There were more First Ladies who never saw a ghost, had a premonition, or attended a seance than there were who did.
When it came to actively seeking advice for their own life or intending to determine the best course of their future decisions, any number of them were provoked enough to pursue a curious, even amused consultation with various tellers of fate.
Eleanor Roosevelt was known to have consulted the famous Indianapolis palm-reader Nellie Meier.
Having no interest whatsoever in consulting an astrologer, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis instead “threw” rune stones and consulted the I Ching, a numerical-based ancient Chinese text which guided choices of those consulting it. She found the latter to be far more complex and thus likely to offer more specificity than could be found in the generic daily zodiac columns of newspapers. She liked the former because of its ancient Celtic origins, which she related to the ancestry of President Kennedy and her own maternal forebears.
Mamie Eisenhower had her tea leaves read while living in Manila, excited at the prediction that her husband would go on to greatness.
And those are just the First Ladies we know about.
The most popular and easiest form of this is of course, astrology. For decades most American newspapers carried a daily column offering advice for each of the twelve signs of the zodiac. In earlier days, there were astrological magazines which provided forecasts for a full month.
Some First Ladies, such as Ida McKinley for example, subscribed to such publications.
Most First Ladies do not appear to have done much with the advice other than muse about its relevance to how they were living their real lives. It is difficult to determine just which women did live by their horoscopes and which took it less seriously because any such reliance was never leaked to the public.
There were, however, two presidential spouses who famously adhered strictly to the messages of the zodiac provided to them by their personal astrologers. It was not long before the reliance on astrology by these two First Ladies was revealed to the press, because both of their astrologers went fully public.
What made the accounts of their horoscope consultations all the more relevant and intriguing was that both Florence Harding and Nancy Reagan used it as a tool in their impulse to not only protect their husbands but attempt to guide their presidencies in a successful manner.
Perhaps no First Lady was more expert on the full gamut of the occult and believed more thoroughly in the mysterious powers of the supernatural world than did Florence Harding.
Later Marion families detailed that she’d absorbed many of the old European beliefs about evil spirits and curses in her contact with many of the German immigrant families who rented farmlands owned by her father in the region, who kept hex signs on their barns. In 1980, the Harding Home caretaker Herbert Gary claimed that she’d even once attended a spiritualist camp in Indiana. Her 1920 campaign secretary Kathleen Lawler recalled how superstitious she was about otherwise seemingly minor details. Even in the White House, she became agitated if a maid placed a pair of shoes on a bed, which she believed could provoke bad luck.
In her later years, Mrs. Harding’s niece Louisa recalled how her aunt would gaze up at the night sky, able to identify the constellations and that she repeatedly told her the only aspect of life which could be relied upon as true were “the stars,” meaning the messages meant to be divined from the formations. Florence Harding’s grasping the occult as a foundational aspect of existence, however, was entirely rational in the context of the great psychological abuse she endured and an uncertain lifespan resulting from a potentially deadly kidney condition.
A later generation of those striving to idealize Warren Harding sought to justify his shortcomings either by using her occult interests to caricature her as an emotionally unstable burden on him and attacking those attempting to prove she was not. Others went to great lengths to obliterate evidence or deny its veracity. A caretaker charged with preserving their personal objects, for example, later bragged about his disposing of her tarot cards found in the attic. A professor mad that her diary had been discovered which included occult references that contradicted his agenda asserted that it was a fake – until he was confronted with samples of her handwritten entries from it.
The irony is that in their lifetime neither Warren or Florence Harding were ashamed by her integrating astrology into their lives.
For his part, Harding never denigrated his wife’s beliefs nor attempted to prevent her seeking guidance in them, even when public exposure of it may have threatened his 1920 presidential election.
Among the numerous astrologers Florence Harding relied upon during her life none was to play as large and public a role as Marcia Chaumprey.
When Mrs. Harding was later First Lady, “Madame Marcia” would also use a crystal ball and go into clairvoyance trances in order to warn about Administration officials she sensed were involved in malfeasance but her primary service was to interpret the zodiac for her.
It was early in the 1920 presidential primary season that Florence Harding was first brought to Marcia’s house by her closest confidant, the millionairess owner of the “cursed” Hope Diamond, Evalyn Walsh McLean.
She then returned with three fellow wives of U.S. Senators, veiled for anonymity, and presented the birth place, time and date details of her husband, seeking to determine the viability of him making a run for the Republican presidential nomination.
Marcia determined that Harding would be nominated and win the general election, but at the cost of his life. The prediction did become a factor in Harding remaining through the primaries, through the power of suggestion, but it was not the sole determinant in his continuing on.
It was Florence Harding who first tipped off the national press corps about having consulted an astrologer, telling them at the Republican National Convention in 1920 that, “If my husband is elected I can see but one word hanging over his head. Tragedy! Tragedy!”
