Florence Harding

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White House portrait
White House portrait

Florence Kling Harding (August 15, 1860November 21, 1924), wife of Warren G. Harding, was First Lady of the United States from 1921 to 1923.

Daughter of the richest man in a small town—Amos Kling, a successful businessman—Florence Mabel Kling was born in Marion, Ohio, in 1860. Much like her strong-willed father in temperament, she developed a self-reliance rare in girls of that era. A music course at the Cincinnati Conservatory completed her education.

At age 19, Florence eloped with Henry (Pete) De Wolfe, her childhood friend and neighbor. To date, scholastic researchers have been unable to official documentation or a legal marriage license for the couple, leading to the belief that Pete DeWolfe and Florence Kling were never civilly married, but instead declared "common law" marriage as allowed at the time under Ohio law. DeWolfe proved a spendthrift and a heavy drinker; shortly after the birth of their son Marshall Eugene DeWolfe (also known as Marshall Eugene Kling), Florence left her husband and returned to Marion. She divorced De Wolfe in 1886 and resumed her maiden name; he died at age 35. Refusing to live at home, she rented rooms and earned her own money by giving piano lessons to children of the neighborhood. Her father, aghast that his daughter was working for a living made her a deal: she could move back to the house with the child; however, she would be restricted to the property and the child would be raised as her father's son. Finding it difficult to work and watch her toddler son age, she gave the boy to her parents to raise but continued to work and earn her own keep.

One of Florence Kling piano students was Charity (Chat) Harding, elder sister to Warren G. Harding, the young publisher of the town’s only daily newspaper, the Marion Daily Star (now the Marion Star). Florence pursued Mr. Harding, whose attentions were more apt to focus on young beauties of the day. However, Harding was having difficulty with Amos Kling and his cronies and a marriage to the persistent Florence Kling would politically benefit him. The two were married in 1891 in the house that Warren had planned and built in Marion, Ohio. The couple did not have children of their own; however, Florence’s son Marshall Eugene DeWolfe lived with them from time to time. The young man idolized his stepfather, and hoped to become a newspaperman himself one day.

Mrs. Harding soon took over the Star's circulation department, spanking newsboys when necessary. "No pennies escaped her," a friend recalled, and the paper prospered while its owner's political success increased. As he rose through Ohio politics and became a United States Senator, his wife directed all her acumen to his career. He became Republican nominee for President in 1920 and "the Duchess," as he called her, worked tirelessly for his election. In her own words: "I have only one real hobby—my husband."

She had never been a guest at the White House; and former President Taft, meeting the President-elect and Mrs. Harding, discussed its social customs with her and stressed the value of ceremony. Writing to his wife Helen Taft, he concluded that the new First Lady was "a nice woman" and would "readily adapt herself."

When Mrs. Harding moved into the White House, she opened the mansion and grounds to the public again—both had been closed through President Wilson's illness. She herself suffered from a chronic kidney ailment (commonly referred to as "Floating Kidney" in the 1920s), but she threw herself into the job of First Lady with great gusto. Garden parties for veterans were regular events on a crowded social calendar. The President and his wife relaxed at poker parties in the White House library, where liquor was available although the Eighteenth Amendment made it illegal.

Mrs. Harding embarked with her husband on his nationwide "Voyage of Understanding" in the Summer of 1923. She was at his side when the President died in San Francisco, California in August 1923.
Missing image
The Harding Memorial in Marion, Ohio is considered by many historians to be the most beautiful of Presidential Tombs in the United States.

Following the death of President Harding, the former First Lady set about making a new life for herself. Her intention was to remain in Washington, temporarily staying at Friendship, the estate of her best friend Evalyn Walsh McLean, herself best known as the then owner of the Hope Diamond. However, a flare up of Mrs. Harding’s kidney ailment was made known to the former Surgeon General, Dr. Charles E. Sawyer, and Sawyer insisted that Mrs. Harding return to Marion for treatment and recovery. Dr. C.E. Sawyer died that September and Mrs. Harding, under the care of Dr. Sawyer’s son, Dr. Carl Sawyer, died two months later in November 1924 at the Sawyer Sanitarium, White Oaks Farm, Marion, Ohio.

Mrs. Harding was first buried in the receiving vault in Marion Cemetery, next to her husband. Following the completion of the Harding Memorial in 1927, the bodies of the President and the First Lady were reinterred in the Harding Memorial in Marion, Ohio.



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