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Robert Ferrell
Robert Ferrell
The Strange Deaths of President Harding
ISBN: 0826212026
The Strange Deaths of President Harding
Professor Ferrell talked about his book, The Strange Deaths of President Harding, published by the University of Missouri Press. Mr. Ferrell discussed the president's physical death from a heart attack as well as the death of his reputation. He talked about the rumors that still haunt the 29th president, including the circumstances surrounding his death, whether he had an illegitimate child, and what he knew about Teapot Dome and other scandals during his administration. President Harding died in San Francisco on his way back from Alaska on August 2, 1923.
The Strange Deaths of President Harding
Program Air Date: January 12, 1997

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Robert H. Ferrell, why did you call your book "The Strange Deaths of President Harding"?
Mr. ROBERT H. FERRELL, AUTHOR, "THE STRANGE DEATHS OF PRESIDENT HARDING": It's a title, Mr. Lamb, that was used by a writer in 1930, a man named Gaston B. Means, and we took his title and improved it by using the plural. And he--he called his book "The Strange Death of President Harding" and this is the strange deaths--plural.
LAMB: Why `deaths?'
Mr. FERRELL: There was the--you might describe it the formal death. This was the president's death on August 2nd, 1923, and then there was the death of his reputation, which is what the book is about. It--at the time of Har--of Harding's death, it was very high, and within a very short time--weeks, months--it was falling; and by 1930, it was as low as it could go. And it's--it's there even now. The eighth of the polls of presidents by presidential experts, presumably--historians, political scientists and freelance lighter--writer, too, and Senator Paul Simon, has just been published in The New York Times magazine. And there's a wonderful article in there by Arthur Schlesinger. And this being the eighth poll, Harding is exactly where he was in the first poll, which was published by Arthur's father in 1948.
LAMB: I'll come back to that as we go through the hour. I--you know, I wrote down a bunch of things after I finished this book: affairs, scandals, a suicide, Teapot Dome hearings--it sounds a little bit like what we keep reading every day in the last four years. Is there any similarity?
Mr. FERRELL: There is, indeed. The president's reputation--I mean, President Clinton--is under attack. I think this is a well-known fact. And, indeed, the Paula Jones hearings are coming up next month before the Supreme Court. And there are problems with the economy. I refer to the very high stock market at the moment which was marked--markedly high in the '20s. All the talk about Mr. Clinton, I think you could find analogs in the Harding administration, 1921-'23.
LAMB: Here's a picture here you have of two gentlemen. Who are they?
Mr. FERRELL: The one to the left is Attorney General Harry Daugherty. and the one to the right was a man who came from the same town as Mr. Daugherty. This was Washington Courthouse, Ohio, and this is Jess Smith, who was a suicide on May 31st, 1923, Decoration Day.
LAMB: Why'd he commit suicide?
Mr. FERRELL: I think, and Dr. Joel T. Boone, who was assistant White House physician, thought that it was a garden variety of suicide, that he was involved in a--a scandal that broke later in regard to the bribery of several individuals. He took, apparently--we don't quite know for certain--$124,000, which was a lot of money in those days. And that probably was dogging him.

It was also true that Harding was down on him and had told Daugherty to get him out of town, meaning that he was to go back to Washington Courthouse, and he thought the curtain was coming down on him.
LAMB: There's a note here about a Roxie Stenson. You remember that name?
Mr. FERRELL: Roxie Stenson was Jess Smith's wife. They had been married for a year or so perhaps 15, 20 years before that. And when there was a congressional investigation of Daugherty--this was in 1924--Roxie was the first witness. I don't think she had much to say. I read the proceedings in--which were publ--these were co--congressional testimonies--there are two volumes. And it was even said by some people that she was coached by one of the members of the committee. This was Senator Wheeler.

I think quite probably she was, because everything she said, she hedged by `Jess told me,' so that, in effect, she did not say it herself. But she said some remarkable things and she was also angry with Daugherty, and I think moot for that reason...
LAMB: The rea...
Mr. FERRELL: the testimony.
LAMB: The reason I mention it, because there's a little paragraph in here that you wrote about the suicide. This, again, sounds familiar of a lot of the arguments we've been having over the last couple years. `Jess Smith's body had been brought back to Ohio for burial and together with a companion. She looked at the corpse and saw where the bullet entered the temple. There was a neat hole. She did not see where it exited, which was the back of the head and would have involved turning the body. She allowed for facial bruises because the head had tumbled into a wastebasket.' Was this controversial back then?
Mr. FERRELL: Well, it's bizarre, but yet, quite possible physically and without any intention, perhaps, on Jess' part. Sure. Sure. And I might add that not merely Dr. Boone, who was on the scene, said this in a big, unpublished autobiography that's in the Library of Congress in his papers, but the Washington coroner said the same thing.
LAMB: Who is this?
Mr. FERRELL: That's Nan Britton, who was allegedly Harding's mistress; published a book in 1927 accusing him of being the father of her child. The book is entitled "The President's Daughter."
LAMB: Who's this?
Mr. FERRELL: That's Elizabeth Ann, who was the president's daughter, according to Nan.
LAMB: Is she still alive?
Mr. FERRELL: I think she is. Last time I heard, which--I did not hear, I read in some scholarly exchanges--she was in California, and actually in Glendale. And I would suspect that she's still out there. She was born in 1919, so this would make her 77, perhaps.
