Affairs of the Presidents

Divorce, Politics

The private relationships of presidential candidates have been under the microscope this election year. We’ve heard a lot about marriages, affairs, and which candidate truly represents the traditional “family values” ideal.

Presidential scandals are nothing new, of course. Long before President Clinton shocked the nation with his womanizing ways and even before Marilyn Monroe sang President Kennedy the most sensual “Happy Birthday” ever, the Commander in Chief was likely getting up to something in the Oval Office.

Andrew Jackson’s Shocking Immorality

It’s hardly newsworthy by 21st century standards, but the fact that Andrew Jackson‘s wife was a divorcee was highly shocking in the early 1800s. And there was even more scandal in the wings: Jackson had married Rachel Donelson in 1791, believing she was legally divorced. Unfortunately this was not the case, and Rachel’s first husband charged her with adultery. It would be three years before the case was settled and the two could legally marry. This all happened 30 years before the election of 1828, but Jackson’s opponents used it against him. It didn’t adversely affect Jackson’s campaign, as he won the presidency in any case. Sadly, Rachel died two months before Jackson took office, however, and he blamed the personal attacks for her death.

“Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?”

Grover Cleveland‘s campaign for president almost ground to a halt in 1884, when a widow named Maria Halpin claimed he had fathered her child years before. Cleveland issued a press release admitting to the affair, and that although he was not sure the child was his, he had sent money to support him. Opponents mocked Cleveland with the 19th century version of attack ads, a chant that went “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!” However, he was honest about the affair, which likely helped him overcome the scandal.

Cleveland won the election, and in 1886 became the only president to get married while in office, marrying, at the age of 49, 21-year-old Frances Folsom. The beautiful young First Lady was wildly popular; the press followed the First Couple on their honeymoon, society ladies followed her lead in fashion, and advertisers used her likeness to sell their products. Rumors that the President physically beat Frances dominated Cleveland’s 1888 campaign against Benjamin Harrison; Mrs. Cleveland was obliged to issue a public statement denouncing the lies.

 A Scandalous Engagement

Woodrow Wilson caused a minor scandal in the White House in 1915 when he got engaged only nine months after his wife Ellen had died. A year of mourning was traditional at that time, and gossip flew around Washington about Wilson’s disrespect for his first wife. Rumors circulated that Wilson had been having an affair, including ridiculous suggestions that he had murdered Ellen. In fact, Wilson had met widow Edith Galt at a White House function only two months before the proposal, which she accepted. The romance of Woodrow and Edith Wilson was a whirlwind–but sincere; 250 letters between them survive, chronicling their remarkable courtship that took place even as Wilson was dealing with the outbreak of World War One in Europe.

The President’s Daughter

Warren G. Harding was apparently quite the love machine. His longtime mistress, Carrie Phillips, was actually paid off to the tune of $20,000 by the Republican National Party during Harding’s 1920 presidential campaign. Reportedly, Harding’s campaign manager also offered Phillips and her husband a trip to Japan and a monthly allowance if the Phillipses remained out of the United States until after the election.

Harding was already having an affair with another young woman, Nan Britton, whom Harding had met when she was a teenager and he was representing Ohio in the Senate. He got her a secretarial job in D.C. and they continued their affair after he was elected President, sometimes, according to Britton, in the Oval Office itself. Bill Clinton could have taken lessons from this guy. After Harding’s death, Britton wrote a tell-all that became a bestseller, claiming Harding was the father of her daughter, born in 1919, and recalling their affair in great detail.

In 1923, Harding died suddenly from ptomaine poisoning. Rumors flew that his wife, Florence, had poisoned him. And really–could you blame her?