This is the fourth in a series of Grateful American Stories featuring the Presidential Children, adapted from the original series, “Stories About the Presidential Children.” Originally commissioned by the Grateful American Foundation, this piece was written by Edward G. Lengel and edited by David Bruce Smith. The Grateful American Foundation works to restore enthusiasm about history for kids – and adults.
Warren G. Harding of Ohio became president of the United States on March 4, 1921. His tenure in office was marked by several “firsts”: his inaugural parade was the first in which a president rode in an automobile–Packard Twin Six; he was the first president to keep a radio in the White House, the first to visit Canada and Alaska, and the first to take an oath against harming animals. Handsome, well-spoken, and popular, he pledged to return the country to normalcy after the end of the First World War.
Harding’s short presidency, which ended on August 2, 1923 with his death of a heart attack, was tarred by scandals—most of which did not emerge until after his death. Worst among them was the Teapot Dome debacle, which exposed corruption in the exploitation of western oil reserves, and eventually sent Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall to jail. Harding was not found guilty before–or after his death–of any participation but, behind the scenes, he was engaging in extramarital affairs that would have ruined his career– if the public had known.
Florence Mabel Kling, a divorcee with a child of her own, married Harding in 1891. Although outwardly united, the couple was never close, in large part because of Harding’s infidelities. One affair, with Carrie Phillips, lasted from 1905 to 1920, but incrimination was deflected only when the Republican Party paid off Phillips and her husband with hush money, and a trip to Asia. Another, with secretary Nan Britton, began in 1917, lasted throughout Harding’s presidency, and remained secret until long after his death. Their child, Elizabeth Ann Britton, would remain unacknowledged until the twenty-first century.
Elizabeth Ann Britton
Elizabeth Ann Britton was born in Asbury Park, New Jersey, on October 22, 1919. Both of Elizabeth’s parents knew of her true paternity, but Harding, then a U.S. senator, did not acknowledge it publicly. Instead, he sent Nan Britton child support payments through the Secret Service. On one occasion in 1923, Nan visited the president at the White House, and told him if he looked out the window, he would see his daughter sitting on a park bench in Lafayette Park. Harding refused the opportunity.
Eventually, Nan Britton turned her daughter over to her childless sister, Elizabeth, and brother-in-law Paul Willits, who raised her in Athens, Ohio. Then, in 1927, Nan took her back, and published a tell-all book, The President’s Daughter, with a photo of Elizabeth on the frontispiece, and a dedication to unwed mothers. Although the book sold well, the media denounced Nan as a “degenerate” and a “pervert,” and she and her daughter faded from public view (Nan would die in 1991).
Elizabeth Ann Britton married Henry E. Blaesing, a Chicago office building manager, in 1938, lived a quiet middle-class life in Glendale, California and had three sons. Then, in 1964, a cache of letters that Harding had written to Carrie Phillips was discovered, which led the journalists to the late president’s reputed “love child.” “My mother told me when I was very young that President Harding was my father,” admitted Elizabeth, whom reporters described as “an attractive woman about 5-foot-7 with blondish brown hair.” “I am not ashamed, but I don’t like the publicity,” she said. Tired out by the constant stream of news writers who tramped to her door, Elizabeth stated tiredly that “I’ve talked to so many reporters today, I haven’t even had a chance to talk to my sons to find out what they think about all this.”
In time, the media lost interest, and Elizabeth Ann Blaesing returned to her family in peace. She never sought publicity, and no serious effort was made to prove or disprove her parentage. After she died on Nov. 17, 2005, however, her story resurfaced. At first, Elizabeth’s sons and Harding’s collateral descendants showed no interest in pursuing DNA testing, and historians and managers of the Harding Home in Ohio continued to point out the claim was unproven.
In 2015, the DNA test was finally undertaken and proved that Elizabeth Ann Blaesing was indeed the daughter of Warren G. Harding. “I really don’t care to discuss it, because it’s really old stuff,” she had said in 1971; but to her family, the discovery gave some sense of satisfaction, if not vindication.
About the Editor
David Bruce Smith is the President of the Grateful American Foundation and Founder of the Grateful American Book Prize. The Grateful American Foundation is a National Partner with America250.
About the Author
Edward G. Lengel is Chief Historian at the National Medal of Honor Museum. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, where he was a full professor and directed the Washington Papers Project for many years. He then served as Chief Historian of the White House Historical Association; wrote the new history of Colonial Williamsburg as a “Revolutionary in Residence;” and worked as Senior Director of Programs at the National WWII Museum. Also a professional author, speaker and battlefield tour guide, Lengel has written fourteen books on American history, including General George Washington: A Military Life, and Never in Finer Company: The Men of the Great War’s Lost Battalion. Lengel is a co-recipient of the National Humanities Medal and has won two writing awards from the Army Historical Foundation. He has made frequent television and radio appearances on The History Channel, SiriusXM, National Public Radio, and many others.