LAMB: And you have a picture in here of a monument. What's this?
Mr. FERRELL: That's the Harding Memorial in Marion, Ohio, one of the most beautiful memorials I think I've seen.
LAMB: You tell a story about seeing it 50 years apart.
Mr. FERRELL: I open the book with an account of how a young college student, which was me, was driving back from Columbus up to Bowling Green in Ohio, and we came into Marion and it was late afternoon and there was snow on the ground and I saw the Harding Memorial and in the way of perhaps, college students, in any event, myself at that time--no cars were in sight and I simply turned the car and drove up the sidewalk. I was with a group of my friends. And I waved expansively and I said, `This is the residence of a president of the United States.' And we all laughed. We all thought that Harding was a joke. And I was included in the group.
LAMB: Fifty years ago.
Mr. FERRELL: Fifty years ago. It was 1946.
LAMB: Why did you...
Mr. FERRELL: And I've changed my mind.
LAMB: You have?
Mr. FERRELL: I don't think he's a joke.
LAMB: Why not?
Mr. FERRELL: I think he was a serious president, and I think that he does not deserve to be last in all of the now eight polls of presidents. I would put him in the middle, and I think that if he had lived--his health was not good--if he had lived, I think he could have been in the upper group.
LAMB: Here's a picture of President Harding, and who's standing by his side?
Mr. FERRELL: To the left is his wife; this is Florence Harding. To the right is his father, Dr. George T. Harding. He was...
LAMB: Actually, I've got this picture down here. The one on the bottom.
Mr. FERRELL: Oh, I'm sorry. To the left is Mrs. Harding, to the right the president himself in that little cap.
LAMB: When was he president?
Mr. FERRELL: 1921-'23.
LAMB: How long did he live?
Mr. FERRELL: He died August 2nd, 1923.
LAMB: How many months was he actually president?
Mr. FERRELL: Two and a half years.
LAMB: How did he die?
Mr. FERRELL: He died, you might say normally, by one of the ways that many Americans go. It was a heart attack.
LAMB: Was there a question about that back in those years?
Mr. FERRELL: There, indeed, was. Five physicians were in attendance, including a former president of the American Medical Association and the current president. The current president was Ray Liven Wilbur, who was at that time president of Stanford University and formerly the dean of the Stanford Medical School. All five of them said that he died of apoplexy, which was an old-fashioned word for stroke. It couldn't have been a stroke because a stroke takes at least 10 minutes. He died instantly and that's a heart attack.
LAMB: Why did they say apoplexy?
Mr. FERRELL: Strangely, or interestingly perhaps, heart attacks were not well-known, the existence of such possibilities. They were usually defined as stomach upsets. The first heart attack that was discerned by a physician in a patient happened in Chicago in 1910. There was an article published in 1912. And for, perhaps, a decade and more, most physicians did not--either didn't read the article or didn't believe that its author, who was an acutely intelligent physician, a man named Harek, was correct about this. So they paid no attention.

But by the end of the 1920s, cardiology was a going concern. It hardly existed beyond a nominal point in the early 1920s. I think the doctors simply did not recognize what they were looking at.
LAMB: How many books have you written in your life?
Mr. FERRELL: Written, that is written everything, not co-authored--this is my 14th.
LAMB: And how many of them are about presidents?
Mr. FERRELL: I've also edited some books and co-edited a few. The total is now 35. And I would say half of them are about presidents.
LAMB: How many different presidents?
Mr. FERRELL: Wilson, Coolidge, Hoover, Eisenhower and Truman--I've done more on Truman than any--than anything else.
LAMB: Why Truman?
Mr. FERRELL: I met Mr. Truman one time. I liked him very much. I had been around the Truman Library a fair amount, but I came in one Friday afternoon, it was 3:30 in the af--it--and--i--my discovery occurred at 3:30 in the afternoon. I opened a box with manuscripts--they were all handwritten in Truman's hand. I'd never seen a box like that before. I was entranced by these things.

And I had actually come on Truman's private papers; two of the best boxes about those papers. It was a wonderful thing. I look back on that Friday afternoon--I went back to Bloomington, Indiana, I got a ticket out Sunday night, went back to Kansas City--Independence and Monday morning was in the library, stayed two weeks. And since that time, I've been there two and a half years. Wonderful papers. I never saw presidential papers of that sort.
LAMB: What'd they look like?
Mr. FERRELL: This wonderful handwriting--Truman had a hand that was easy to read, sometimes amusing--he couldn't spell very well. His worst word, Mr. Lamb, was `sacrilegious.' He gave up on that one. He didn't know when there were double G's in a word or double L's, I should say. Then I made another discovery concerning Truman. This was 1983. I was the only researcher in the library and one of the archivists came in and said that they had 1,268 letters from Truman to the woman who became his wife, first Bess Wallace and then Bess Truman, and would I like to look at them? And they were all in the president's handwriting except one. Those two, you might say, discoveries, they were the high points of my life as a researcher. And I can't get them out of my head. I must tell you that.
LAMB: And did you talk to the president about them?
Mr. FERRELL: Oh, no. No. I met the president in 1957. I must tell you the way in which I met him, if I may. There was a little group of us. We came over from the University of Kansas. We went around to the back of the library and the president came in around 1:30. He looked exactly as in the pictures, and almost like children, we gathered around him in a sort of a semi-circle. These were fairly sophisticated college professors and I was amused and amazed by this. But then he looked at us and he said, `Are there any isolationists in here?' Half the group was that--of that belief, but they kept quiet.

