are known to have a copy. If Chancellor’s various manuscripts had not been suppressed could it have changed history? Probably not. Most Americans, even by the standards of the time, would have felt nothing but revulsion for Chancellor’s white supremacist views. However, Chancellor’s story felt familiar to me as state institutions suppressing publications to protect themselves is a recurring motif in the work of James Ellroy. In the denouement of White Jazz, the scandal obsessed tabloid Hush-Hush is blocked from publishing Dave ‘the Enforcer’ Klein’s written confession of his life of crime after the LAPD file a legal injunction against the magazine. If the article had been published, the LAPD corruption would have been exposed and the public would have learned how close LA had come to a complete breakdown of law and order. In American Tabloid, Hush-Hush is once again blocked from publishing a story that would have had potentially explosive political consequences. John F. Kennedy is secretly recorded enjoying a tryst with a mistress. When Hush-Hush try to publish the story, the LAPD, in scenes remarkably similar to what happened to Chancellor in Ohio, seize all copies of the magazine before it can be distributed. Now I’m not saying Ellroy used Russell’s history as an inspiration for these scenes (he may well have read the book after the aforementioned novels were published), but I do think chapter 22 of The Shadow of Blooming Grove was an allusive inspiration on the overall structure of the Underworld USA trilogy. Russell dedicates the final chapter ‘Centenary’ to how he uncovered 105 letters between Harding and his lover Carrie Phillips, and how this led to a legal battle that struck at the very heart of issues such as copyright, historical research and the public’s right to know the truth. In a story that could be the basis of a legal thriller, Russell details his first visit to Marion in October 1963. While lunching with a Mason-like group known as the ‘Lawyers Table’, which included the trustees of the Harding Memorial Association, he learned that a local lawyer, Don Williamson, was said to possess some letters between Harding and Carrie Phillips. When he visited Williamson ‘the plump pleasant man’ told him that he was afraid to handover the letters to the Memorial Association as he suspected they would burn all of them and the nature of Harding’s relationship with Phillips would be lost to history. Russell advised Williamson to present the letters to the Ohio Historical Society. But Russell it seems misjudged the society; rather than being devoted to research and scholarship the Ohio Historical Society was ‘predominantly political, heavily subsidized, and supervised by the state legislature, and that its trustees were appointed for reasons of politics rather than scholarship.’ Russell held the society’s president, the Columbus-based lawyer Fred J. Milligan, in particular contempt, ‘a man of aggressive naivete […] his talk crude and his voice harsh’ and most damning for a supposed historian ‘he had read little and written nothing.’ Nevertheless Russell and Williamson handed over the letters to the society unaware that Milligan was already plotting against them. Russell describes how the 1964 AGM of the Ohio Historical Society was heavily publicised as the society claimed to have acquired all of the Harding papers, partly due to Russell’s work, and would open them to researchers within six months. However, Milligan ‘told the 15 trustees – his hoarse voice edged with anger – that the Harding papers being released to view that day were not quite all. There were still other letters, some extraordinary private correspondence to consider. The board then sent the stenographer from the room and went into executive session […] Milligan informed the trustees that a large collection of Harding’s love letters to another man’s wife had come into possession of the society.’ In the meantime the existence of the letters was beginning to leak out and Russell ‘confirmed certain data which appeared in a story in The New York Times about the Harding letters. The coast-to-coast, and even European, reaction was more than I had bargained for.’ Harding’s nephew, Dr George T. Harding, enraged by the publication of certain erotic extracts which he claimed caused the family emotional distress, filed a suit asking for the impounding of the letters. After prolonged legal battles, during which time the letters were stored in a safe deposit box of the Ohio National Bank, the Harding family gained control of the letters and succeeded in blocking their publication.