Upon returning to her Ohio home, Florence Harding remained in touch with Marcia by letter, using the assigned code name of “Jupiter.” Somewhere along the line, there was a leak about the astrologer in the national press, and one of Mrs. Harding’s letters signed “Jupiter” was printed.
Rather than deny it, however, Florence Harding embraced it, confirming her faith in astrology but making amused rather than insulted reference to the leak about the consultation. A wise reaction, it ended any controversy before it began.
Once Florence Harding was in the White House, she would send her Secret Service agent Harry Barker to retrieve Marcia from her home, but had the woman enter through a west wing entrance where apparently the visitor’s book was not kept as strictly as the one maintained by the Chief Usher of guests entering through the main, North Portico entrance.
The irony for Marcia was that the previous First Lady had also consulted her. When Edith Galt had first consulted Mrs. Chaumprey in 1914, she foretold of her somehow becoming a member of a presidential family and living in the White House.
Mrs. Galt declared that if her prediction proved true that Marcia would be invited to the White House for further consultations and be permitted through the public entrance.
Once the widow was wooed and married the widowed President Woodrow Wilson, however, she made Marcia slip in discreetly through the south entrance.
As predicted, Warren Harding did die during his presidency. On the first night his flag-draped coffin laid in state in the White House East Room, Florence Harding asked her companion Evalyn McLean to descend the grand staircase so she could “speak” with her late husband.
There followed what many believe is the most ghoulish of scenes to have taken place in White House history. Both women were draped in black-veil, and Florence had the flag removed and the coffin opened so she could begin her monologue with the corpse, looking down onto his face, painted by a mortician.
In taped interviews she conducted with her ghostwriter, Evalyn recalled many humanizing tales of her beloved friends and attested to Florence Harding’s strict adherence to astrology. In two 1938 Liberty Magazine articles, Madame Marcia also went public with her rather exaggerated version of it all, “When An Astrologer Ruled the White House.”
It was another half-century before another First Lady’s reliance on astrology was thrust into media headlines and became the topic of public debate. In 1988, a year before the Reagan presidency ended, the President’s former Chief of Staff Don Regan published his memoirs, For the Record.
Disgruntled at Nancy Reagan’s effort to have him fired, he went public with the fact that, “the president’s schedule – and therefore his life and the most important business of the American nation was largely under the control of the first lady’s astrologer.”
A year after Regan’s revelations, Nancy Reagan published her book, the 1990 My Turn, and addressed the astrology issue.
In it, she wrote that, “While astrology was a factor in determining Ronnie’s schedule, it was never the only one, and no political decision was ever based on it.”
She had been prompted to enlist the professional services of San Francisco astrologer Joan Quigley upon the recommendation of their mutual friend Merv Griffin.
The trauma which followed the assassination attempt on her husband created a need for some sense of control in the protection of her husband. Using astrology to determine which days seemed dangerous and which seemed safe for the President to make public appearances or travel seemed to be an extra level of caution.
“I’m scared every time he leaves the house,” she confessed to Quigley.
“If it makes you feel better, go ahead and do it,” President Reagan assured his wife when she asked if minded her seeking astrological advice, warning only that she be sure it did not publicly leak.
A year after Mrs. Reagan’s book came out, however, Joan Quigley published her version of things in the memoir What Does Joan Say?: My Seven Years as White House Astrologer to Nancy and Ronald Reagan, which was the line the President allegedly often asked his wife when it came to determining matters which the astrologer claimed went well beyond public appearances and travel dates.
“I was responsible for timing all press conferences,” Quigley wrote, “most speeches, the State of the Union addresses, the takeoffs and landings of Air Force One. I picked the time of Ronald Reagan’s debate with Carter and the two debates with Walter Mondale; all extended trips abroad as well as the shorter trips and one-day excursions.”
She had also advised on the timing of Reagan’s cancer surgery, and even offered her opinion that he must shift his Cold War rhetoric in dealing with the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
“Ronnie’s ‘evil empire’ attitude has to go,” Quigley claimed she told the First Lady. “Gorbachev’s Aquarian planet is in such harmony with Ronnie’s, you’ll see … They’ll share a vision…”
The First Lady paid Quigley for her services, through the help of a third party and most of their consultations were conducted over the phone.
The astrologer only came to the White House once, to attend a 1985 state dinner. It was the only time Reagan ever met his wife’s astrologer, but both he and Nancy had long before consulted and befriended Carroll Righter, the famous “astrologer to the stars” and a daily horoscope columnist.
Among the earliest documentation of a presidential spouse making reference to any of the beliefs that are commonly bunched together under the umbrella description of “occult,” is an August 1, 1833 letter written by former First Lady Dolley Madison to her niece Mary Cutts.
It certainly offers a different perspective from those mentioned in this series of four articles.
The younger woman had recently been to see a fortuneteller and reported back to her aunt the details of what was predicted for her future life:
“May your fortune, dearest Mary, be even better than the sybil’s predictions. There is one secret, however, she did not tell you, and that is the power we all have in forming our own destinies.”