Then he went around and shook hands with us and he put out his hand to me and it was really remarkable. He didn't say, `I'm President Truman,' or `I'm Harry S. Truman.' He said, `Truman.' And I shook his hand. It was a great anti-climatic moment. I said, `Ferrell.' And he was just as nice as he could be.
LAMB: When was the last time you saw him?
Mr. FERRELL: I would go out to the library once in a while. My Yale doctoral adviser, Samuel Beamis, his first cousin was the director of the library. This was my connection. And Phil Brooks would give me invitations to formal meetings of what's called the Truman Library Institute. And I would go to several of these. I went to several of these. Mr. Truman was present and he didn't say anything usually, simply sat there. But to see the old man was interesting. And then we would go over to a local restaurant and have lunch afterward. I would say the last time was 1962. He took ill in 1964 and never really recovered.
LAMB: Where do you live?
Mr. FERRELL: Bloomington, Indiana.
LAMB: What do you do?
Mr. FERRELL: I have taught--I'm now retired--at Indiana University which, as you know, Mr. Lamb, is about 100 miles from another famous location which is West Lafayette, Indiana.
LAMB: Very important location.
Mr. FERRELL: And there is a university named Purdue, of which you are a graduate.
LAMB: Yes, sir. That's right. Makes us both Hoosiers, then, doesn't it?
Mr. FERRELL: That's right. That's right. Proud of it.
LAMB: And--and what about--I mean, what did you come across that made you want to write a book about President Harding?
Mr. FERRELL: I'd just finished a manuscript on President Coolidge, and in the course of it, I was in the--what's called the Herbert Hoover Library, which is in West Branch, Iowa, and there I saw an oral history by Dr. Joel Boone. And I then discovered shortly thereafter that Boone's papers in the Library of Congress, which are a 100 boxes, are open and they are some of the best papers I've seen on the 1920s. His unpublished autobiography--I enjoy this kind of thing. There are 1,000 pages on each of the three Republican presidents: Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. And while some of these pages are not interesting--they're simply repetitions of newspaper articles--others are such things as `I was on the second floor,' this is at the White House, `and I talked to the president and the president told me so and so.' And that's ideal material.
LAMB: And who was Dr. Joel Boone?
Mr. FERRELL: He was--during the Harding and Coolidge periods--presidencies, he was the assistant White House physician, and then he had the title of White House physician during the Hoover presidency.
LAMB: What did he teach you in those papers that led to a book?
Mr. FERRELL: First of all, he said, among other things, that Mrs. Harding was not the ogress--if you can use that word--that some people described her as. He liked her very much. She was personable, she was kind, and he saw a great deal of her. He was, for quite a while, her personal physician.
LAMB: Who said she was bad news?
Mr. FERRELL: This is just about the message of all of the journalists, William Allen White, Mark Sullivan. She was not a pretty woman. She was five years older than her husband. And it was easy to make fun of her. She dressed in the somewhat extraordinary dresses of the time, shawls and long dresses, things with fringe on them. And it was easy to poke fun at her and then, of course, through her, to poke fun at her husband. This is not in the Boone diary. The Boone diary is quite friendly in its treatment of Florence Harding and I think properly so.
LAMB: Why would all those other journalists get it wrong?
Mr. FERRELL: Because they made it up. This is easy to do. It's also tempting to do when you have--if--I've often thought that if Florence Harding had been as pretty as Jacqueline Kennedy, I don't think they would have said this.
LAMB: But you're...
Mr. FERRELL: It's an unfair appraisal, but this is the way that perhaps life is, certainly journalism.
LAMB: A former guest on this program sat in that chair and said--he wrote a biography of Theodore Roosevelt, that Mr. Roosevelt read a book a day.
Mr. FERRELL: Was this Bill Harbaugh?
LAMB: No, it was Nathan Miller. And the reason I bring it up is because--I'm looking for the page here--you say that, in here, you talk about the reading habits of the presidents, both Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman and--I mean, it's--`A man who knew Roosevelt well, wrote of him that he did not think Roosevelt ever read a book.'
Mr. FERRELL: This is Franklin Roosevelt. But I...
LAMB: This is Franklin Roosevelt?
Mr. FERRELL: That's Franklin. But I would actually say the same thing of Theodore.
LAMB: And the reas--but let me just jump in, though. You also say the same thing--`Harry Truman, known as a man of books, sometimes went for years without reading very much.' When you go to his home, they have that room set up there where all of his books are, and they say he read there every day.
Mr. FERRELL: He did. But this was in his old age. There were periods when he wrote--when he read. He read in high school and I don't think he read much after that. In old age, beginning in 1964 when physically he was going down, he read a good deal. And there was even a story in The New York Times after he died--there was a man who walked down the street outside of his house, and he could see the old president--he could see his silhouette in the window reading.

I think there's no question about this. The last photographs of the president show him--they were made while Thomas Hart Benton was painting him, and he painted the same scene, the old president was sitting back at the desk, it was piled high with books, he had books on which he was resting his arm and he was reading a book. This was in his last years.