Ultimately, Russell chose to publish The Shadow of Blooming Grove with blank spaces in the text where he had originally quoted from the letters. The effect of these deletions is tantalising to the reader. Take the quote below, taken from the ‘Centenary’ chapter, where Russell describes how Harding’s letters to Carrie Phillips confirmed he was also having an affair with Nan Britton:

Even before I read them I could see that they confirmed Nan Britton, for in her book she had told of receiving letters 40 pages long, written in pencil and enclosed in blue envelopes. I had thought such length preposterous and doubted her story because of it, but here were pencilled letters equally long, and enclosed in similar blue envelopes. Here the same expressions that he had used to Nan popped out of the scrawled pages: [—————————————————-]

By my count there are 28 quotations in the book redacted in this way, amounting to what Russell describes as ‘800 words from a text of 300,000.’ But what has any of this to do with James Ellroy? I believe Russell’s legal problems regarding the Carrie letters may have inspired Ellroy to structure the Underworld USA series to resemble an archive of historical sources in which the reader is given glimpses of confidential or censored documents. American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand (2001) and Blood’s a Rover (2009) read as a secret history, more revealing and comprehensive than established historical sources. In Tabloid for instance, Bobby Kennedy orders J. Edgar Kennedy to handover all of his covert recordings of organised crime figures. But Hoover only gives Kennedy redacted versions of the tapes. Thus, Bobby Kennedy is unaware that the Mafia is conspiring to assassinate his brother. Hoover (and the reader of the novel) are privy to transcripts which give a glimpse of this conspiracy. By Blood’s a Rover, the fate of Hoover’s archive of files forms the conclusion of the trilogy. The series ends with Hoover’s death and the disposition of the files by left-wing activists reveal to an angry nation the illegal activities of the Intelligence community. Hoover’s death falls just after the theft of confidential files from the FBI offices in Media, Pennsylvania, and just before the botched break-in at the Watergate Hotel. The Watergate scandal is only alluded to in the novel, but by the end of the series it is clear power has shifted from an underworld of organised crime and rogue Intelligence operatives to a different underworld of radical activists who are briefly able to expose corruption and hold power to account. But the ending is still clouded in ambiguity. The character in Blood’s a Rover who most closely resembles Ellroy, Don Crutchfield, becomes the recipient and custodian of the files but there remains doubt as to his ability to bring the revelations to public view. America may be more accountable following the death of Hoover and the old underworld but there are still forces at work that can block the release of damaging government secrets. I realise there is a big difference between racy letters being suppressed to spare the blushes of the Harding family and documents being classified because they reveal US intelligence’s role in criminal activity, but when I reread Crutchfield’s opening and closing monologue of Blood’s a Rover recently, I was struck by the similarity between his words and Francis Russell’s thinly concealed anger at the suppression of the Carrie letters. Russell knew that the letters he had read and wanted the American public to see could not be blocked from publication indefinitely, ‘Eventually, of course, the letters will be published as a part of history. Meanwhile each reader must make his own interpretation of them.’ The Library of Congress released the letters in July 2014. The letters caused a minor stir for being the ‘most sexually-explicit language ever credited to an American head of state’ but were more humorous than controversial, being sent-up on Last Week Tonight by John Oliver. Frankly, a President naming his right honourable member ‘Jerry’ is not shocking twenty years after a presidential scandal involving cigars and a semen stained dress. Russell predicted this: ‘Harding’s eroticism as expressed in his letters is naive, and even pathetic as the quality of his mind peeps through the boudoir phrases.’ Russell died in 1989. Everything I can find out about him suggests he had a fascinating life. According to his author’s bio, after serving as a captain in the Canadian Army during World War II he lived in ‘France, England, Holland, Ireland and Germany’. He won an Edgar award for his true-crime book Tragedy In Dedham: The Story of the Sacco-Vanzetti Case (1963) and spent his declining years in some style, living in the seventeenth-century house “The Lindens” in Sandwich on Cape Cod. But a quarter-century after his death, and with the release of the Carrie letters, how well does Russell’s scholarship hold up?

