• Ideas

My Obsession with Warren Harding’s Mistress

5 minute read

Robert Plunket is the author of the comic novel, My Search for Warren Harding, which in 1983 TIME reviewer called "a riotous debut: The Aspern Papers somehow performed by the Brothers Marx."

So now it’s official. Nan Britton really did give birth to Warren Harding’s illegitimate daughter back in 1919. DNA testing proves it. Maybe this will finally bring historic credibility to both her and her book The President’s Daughter. Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it’s a true American classic, the first modern political tell-all and a book of inestimable importance when it comes to our country’s gender wars.

It’s also a hoot of a read. I first came across it at a garage sale in Los Angeles back in the mid-Seventies. It looked ancient even then, dog-eared and shabby, its black binding cracked. I’d vaguely heard of it but my interest in Warren Harding and the scandals of the 1920’s was nil. Still, it was only a quarter.

It was a quarter that changed my life. I got home and started reading. It was a little slow and creaky at the beginning but it soon picked up speed and by the time I reached Chapter Three I knew I was onto something remarkable. If it wasn’t true –and many back then believed it wasn’t–than only a genius could have written it.

It tells the story of Nan Britton, who as a schoolgirl back in Ohio develops an obsessive crush on a handsome local businessman/politician named Warren Harding. Soon she is stalking him, flirting with him, always managing to “bump into” him. He’s all blithery and indecisive, but the temptation soon becomes too much. Now it is she who puts on the brakes and makes him beg, which he does, rather pathetically. Finally, there is a blissful night in a hotel room where she becomes his “bride.”

Nan’s genius as a writer lies in her Nabokovian style. What she tells us is happening isn’t quite what is really happening. She’s what is known as an “unreliable narrator.” Though she portrays herself as naïve and innocent, look between the lines. There you find a calculating, acquisitive woman. Like Emma Bovary she is ambitious, though she’s not sure what for. Middle class mores, like wedding vows, mean little to her. And you, the reader, go right along with her, reveling in her plans and schemes, almost a co-conspiritor. Sometimes you want to warn her. Other times you want to shake her. (Never, though, do you want to hug her.)

Harding comes across as almost comic, very bumbling and very horny. Of his political life we learn little, but of his personal life we are given what is probably the most insightful delineation of his character ever put down on paper. He turns out to be quite a lover—his penis had a nickname—and wonderfully attentive. He wrote 50 page love letters while sitting in the Senate chamber, and he and Nan were always going on little trips. He loved to have her drive him around, and dubbed her, with surprising grammatical accuracy, as “my little chauffeuse.”

And when the drama of her pregnancy strains the relationship, you really do feel for him. He moans and throws himself against heavy pieces of furniture. And hanging over all this is the lingering suspicion in the reader’s mind that maybe, just maybe, Nan got pregnant on purpose. Whatever the case, the illegitimate daughter, Elizabeth Ann, was provided for by Harding during his lifetime. But when he died in office in 1923 –a delicious subplot to the story says his wife poisoned him—guess what? Like so many men in similar situations he didn’t get the will done in time. Nan and Elizabeth Ann were left out in the cold.

Appeals to the family and political cronies didn’t work so Nan set out to write a book. The theory was that she would make money this way to support her daughter. The book sold like crazy but the money was soon gone, replaced by a wave of vitriol against Nan, a sort of early slut-shaming that was so extreme she dropped her crusade for recognition (in true Nan fashion, she insisted it was for unmarried mothers everywhere) and turned her back on the world.

I read The President’s Daughter over and over and soon I was as obsessed with it as Nan had been with Harding back in Ohio. I tracked Nan, now an old lady, to an address near Los Angeles where she may or may not have been living and I would drive by her house endlessly, hoping she’d come out on the porch, wondering if that was her Chevy in the driveway, speculating about her family. I didn’t want to meet her. I just wanted to see where she lived—the true hallmark of a stalker.

I became so full of Nan Britton that I finally decided to write my own book. In it, a snobbish, unpleasant historian from New York travels to Los Angeles to track down Nan—fictionally renamed Rebekah Kinney—in hopes she might still have love letters and memorabilia. My book was called My Search for Warren Harding and it can still be found, like its inspiration, at garage sales for a quarter, or occasionally on the pile of things that say “Free! Take ‘em Away!”


More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.