Now ask me about Theodore Roosevelt, and I'll make a point about that. Mark Sullivan, the journalist, kept a diary. It was a short diary. It began in 1920. It was occasional for awhile. It became fairly constant 1922, '23, '24. But he had a point in there about seeing--seeing Theodore Roosevelt after he'd left the presidency, and he said Roosevelt was dictating letters. And he had just received a book, perhaps from William Alan White--I'm not sure where--and the former president said to Sullivan, he said, `Watch this,' he said. And while he was dictating, he was thumbing the book. And he turned perhaps to Page 72 or somewhere into the book and he just went randomly down the page, came about a third of the way down, saw a sentence, `Now,' he says, dictating the letter, he says, `I don't agree with this.' And then he made a counter statement and he did this once or twice more and then he closed the book. And after the letter was over, he turned to Sullivan and he said, `Now, what do you think of that?'

That was his reading. I think that the attribution of great reading habits to some of these people, notably political leaders who don't have the time to read--it makes good copy and we like to think they read books. And I hope President Clinton is reading a book, perhaps my book, right now. But I wouldn't want to lay any bet on that.
LAMB: He told us in the interview on BOOKNOTES that he reads about 30 minutes a day and that if he's flying around, he may read as much as two hours at a time.
Mr. FERRELL: I'm surprised...
LAMB: And he--and he listed a whole bunch of books that he read, lots of fiction.
Mr. FERRELL: During those 30-minute periods or the two-hour...
LAMB: Well, just over time. Over the years.
Mr. FERRELL: Well, I give him credit for that and it's a very nice testimony which is in favor of the book. As they say in the Library of Congress, `We're all in favor of that.'
LAMB: You quote Samuel Hopkins Adams--by the way, who was he?
Mr. FERRELL: He was a freelance writer in his later years. He was what they described as a muckraker earlier. These--the description is Theodore Roosevelt's. And these were people who wrote about great--either political scandals or financial things that weren't proper or, in his case, he wrote about patent medicines. He was a wonderful writer. In his total of books--I think they totaled 50--there were novels. He was a good novelist, very--he was a--really a professional writer, and good at it.
LAMB: You--I--the reason I mention it is because you quote him as saying, "The fact is that Warren G. Harding was--was and remained an unread man. Books did not enter his scheme of life in any important sense. The magic and the music were alien to him."
Mr. FERRELL: That's what Samuel Adams said. I don't know how he knew this. And if it were true, which I, perhaps, am inclined to believe it was, this, I would argue, is not--is not strange for a political leader. Theodore Roosevelt, Harding perhaps--Coolidge, interestingly, was something of a reader, though perhaps not in the presidency. Franklin Roosevelt--Franklin Roosevelt's second postmaster general--that was, I think, the quotation you saw there--went--he wrote in an unpublished, but soon to be published by me, autobiography--he wrote that he didn't think Roosevelt--Franklin Roosevelt ever read a book. And he said that he once asked him about Kathleen Windsor's "Forever Amber," if you recall that book. He asked the president if he'd read it. Roosevelt grinned and he said, `Only the dirty parts,' he said, which was not much of a comment. And Frank Walker remembered that one.
LAMB: You have about--I think it's five chapters or so, you have scandals and you have a chapter that's on the president's daughter and you have a chapter here called The Poison Theory, and then one Death at the Palace. Of all the things that you wrote about in this, what was the hardest information to get?
Mr. FERRELL: I think about Nan Britton. It's not easy to find this material. I found some at the University of Toledo, perhaps not where one would naturally look, and then at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. And I understand there was a young college student who once wrote a paper on Nan Britton--now that's one I didn't know about. Is that on file, do you think?
LAMB: I don't know where it is. And I don't know why I wrote that--that 30 years ago or whatever it was.
Mr. FERRELL: What did you...
LAMB: And I shouldn't have told you that.
Mr. FERRELL: What did you conclude about her?
LAMB: Well, I--she just had a book, you know, and we...
Mr. FERRELL: And you read the book and believed it?
LAMB: I ha--no--no comment. Let's...
Mr. FERRELL: I think you did.
LAMB: Let's go back--let's go--let's start at the beginning.
Mr. FERRELL: College students always believe everything they read, right?
LAMB: I'm going to go try and find that now that I have the truth here. Go back to Nan Britton. Where was she from?
Mr. FERRELL: She was born in a little town five miles to the east of Marion, and when she was an infant, she moved to Marion and grew up there.
LAMB: How did she know the president?
Mr. FERRELL: She saw him in this then town that was growing into a city. It must have been 6,000 or 8,000 population when she came there. And at the time of Harding's death, I think there were 19,000 people in Marion. But more, perhaps, to the point, her English teacher in high school--she graduated from the Marion High School in 1914--her English teacher was the sister of the president. This was Abigail Victoria, known as Daisy Harding.
LAMB: How did they get to know each other?
Mr. FERRELL: She--well, Nan was in her English classes, and I think a fairly good student, too.
LAMB: I mean, the president--how did they get...
LAMB: How did she get to know President Harding?
Mr. FERRELL: Nan was struck by the president. She had what in my younger days was known as a crush on the president. I have some proof of that, which I discovered rather oddly in the Library of Congress, so this was a book of--a high school English book which was her book. It was in the rare book division. It had been sent in by a woman from Cincinnati in 1971. There it was. I won't go into how I found the book, but the book has Harding's name all over it, and various questions about themes. Nan would always think of Harding as a person for a theme. There was--I've forgotten some of the points about it, but every time, `Who's the person about whom you'd like to write?' say, and the answer was Warren G. Harding.