Warren G. Harding Home in Marion, Ohio

Warren G. Harding Home in Marion, Ohio

A few years ago my wife and I were visiting friends in Ohio and decided to drop by Harding’s Marion home (now a museum run by the Ohio Historical Society who changed their name to the Ohio History Connection two months before the Carrie letters were finally released) and his final resting place, the Harding tomb, nearby. We were given a guided tour by a friendly history teacher who worked in the museum over the summer. Chatting amicably away with her, when I mentioned The Shadow of Blooming Grove the pleasant mood suddenly evaporated. According to the teacher, Russell’s book was ‘terrible trash’ and not a serious history. Perhaps she was right, I’m not enough of an expert on the era to have spotted mistakes that a Harding scholar might see in Russell’s research. It did occur to me however, that Russell’s dispute with the Harding heirs and the Ohio Historical Society was still causing some lingering resentment fifty years after the initial controversy of the Carrie Phillips letters. In Russell’s defence, I would have to say that The Shadow of Blooming Grove reads brilliantly throughout its 663 pages. Russell paces the story very well, from Harding’s Capraesque role as editor of the Marion Star to his gradual rise in the murky world of Ohio politics (Lieutenant Governor, State Senator) in the age of the political boss. Also, the complex machinations of government, whether in Ohio or Washington DC, could easily be tedious and over detailed but Russell handles each stage of the story well. I was racing through the book by the time events move to Harding’s role as Senator and Presidential candidate. Now it may well be that Russell’s approach is too novelistic for a biography (the corruption of the Ohio Gang has proved ripe material for fiction being adapted in Gore Vidal’s novel Hollywood (1990) and the HBO series Boardwalk Empire), and I have not heard the Ohio Historical Society’s response to his allegations, but the story is so fascinating I admired how suspense built as events moved towards Harding’s sudden death just two years into his presidency. Russell does test one account against another at several times in the text, and demolishes scurrilous rumours that Harding was murdered, a theory put forth in The Strange Death of President Harding (1931) by the dastardly Gaston Means. All in all, Russell’s work has survived the test of time as a valuable and fascinating history. The most recent edition was published in 1988. I suggest it might be time for a new edition of The Shadow of Blooming Grove to be published with the quotes from the Carrie letters put back in.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 18, 2015 6:07 pm

    This brings back many long-ago memories. On my drive up from Columbus to Ann Arbor to interview Mr. Ellroy, I actually detoured through Marion and stopped by the Harding house; picked up some swag for the man (Harding souvenir shot glasses and the like) and some shots of the Harding Memorial there. With the recent release of the “new” letters, there indeed certainly seems plenty of Ellroyish material there still to be reaped.

    But I was left with the sense back then JE was only in Harding reading mode, and at that point hadn’t put anything down on paper though he indicated researchers were culling more material. The fact that John Edgar Hoover rose in FBI stature during Harding’s administration would also fit with Ellroy’s larger world. Immediately after the 2001 interview, of course, Mr. Ellroy’s life took a decided turn…

    • October 18, 2015 7:02 pm

      Craig,

      Thanks for commenting. I had no idea you had given Ellroy some Harding memorabilia. What a fine slice of history is preserved in the Harding home and tomb tucked away in what is now suburbia. Still the museum, if I remember correctly, offers a very sanitised view of Harding, barely any mention of Teapot Dome or his mistresses.

      I only wish that he had gone ahead and written the Harding novel rather than being sidetracked by the negative reviews to The Cold Six Thousand (which I would rank as one of his best). The parallels between the Ohio Gang and Kennedy’s camelot was just one area I thought would fascinate Ellroy. However, I think the most difficult thing in writing the novel would have been finding the right voice for the setting. Ellroy soaked up the vibe of the fifties and sixties by living through it. Perfidia was his first novel set prior to his birth but in his home setting. A Harding novel would have been a huge challenge in this regard.

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