An Ohio lawyer pores over reams of salacious correspondence to reveal fascinating new information, overlooked by earlier biographers, about Warren G. Harding’s long-running romance with a pro-German freethinker.
Unlike many of those previous biographers, Robenalt intends to rehabilitate his fellow Ohioan. The author has digested decades of Harding’s letters to Mrs. Carrie Phillips, a neighbor in their hometown of Marion, Ohio, who lived for long periods in Germany, to reveal not only that Harding was a terrific writer, but also that he acted honorably within the circumstances both toward his lover and his wife. Robenalt’s other revelation, that Phillips was a German spy, is not as persuasive. Her fraternization during World War I with the Pickhardt family of German-American millionaires alerted the newly formed American Protective League in Marion and earned her surveillance, but the author admits that nothing was proved. During the 13 years Harding and Phillips carried on their clandestine romance, his wife Florence remained mostly an invalid; she and the town probably knew what was going on, Robenalt concludes. The lovers corresponded extensively from 1905 until around 1918, when Senator Harding became a serious presidential contender. Then Phillips began to extort money from him, and their relationship cooled. Alternating chapters present the 1917 court case of Baroness Iona Zollner, daughter of Wilhelm Pickhardt and wife of a German army officer, who was arrested in a compromising situation “abetting the enemy in a time of war.” The case reveals the extent of anti-German hysteria then sweeping the country. Robenalt’s narrative is somewhat erratic, but his grasp of the period is solid. By quoting at length from Harding’s letters, he offers important insight into the passionate character of his subject.
May not hold the attention of the general reader, but provides valuable documentation for presidential scholars.