LAMB: What impact did she have on his life?
Mr. FERRELL: I don't think she had any.
LAMB: What's her--she wrote a book, though.
Mr. FERRELL: She wrote a book. Indeed, she did. Her book, published in 1927, titled "The President's Daughter," was, of course, posthumous. Harding died in 1923. I don't think she hardly knew him. She did on one occasion, she says, and I believe this, driving a buggy with her sister, they saw Mr. and Mrs. Harding sitting on the front porch of their house--this is on Mt. Vernon Avenue in Marion. And they pulled up, and they were invited to come up. Harding probably--in fact, did know Nan's father, who was a physician. Harding's father was a physician. The two physicians had known each other. And Harding, as a newspaper editor, published some essays by Nan's father. It was a--not much of an acquaintance, but there was a little there.
LAMB: By the way--we'll come back to it in just a second--Warren G. Harding was elected in what year?
Mr. FERRELL: 1920, and...
LAMB: H--what was he doing right before that?
Mr. FERRELL: He was senator from Ohio. He was elected in 1914 to the Senate. He served from 1915 until his presidency, March 1921.
LAMB: What did he do for a profession?
Mr. FERRELL: He was a newspaper editor. He was the editor of The Marion Star, which became the primary paper--it was a morning paper--of Marion. And it was a very successful paper financially. I've sometimes thought that William Allen White, who did not like Harding, was irritated in part because he was speaking with Harding one time and they were comparing, as perhaps newspaper people do, their circulations. And Harding had two or three times the circulation of William Allen White's paper in Topeka.
LAMB: And--but at the height of William Allen White's popularity, how big a deal was he in the country?
Mr. FERRELL: As a writer of articles in The Saturday Evening Post, which was the country's principal magazine, and then as the publisher of books, White was quite a publisher. There's a wonderful vein of--I always thought idealism; I still think so--in his writings, and he was was gifted as a writer. Even his letters are interesting. And he had a national reputation. His--his newspaper in Kansas was a small proposition.
LAMB: You have a picture here of this gentleman right here, sitting on a bench somewhere. Who is that?
Mr. FERRELL: That's Richard Wightman. Richard Wightman was the head of an organization that bore the title, I think somewhat grandiloquently, of the Bible Corporation of America. He was the employer of Nan Britton at the time that she decided to write her book, and I think she was the author of her book.
LAMB: He was.
Mr. FERRELL: He was. I'm sorry. Yeah.
LAMB: And you have a whole--there's a whole series of guilds named after Elizabeth Ann, the daughter of Nan Britton. What was that all about?
Mr. FERRELL: There was something called Elizabeth Ann Guild, which was nominally--which, in fact, was the publisher of Nan's book. Wightman, once he helped Nan write the book--and the word `help' is, I think, not the proper word; I think he wrote it and she added what she could to it. After he had the manuscript, he took it around and he couldn't interest any New York publisher in it, so it was self-published by the Elizabeth Ann Guild and then sold out of the guild's headquarters in New York. They had the address in the book itself. That had a very special aspect to it, namely that they did not have to discount the book through bookstores. They got the face price of the book, which was very high; it was $5.
LAMB: How--how many copies of the Nan Britton book sold back in those days?
Mr. FERRELL: I think it went to something like 120,000, which was a lot of sale. Even today, 100,000 is--I think you could say that's a best-seller.
LAMB: Have you read the book?
Mr. FERRELL: I have, indeed.
LAMB: What's it say?
Mr. FERRELL: What...
LAMB: It's been a lot of years.
LAMB: I can't remember.
Mr. FERRELL: You can't remember? Well, it's a series of assertions. It begins with--without assertion. That is, Nan speaks of her childhood and growing up in Marion and getting acquainted with the man who later would be president, and then it moves to her job in New York. She was first in Cleveland, then she went to Chicago and then to New York. And she said that Senator--as he was then--Senator Harding--she asked Harding for a recommendation, which he gave her. This was in 1917. And then he came to New York and she begins what I think is not a factual story--it's a piece of fiction--in which she says that she met him and then he, of course, started seeing her. And it gets a little lurid after that.
LAMB: Did anybody--I mean, you basically in your book try to disprove her.
Mr. FERRELL: Oh, yes.
LAMB: Anybody else ever try to disprove what she said?
Mr. FERRELL: I don't think so, other than you, and I don't know what you said.
LAMB: You keep accusing me of things that I didn't do.
Mr. FERRELL: I would love to see this essay.
LAMB: I'm sorry I even mentioned it. How did you disprove it?
Mr. FERRELL: I cannot completely disprove her. And here, incidentally, is the similarity with the upcoming case of Paula Jones, where you have two people meeting privately. What can you say in the way of disproof? But--I don't want to say any more about the Jones business, but in the case of Nan, there are all kinds of circus--circumstantial evidences that her story is fiction.
LAMB: Give an example. Anybody alive, by the way, that was--today that was there back then in those days that you've talked to?
Mr. FERRELL: I've talked to myself. I was...
LAMB: You were there.
Mr. FERRELL: I was in Cleveland. I was a mere infant at the time. I was born in the Harding administration. There are very few people who have any knowledge at all. I would say none now. One would have to be very much up in years of the Harding administration. I'd say no, there are almost no survivors.
LAMB: What's the scandal chapter about? And I'm--and who is Harry Daugherty? He comes up all the time.
