Corruption in the White House: 8 Times Presidents Were Caught in Extramarital Affairs

Corruption in the White House: 8 Times Presidents Were Caught in Extramarital Affairs

Larry Holzwarth - November 12, 2017

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 it 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.

Corruption in the White House: 8 Times Presidents Were Caught in Extramarital Affairs
Life-long bachelor James Buchanan lived for many years with William Rufus King and the two went to social events and functions together. Andrew Jackson referred to the pair as “Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy.” Wikipedia

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.

Corruption in the White House: 8 Times Presidents Were Caught in Extramarital Affairs
Nan Britton with her daughter Elizabeth Ann. This photo is undated. ABC News

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 gossip 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.

Corruption in the White House: 8 Times Presidents Were Caught in Extramarital Affairs
Marguerite LeHand at her desk in the White House, probably around 1935, during FDR’s first term. Wikipedia

Marguerite LeHand and Franklin Delano Roosevelt

FDR held the presidency longer than any other man in US history, a period in which he spent the majority of time confined to a wheelchair, a victim of polio. FDR never gave up trying to beat polio, bathing, and swimming in the waters of Warm Springs Georgia and occasionally walking with the assistance of two canes, heavy leg braces, and the supporting arms of one or two aides.

As hard as it is to believe in today’s world, a large number of his constituents were unaware of his infirmity. Photographs of the President in his wheelchair were not allowed and the press cooperated by avoiding taking pictures of the President’s painful attempts to walk, other than when they were carefully coordinated and planned.

Marguerite LeHand knew FDR long before he was President, having worked for him when he was a Wall Street lawyer prior to his being stricken with polio. When he became Governor of New York she accompanied him to Albany as his personal secretary, a move she repeated when he went to the White House in 1933. Roosevelt scholars and family members disagree about the nature of their relationship, with some claiming that they were simply affectionate fellow professionals and others suspecting a more intimate relationship.

The argument that they never consummated a sexual relationship is supported by the nature of FDR’s paralysis but the same argument is subverted by the fact that they were nearly inseparable prior to Roosevelt contracting the disease which disabled him.

An instructive view is that of FDR’s wife Eleanor, who remained on more or less cordial terms with Marguerite until the latter’s death in 1944, following a series of strokes. Eleanor wrote of Marguerite’s and Franklin’s relationship being a substitute for aspects of her own with her husband, where Marguerite provided “…someone else to meet the need…” which she herself could not. When Marguerite died Eleanor attended her funeral and the President, who did not, wrote, “…Her memory will ever be held in affectionate remembrance and appreciation…” Not in attendance was another of FDR’s female companions, of whom Eleanor had a dimmer view.

Corruption in the White House: 8 Times Presidents Were Caught in Extramarital Affairs
Lucy Mercer in 1915. Wikipedia

Lucy Mercer and Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Lucy Mercer was born into a family which had money and subsequently lost it in the Panic of 1893. A free-spirited young woman, she was working in a dress shop in 1914 when Eleanor Roosevelt hired her to work as her social secretary. During a 1916 Roosevelt family vacation to the family compound at Campobello Eleanor and the children left Franklin – then Assistant Secretary of the Navy – in Washington. Lucy remained in the capital too, and an affair between FDR and his wife’s secretary began around that time. When Eleanor fired Lucy in 1917 she enlisted in the Navy, and Franklin had her assigned to his office.

After a 1918 trip to Europe by Franklin to inspect naval facilities Eleanor confronted him about the affair and asked for a divorce, spurred by having found several love letters exchanged between Lucy and FDR. FDR was wary of the effect of a divorce on his political career and demurred, telling his mistress that he had asked for one which his wife refused to grant.

Eleanor forbade her husband to have further contact with Lucy, who then left Washington and married Winthrop Rutherford, a wealthy widower, after first serving him as the governess for his children. Throughout the decade leading to FDR winning the Presidency, he and Lucy remained in contact with each other.

How often they saw each other and how intimate their relationship was after he was stricken by polio is debated, but what is known for certainty is that an exhausted FDR went to Warm Springs Georgia in the spring of 1945 to rest. Lucy was there with him one April morning as he sat for a portrait. When the President, worn out after twelve years in office, grabbed his head and collapsed, Lucy quickly left the premises.

The President’s hemorrhage proved fatal and it was not long before Eleanor learned of Lucy’s presence in the room when FDR died. According to her children and friends, she was furious at the betrayal. Eleanor’s cousin and daughter of Theodore Roosevelt Alice Roosevelt Longworth once commented on the affair between FDR and Lucy Mercer with the acid remark, “…He deserved a good time…He was married to Eleanor.”

