John Fitzgerald Kennedy was long considered the poster boy for presidential philandering. At least he was prior to the administration of Bill Clinton when the story of a particular dress absorbed large portions of newspaper ink and segments on the evening news. Both Democrats, their behavior was frequently cited by the right wing as evidence of the amorality of the left, and squeaky clean images of Ronald Reagan and both Bushes were offered in contrast. More recent revelations, some without evidence beyond the written memoirs of individuals in the know, suggest that none were as clean as their images indicated although their transgressions took place in the days prior to their presidencies; Reagan’s during his lengthy Hollywood career and the Bushes during the days of their youth.
Presidential philandering did not begin with Jack Kennedy (who learned about tomcatting from his notoriously womanizing father) nor did they end with Clinton. Scandals involving the sex lives of Presidents go back to the earliest days of the Republic when whispers of Washington’s youthful indiscretions made the rounds of presidential levees as the First Magistrate enjoyed dancing with much younger ladies. Besides his well-known long-term relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, Jefferson conducted passionate – although possibly platonic, the evidence is unclear – affairs with a married woman named Maria Cosway and the wife of his best friend in his youth.
Several presidents have fathered children out-of-wedlock, and at least one (James Buchanan) maintained an intimate relationship with a man for many years, drawing caustic remarks from many of his contemporaries.
Here are some nearly forgotten presidential indiscretions, some rumored in their day, some revealed later, and some still waiting for all the evidence to emerge.
Nan Britton and Warren G. Harding
Warren G. Harding was a newspaper publisher in Ohio prior to entering politics. Always a sociable man, Harding maintained many close friendships, among them with Dr. Samuel H. Britton, whom he would often visit at the doctor’s home for dinner or other events. Britton had a young daughter named Nanna and known as Nan, who had a teenage girl’s infatuation with Harding.
As many young girls have done before and since, Nan covered the walls of her bedroom with pictures of the photogenic publisher, soon to be a US Senator and rising political star. The doctor was concerned to the point that he asked Harding to talk to his daughter. Harding – who was then conducting an extended affair with a married woman – did so, allegedly discouraging the young girl.
When Harding went to the Senate in 1915, young Nan had the year before moved to New York City to take a job as a secretary. It was around this time, according to her memoirs, that Harding and Nan began to fulfill some of the fantasies the latter had held as a younger girl. Nan wrote years after Harding’s death that she was his mistress from that point until the end of his life. During this time Harding continued his affair with the aforementioned married woman, and his letters to her indicate the possibility of other surreptitious affairs being conducted at the same time.
Nan Britton had a daughter – Elizabeth Ann – which she claimed in her memoirs to have been fathered by Harding. Nan wrote of many sexual encounters with the President both in and out of the White House, including a memorable encounter in a coal closet in the White House basement. Her memoirs were unsupported by any other evidence and she was largely regarded by the press and the social gossips of her day to be an immoral woman, bent on profiting by sullying the memory of the late President.
In 2015, DNA testing was used on the descendants of Elizabeth Ann and proved conclusively (99% certainty) that Elizabeth was Harding’s daughter.