Mr. FERRELL: Harry Daugherty was the attorney general. And he was disliked because he had been a an Ohio political fixer, I think you might describe her; he--describe him. He was a--a lawyer. He had a law practice for a while, and then he followed Harding around. He was Harding's campaign manager, and I think a very able one. And perhaps for that reason, perhaps also because he had predicted something. He predicted Harding's nomination in a smoke-filled room, about 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning at the Chicago convention of 1920. And this is not quite how it happened, but it was close enough. There was a smoke-filled room. There was talk of Harding. Harding was the natural candidate after the two main contenders fought each other to exhaustion.
LAMB: You say that he went on to be the attorney general under Calvin Coolidge after the death, but--but he...
Mr. FERRELL: He served for a few months, and then Coolidge--he was very inconvenient politically; he was under intense criticism. And also--this is something I discovered in the Boone autobiography--it's almost certain that he suffered from a stroke. This was early in 1923. His behavior--his behavior was erratic, and I think that Coolidge simply couldn't put up with it. At one time, according to Boone, he went over to the White House and, in effect, told President Coolidge off, and you shouldn't do that.
LAMB: Was he corrupt?
Mr. FERRELL: I don't think so. His biographer, James Giglio, who is a friend of mine--his biographer thinks he was, but I say there's no proof of it. I have seen no evidence of this.
LAMB: This sentence intrigued me because we've covered hearings till the last minute of things that have happened on the Hill. `The Teapot Dome Committee hearings petered out in May of 1990--tw--1924, and at the last hearing, there was not a single spectator present.' What are the Teapot Dome hearings?
Mr. FERRELL: The Teapot Dome hearings were over the leasing of naval oil reserves to two big oil men. One was a man named Doheny and the other was Harry F. Sinclair. Some of your viewers are old enough to remember the Sinclair gas stations, which were all over the country. In exchange for those leases, which were given by Harding's secretary of the interior--this was Albert Fall--Fall received what he thought--I suspect he really thought this, but it wasn't much of a thought--he thought these were loans. But Doheny gave him $100,000, which was carried to him in a little black bag by Doheny's son. The little black bag became almost a symbol of this. And then Sinclair gave him $304,000. And eventually in 1929, 1930, Sin--Fall went to prison. He was the...
LAMB: This was the secretary of the interior.
Mr. FERRELL: This was the former secretary of the interior. It was the first time that a Cabinet member had gone to prison.
LAMB: And he took actual cash money?
Mr. FERRELL: He took cash money. He was land-poor. He had a vast holding of land in his state. He was born, brought up in Kentucky, but he had been, prior to being secretary of the interior, had be--he had been senator from New Mexico. He had too much land. He had mortgages on it, he was deeply in debt. And the way that he was discovered, actually, was rather miraculous improvements were made on his land in New Mexico. Word came up to the committee. The question was, `Where did the money come from?' He lied about the source. And then Doheny himself mentioned his own loan, and not long after that, word came out about the Sinclair loan.
LAMB: What was the Veterans Affairs scandal?
Mr. FERRELL: This was a scandal in the Veterans' Bureau that was presided over by the man who was the head of the bureau, the director of the bureau, Charles R. Forbes by name. He...
LAMB: Where is he in this picture?
Mr. FERRELL: He's at the right. He has his hands together. He's looking perhaps off into the distance. The members of the senatorial committee are lined up there against the mantle.
LAMB: You point out something that we see from time to time when we cover hearings: the fellow at the back reading the newspaper.
Mr. FERRELL: I enjoyed that. I didn't see him at first, but he's sitting back there oblivious to it all. He's enjoying the--perhaps The Washington Post. Who knows?
LAMB: Who--what did Colonel Forbes do wrong?
Mr. FERRELL: Forbes took money. He started off by being in league with the council of the Veterans' Bureau. They took money on sites for veterans' hospitals. Twelve new veterans' hospitals were to be constructed, and after they took money for the choice of the sites, they then took 10 percent off the top of the construction cost of each hospital, which was estimated at $1 1/2 million. It was small money, and the later owner of The Washington Post, Eugene Meyer, said that he didn't think this amounted to much and I don't either. The total appropriation that Forbes sought to take 10 percent of was $17 million.
LAMB: What happened to him?
Mr. FERRELL: He went to jail.
LAMB: For how long?
Mr. FERRELL: For at least a year and it could have been two, and he, of course, was disgraced.
LAMB: How did you originally get into this business of his--history?
Mr. FERRELL: History or you mean...
LAMB: No, just in your life, I mean, when you started all this.
Mr. FERRELL: It was World War II, Mr. Lamb...
LAMB: Where were you born?
Mr. FERRELL: I was born in Cleveland and, in 1942, went in the Army Air Corps, as it was then known, or Air Forces, and stayed for three and a half years. I was not a good history student. The first grade I received at Bowling Green--you may have had a similar experience--in world history, including the history of the ancient world, was D, which was my lowest college grade. And then the next year, after I had made this achievement, I found myself in Egypt, where I was literally surrounded by antiquities. We were living in Cairo in a hotel known as The Moderne, which was not that way. And on bicycles--there was not much automobile transport in those wartime days--we could literally ride bikes out to the pyramids. And my curiosity was almost overwhelmed by this, about which I knew nothing, and that was my interest in history.
LAMB: So how did you follow up on that?
Mr. FERRELL: I went back to Bowling Green and became a history student, and then did my master's and doctoral work at Yale.