Corruption in the White House: 8 Times Presidents Were Caught in Extramarital Affairs
Kay Summersby (center) watching a play in London in 1945. Eisenhower is on her right, General Omar Bradley on her left. Armchair General Magazine

Kay Summersby and Dwight D. Eisenhower

Dwight Eisenhower, known to all as “Ike” throughout his life, was a young army officer when he married Mamie Doud on July 1, 1916, as the United States was preparing to enter World War I. Following the war, Ike followed the sometimes difficult career of a peacetime officer in a reduced Army, and the marriage was often faced with the lengthy forced separations of military life.

Mamie faithfully followed her husband to remote and less-than-comfortable posts in the Philippines, the Panama Canal Zone, and in the United States. When the United States entered the Second World War, Ike expected to be assigned to George Marshall’s staff in Washington and the couple set up a house in the capital. Instead, Ike was destined to shortly relocate to England and a separation which would last for most of the war.

Upon arrival in England Ike was assigned a chauffeur, a former ambulance driver in the British Mechanized Transport Corps named Kay Summersby. She would remain his personal driver and eventually private secretary for the duration of the war. Summersby was quartered in Ike’s home at Telegraph Cottage along with most of his staff. As Ike rose in rank throughout the war, Kay applied for and became a United States citizen with his assistance, enabling her to leave the British service and join the Women’s Army Corps of the US Army, eventually reaching the rank of Captain.

Besides driving the General and acting as his secretary, Summersby was his frequent dinner companion at formal affairs and working dinners, and her presence was commented on by luminaries such as Montgomery, Churchill, Patton, and others. Churchill would later write that the two were in love.

Whether Ike and Kay Summersby conducted an illicit affair depends on which of the many memoirs written by the participants or observers is given credence. Harry Truman reported in 1945 that Ike had written to ask his boss, General George C. Marshall, for permission to obtain a divorce in order to marry Kay; Truman expanded his statement by claiming that he had ordered the incriminating correspondence destroyed. Kay wrote memoirs claiming an affair which included two attempts at sexual intimacy, both of which were unsuccessful due to Ike’s impotence, which she blamed on his six-pack-a-day smoking habit. What is known is that Ike never brought his wife to England when many other American generals based there did.

Corruption in the White House: 8 Times Presidents Were Caught in Extramarital Affairs
Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas’s affair with LBJ was considered an “open secret” by Washington insiders. United States Congress

Multiple Affairs and Lyndon Johnson

In an era when the President’s boastful nature often dominates the new cycle, it is easy to forget Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was brash, blustery, boastful, and often overbearing. When someone made a comment about JFK’s extramarital affairs Johnson would angrily dismiss the remark, often saying that he (Johnson) had more women by accident than JFK ever seduced deliberately.

Johnson often did things with his female staff that would never be tolerated today, such as commenting on their physical appearance, (“I want to look at a good, trim back end”) or urinating in a washroom with the door open while giving dictation to a female secretary.

Johnson was married to Claudia Alta Taylor – known to the world as Lady Bird – in 1934. Almost from the time of his marriage, he engaged in extramarital affairs, and evidence suggests that Lady Bird was aware of and resigned to her husband’s infidelities. One of his affairs which was conducted in public view was with a former actress and later congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas. Their affair was considered an “open secret” among insiders on Capitol Hill and the Washington press.

It was far from Johnson’s only indiscretion. An earlier affair with a married (to one of his wealthiest supporters) woman named Alice Glass, lasted for more than ten years. Another affair that resulted in the birth of a son allegedly fathered by Johnson out of wedlock began around 1948 and lasted throughout his presidency. It was with Madeline Brown. Johnson provided Madeline with a house, a maid, cars, and financial support. Madeline gave birth to a son, Steven, in 1950 and after Johnson’s death sued his estate and heirs for denying Steven his inheritance.

Lady Bird denied the affair had occurred and the suit was eventually dismissed just prior to Steven’s death. Whether Steven’s accusations were true was never litigated but the number and length of Johnson’s extramarital affairs have been attested to by former members of his staff, statements of Secret Service detail members who enabled and concealed them, and Johnson’s own boastful but completely in character remarks.

Corruption in the White House: 8 Times Presidents Were Caught in Extramarital Affairs
An editorial cartoon showing a bereft mother, a baby crying for his father, and a frustrated President-elect. The New Yorker

Maria Halpin and Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland won the popular vote in three consecutive Presidential elections – 1884, 1888, and 1892 – but carried the electoral college in only the first and third. He is thus the only President to have served two terms in the White House that were non-consecutive. When Cleveland first took the oath of office he was a bachelor, but by 1886 he married Frances Folsom, becoming the second President to be married while in office, and the first (and to date only) President to be married in the White House. His new bride was only 21 years of age and the daughter of a family friend for whom Cleveland had recently acted as executor for his estate.

During the 1884 campaign, a story circulated of Cleveland’s having fathered a child with a widow named Maria Halpin a decade earlier. The child had been born while Cleveland was serving as the Governor of New York, and had been given the name Oscar Folsom Cleveland.