LAMB: What'd you do then?
Mr. FERRELL: For a year I couldn't get a job. This was at the end of the postwar boom in college enrollment. This was 1951. There were no jobs, and I worked in the Air Force here in Washington for a year. Then I went to Michigan State, where by great good chance there was a beautiful young blond lady in my class and she's now my wife. And after that year, I went to Indiana and I've been there ever since.
LAMB: How many years in total did you put in in Indiana?
Mr. FERRELL: I taught 35. I retired a bit early. I had some eye trouble. I was teaching at West Point. I'd go around the parade ground about 6 in the morning to my office, and I began to see that I wasn't seeing it very clearly. And I had what all the old folks get, which is macular degeneration. I lost 30 percent of this eye. But then it stopped and I've had no problem since, but I retired on the basis of that. I took immediate retirement. And I've tried to write some books since then on Harry Truman and now on Warren G. Harding.
LAMB: The--the other thing that I noticed in the book--I mean, you--toda--based on what we saw in 1996, one of the biggest books was "Primary Colors," a novel.
Mr. FERRELL: I haven't read that.
LAMB: The reason I mention it, though, is you've got some--a lot of space devoted to novels back then that had an impact on this period.
Mr. FERRELL: Oh, yes. There was a--a novel by Sam Adams. This was published in 1926. It was called "Revelry," R-E-V-E-L, and it was a thinly disguised account of what Adams thought was the Harding scandals. He even had a president of the United States. And this man then--by mistake, reaching and obtaining the wrong bottle in a medicine cabinet and reading its label by the light of a bedside lamp, he took the wrong pills, which happened to be poison. And then when he realized what he had done--there were all kinds of intestinal upsets--he suddenly realized that this would solve his problem, which was Teapot Dome. And so even though he rang for his personal physician--this was all in the White House, according to Samuel Adams--the physician came up, but at that point, this novelistic president decided it would better--be better to go out with a certain eclat than to remain alive and then have Teapot Dome on his head.
LAMB: Did the novel--was it believed in the public in those years?
Mr. FERRELL: I think it was, and it was another one of those best-sellers. It sold 100,000 copies. Adams was very proud of it, even though he found out later that the president could not possibly have taken poison. And in his second book, which is a supposed non-fiction account of the Harding presidency--this was published in the late '30s--without much apology, I think none, in fact, to his readers, he said, `Well, it's true. He couldn't have been poisoned.' But that didn't bother him from saying so in the novel.
LAMB: Any--as I read this, I kept hearing today--I mean, are there lessons from those years back then, the Harding years, for folks that are living today about what's going on in the country?
Mr. FERRELL: Oh, sure. I think the one that concerns me the--the most, that here is a 20th century president whose measurement by my fellow historians and by political scientists has been, I think, almost completely wrong. And this says that the measurements of presidents in our century are likely to be quite wrong. Arthur Schlesinger, in his book, has remarked how Eisenhower came up from the 23rd among the presidents to now the upper level of the average presidents. Eisenhower has risen quite high in the level of historians. This was because Ike's papers were opened in the 1980s and they were remarkable. Among other things, I published Eisenhower's diaries. I had been giving lectures out of Marquis Childs' book entitled "Eisenhower: Captive Hero." I believed everything Childs wrote. And it turned out Childs was wrong, and the papers showed them wrong. The Eisenhower diaries are remarkable affairs. And historians now realize that Eisenhower was a much better president tha--than they wrote him down, but they wrote him down without benefit of his papers. And this holds for all the recent presidents.
LAMB: When you did this book on President Harding, how many different places did you have to go to get material?
Mr. FERRELL: Quite a few. I made several trips to Marion, Ohio, which, fortunately, is not too far from Bloomington, Indiana. I also went to the University of Toledo. I went to Hyde Park. The papers of the president there have some material from the president's press secretary which I used. But notably, I went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where the papers of a would-be Harding historian were. This was the late Dean Albertson. Albertson never wrote his book--it's sort of a sad fate for an historian--and instead he deposited his papers in the archives of his own institution. And the archivist told me I was the first person ever to look at those papers. They had been there 12 years. So I think that says, if you're an historian, don't leave your papers.
LAMB: Speaking of papers, the year 2014, Carrie Phillips?
LAMB: What's going on with this story? What's that all about?
Mr. FERRELL: Carrie Phillips was an undoubted Harding mistress. There's no question about it. The liaison began in 1905, and it went on up and down. I think the last of these letters--and these are all letters from Harding--was dated 1920. There are 98 of these letters and they were found in a locked closet belonging to Mrs. Phillips, who, meanwhile, had been taken to a nursing home. Her--the administrator who was appointed to supervise her belongings--the house was sold, the closets were cleaned out--he broke the lock, and there was a cardboard box and 98 of these Harding letters and, as I understand it, no letters from Mrs. Phillips but perhaps 50 pages of sort of a hodgepodge of notes that she put together in order to write her own letters to Harding. There's no question that this was a liaison.

The 2014 comes from the fact that these papers--the existence of them was made public to the horror of the Harding heirs and the president's great-nephew sued people who had any connection with bringing these papers down to the Ohio Historical Society. The suit was entered in 1964. The New York Times printed part of a letter of 1920. And Dr. Harding added the times to the people involved in the suit. The suit went on until 1971 and it was settled by putting the letters in the Library of Congress, and they are closed for 50 years from their appearance in 1964, which...
LAMB: What do you think of that idea?
Mr. FERRELL: I haven't seen them. Several historians had...
LAMB: No. I mean, what do you think of the idea of closing down the viewing of these letters to...
Mr. FERRELL: I don't blame the Harding heirs for this. I think anyone w--I'd say, is invi--entitled to some privacy. Some of my historian friends get worked up over this point. I don't. I think it's all right.
LAMB: We've got pictures in here of the funeral on Pennsylvania Avenue, the funeral procession and the train on this side. When he died of a heart attack back in 1923--'20...
Mr. FERRELL: '23.
LAMB: ...'23, what was the reaction of the country?
Mr. FERRELL: The country was stunned. It had no idea that his illness was as serious as it proved and, in fact, his physicians did not quite know this. One or two of them--Dr. Boone sensed that this was serious, but it was a very sudden death and the country was stunned. And he was a greatly beloved president. He was compared during his lifetime to Lincoln. Estimates are that several million people watched his funeral car as it came across country from San Francisco first to Washington, where there was a service in the Capitol, and then back to Marion, where he was interred in a vault there--his body.
LAMB: When he died, how popular was he?
Mr. FERRELL: He was immensely pro--popular. He was a very attractive man and he liked people, which is, I think, the ideal proportion for a--for a leader. And they knew almost when they shook his hand that he liked them. In that sense, he was like Truman.
LAMB: We only have a couple minutes left. I want to ask you about this. This was published back in December, which was the cover story in The New York Times Magazine, and you mention Arthur Schlesinger. And these are the presidents and how they were ranked. What I want to ask you about is this list of folks who were involved in choosing the most popular and least popular presidents in history. You're on that list where that circle is. How did you get picked to decide who were--how--how to rank the presidents?
Mr. FERRELL: I don't know. I do know Arthur Schlesinger. I have enormous liking and affection for him, and he may have put my no--name on there for that reason. But I also have published a good deal about presidents and I think perhaps that's the reason.
LAMB: When you look at the list, the--some of the names are people that are political--strongly political. Mario Cuomo's on the list. Paul Simon, you mentioned...
Mr. FERRELL: Yeah.
LAMB: ...a Democrat from Illinois. And then you see historians who are favorable to presidents. They wrote positive things a lot. How can you look at a list like this and how can you get a sense that you're getting a balance?
Mr. FERRELL: A very good question to which I don't have much of an answer. I think he did the best he could, looked around at who was available, who was published on the presidency, and that was his list. Thirty-two, of course, has no defense in terms of a sample. I would think there'd have to be close to 300 names in order to get a statistically viable number. But I don't think you can find that many people who've written on the presidency.
LAMB: The three greats are Washington, Lincoln and FDR. It doesn't look like there were many people who disagreed. Did you disagree with that?
Mr. FERRELL: I did disagree. If you look closely at the numbers on Franklin D. Roosevelt, you see that there was one vote against him and that was mine.
LAMB: Why did you vote against him?
Mr. FERRELL: I don't think that personally he was, either in his personal life or in some of his political judgments--he pursued the national interest. I shouldn't put his personal problems as part of the national interest, but in two instances of--two public instances, I do not think that he did the best for the country.
LAMB: If you go to the bottom, as you can see there, and I've underlined it, there's Warren G. Harding and a couple people--you know, 26 of the historians say that he belonged on the bottom.
Mr. FERRELL: That's right.
LAMB: And you can see there--that number next to it suggests that a couple didn't. Are you one of those?
Mr. FERRELL: I would be one of those, of course.
LAMB: And the others on the bottom are Grant and Johnson and Buchanan and Pierce--that's Andrew Johnson--Nixon and Hoover. When you saw the final list here, what'd you think of the outcome?
Mr. FERRELL: I was surprised at the placement of Nixon. I would, without question, put Nixon last. I can't see any acceptable argument. I was very surprised at James Burns, whom I know, who taught for many years at Williams College. Jim Burns had a--what struck me as almost an amusing explanation. `Well,' he said, `Nixon did some good things, he did some bad things.' He says, `I'll put him in the middle.' The bad thing was, of course, the illegality, and by my judgment, he should have been in prison. And I find that blocks out--it simply makes impossible any favorable judgment for the man.
LAMB: For our--our--those watching, it's the December 15th issue of The New York Times Magazine, in case they want to go get it and look at it. We're about out of time. But your favorite president in history?
Mr. FERRELL: Harry S Truman.
LAMB: Without a doubt?
Mr. FERRELL: Without a doubt.
LAMB: For what reason?
Mr. FERRELL: He faced enormous problems. Mr. Roosevelt didn't tell him anything. He knew about domestic politics. He knew almost nothing beyond newspaper knowledge of foreign affairs. He was pursued almost viciously by people. Even a freshman senator, J. William Fulbright, told him that he ought to resign. This was after the congressional elections in 1946. The man--the man had steel, he had stamina. And then, of course, in 1948, he turned things around. I must say also that his judgment about the Korean War, I think, was right. I think we had to go in, that it was a challenge. And this, I think, was a very great man.
LAMB: And you're sure Nan Britton wasn't telling the truth?
Mr. FERRELL: I'm s--as sure as I can be.
LAMB: This is the book, "The Strange Deaths of President Harding," by Robert Ferrell. We thank you very much for joining us.
Mr. FERRELL: Thank you.

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