The candidate did not openly dispute paternity beyond protestations of being unsure of its truth, and his campaign instead focused on the mental state of the mother, who was soon dispatched to a sanitarium. Young Oscar was quickly put up for adoption. These maneuvers were orchestrated by Cleveland’s supporters, in part because of the growing assertions by the mother that the incident leading to conception had not been consensual.

Cleveland was beset with rumors of additional affairs throughout his political career. Many were undoubtedly fed, if not created outright, by political enemies for political advantage based on his relationship with Maria Halpin.

The President’s illegitimate son vanished from the historical record following his adoption and evidently preferred to live a life of quiet privacy. When the scandal was at its height Halpin had produced a document – purportedly in Cleveland’s handwriting – in which she agreed to give her son up for adoption and say no more of the affair in return for the sum of $500. Cleveland’s response, whenever the subject came up during the rest of his career, was to simply ignore it.

Corruption in the White House: 8 Times Presidents Were Caught in Extramarital Affairs
Judith Exner and her first husband, actor William Campbell. EDGARdaily

Judith Exner and John F. Kennedy

JFK’s many mistresses and extramarital infidelities have become common knowledge in the years following his death. Of all his mistresses and dalliances, one stands out as being not only dangerous to his marriage and political career but possibly to his survival.

It began when Frank Sinatra, an early and avid Kennedy supporter, introduced the then Senator and Presidential candidate to a divorcee named Judith Exner, the ex-wife of actor William Campbell (Star Trek fans will remember him as Captain Koloth in the episode The Trouble with Tribbles). According to Exner, she and JFK began an affair which went on for at least the next two years.

Later in 1960 Sinatra again played matchmaker, introducing Exner to Sam Giancana, boss of the Chicago Mafia. Through Giancana Exner developed a “friendship” with Johnny Roselli, a mob enforcer who would later be implicated in CIA attempts to assassinate Castro. Thus Exner was contemporaneously sleeping with the President of the United States and the head of one of the nation’s most powerful criminal organizations. Neither Giancana nor Kennedy felt the need to show any loyalty to the women with whom they had affairs and the fact of she participated in more than one simultaneously indicates that neither did Exner.

Many years after the death of JFK and RFK, who worked assiduously to protect his brother’s reputation after Dallas, records emerged which confirmed the lengthy nature of the President’s affair with Judith. Telephone records and visitor logs confirmed her visits to the White House and other places where the President was staying, as did statements from former members of the President’s security detail.

The Kennedy’s fought back when Exner’s comments regarding the affair became public; she was the first of the many to emerge – other than the long-time rumors of his affair with Marilyn Monroe – and her story gained weight with the public as more Kennedy indiscretions came to light. The ramifications of the President and a Mafia Don sharing a mistress have never been fully revealed, although speculation – including whether it had some involvement in the many assassination conspiracy theories – remains rife to this day.

Corruption in the White House: 8 Times Presidents Were Caught in Extramarital Affairs
Woodrow Wilson with Mary Peck in Bermuda, date unknown. New Jersey Monthly

Mary Peck and Woodrow Wilson

It is hard to imagine a more bookish President than Woodrow Wilson, both in appearance and in his chosen profession. When Wilson was elected to the Presidency his previous position had been as the Governor of New Jersey, prior to that he had been the President of Princeton University. Wilson, belied by his image in photographs where he appears aloof, possessed an almost violent nature. He was passionate and often had difficulty controlling his temper.

When photographers attempted to take pictures of Wilson for which he was unprepared he often demanded the plates be removed from the camera to the point that he would order aides to force compliance. He hated contradiction and suffered what he considered fools most ungladly.

Married in 1885 to the former Ellen Axson, he and his wife had three children – all daughters – and liked to vacation in places where Ellen could indulge her passion for painting. They were on a family vacation in Bermuda in 1906 when the President of Princeton met a socialite named Mary Peck. Their friendship almost immediately became very close, and Mary became a frequent visitor to the Wilson home, as well as maintaining an extensive correspondence with Wilson. Wilson began visiting Bermuda frequently without his wife and through his letters home Ellen began to believe that there was more than just a friendship between her husband and the socialite.

When Wilson ran for President in 1912 his opposition ravaged him in the press for what they alluded to as an illicit affair, with anti-Wilson newspapers referring to him as “Peck’s Bad Boy.” Teddy Roosevelt famously sniffed at the idea of Woodrow Wilson as a “Romeo” comparing him instead to a store clerk. Wilson won the Presidency and while in the White House, Ellen died. To the surprise of many, Wilson was soon remarried to Edith Galt in 1915 – rather than to the woman with whom he had maintained a long-term relationship to the voiced dismay of his wife.

Mary Peck tried briefly to stop the marriage by threatening to sell the letters she had received from Wilson; he undercut her threat by insisting to Edith that all he had done was to write “…too ardently.” He claimed the relationship was purely platonic, Edith evidently believed him, and for the rest of her life Mary Peck never publicly contradicted him.