Florence Harding Juvenile/Educational Biography
Florence Kling DeWolfe Harding
August 15, 1860-November 21, 1924
Florence Mabel Kling was born August 15, 1860 in Marion, Ohio. She was the oldest of 3 children and the only girl born to Amos Hall Kling and the former Louise Mabel Bouton. Her wealthy and tyrannical father was disappointed that his first child was a “mere” girl. Little is know of her early life and education because she destroyed the records. However, we know she skated, both ice and roller, learned to ride side-saddle, and loved to climb trees. She grew to be tall, almost 5 feet 7 inches with brown hair that she wore stiffly marceled. She was always stylishly dressed. She was near sighted and wore a pince-nez all her life. Because of her large feet and hands and her assertive manner and abrupt tone, many considered her mannish.
Because of her obvious musical ability, her father wanted her to be a concert pianist and forced long daily practice sessions on Florence. Some sources reported these sessions to last 8 hours a day. She was admitted to and attended the Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati. However, her mother suffered from depression and when the burden of caring for her because more than he could handle, he brought Florence home to take over the care of her mother. Desperate to escape her father’s control, she eloped to Galion, Ohio, at the age of 20 with her first husband Henry “Pete” DeWolfe. One child was born to Florence and Pete, a son named Marshall Eugene DeWolfe. However, all was not well with the young family. Pete was an alcoholic and deserted his wife and child on Christmas Eve, 1882. There was nothing for Florence to do but return to Marion; however, her father refused to support her. In order to earn a living for herself and her son, she began to give piano lessons. Her father, apparently angered by her independence, took her son from her and raised him as a “Kling.” Finally, in 1886, Florence divorced Pete DeWolfe but kept his name.
Historians are unsure how she met Warren G. Harding. He was the owner of the Marion Daily Star, the local newspaper and was an eligible 25-year-old bachelor; Florence was 5 years his senior. We do know that the two fell in love, planned a house, built it in Marion, and were married there July 8, 1891. Despite her assertive manner with others, with Warren she was warm, loving, and trusting. She was also bright, ambitious, and willing to work hard.
Shortly after the wedding, Warren entered a Michigan health asylum for digestive troubles. Her strong sense of order and business acumen asserted itself and she ran the newspaper in his absence. She took control of the advertising, circulation, delivery boys, and the ledger and managed to turn a failing business into a thriving one. When Warren returned, their business partnership at the newspaper continued.
Again, historians know little about this early time of their marriage because Florence destroyed the records. However, what is known indicates that her health was not always good. In 1905 her kidneys failed, a medical concern that re-occurred throughout her life. And Warren began the first of at least 2 long-term affairs during this time. She learned of this one in 1911 and was devastated by it. It is reported that she remained in love with him but never fully trusted him again.
The year 1915 was bittersweet for Florence. Her son and only child died and Warren was elected to the United States Senate. With the move to Washington, DC, Florence developed a new circle of friends. She became close to Evalyn Walsh McLean, famous for the Hope Diamond. This association opened many new doors in society for her.
Warren’s name was mentioned for the presidential race of 1920 and Florence was opposed. It was reported that she was concerned about his lack of moral strength and his dependence on others. However, when he decided to run, she threw herself into the campaign. She became the first candidate’s wife to appear at the nominating convention when she joined Warren on the dais in June 1920. The Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote had just become law. Florence poke to women’s groups, allowed photo sessions, and even built a pressroom behind their home for the newspaper reporters covering the campaign. She was said to have worked hand-in-hand with the women of the press corps. On November 2, 1920, she became the first women to help elected her husband to the presidency by voting in a presidential election.
As First Lady, Florence was very popular. She was folksy and outgoing. She loved the veterans of World War I and often stopped the car to give veterans on crutches a lift around the capital. She opened the White House to everyone, even the private quarters on the second floor. She probably pushed herself beyond her physical strength, as she was now 60 years old, but she wanted to appear vital and energetic. She hosted garden parties for the veterans on the White House lawn and often visited veterans’ hospitals around the Washington, DC, area. She could always the counted on to attend or to host charity dinners. She became involved in many humanitarian issues, from veterans affairs to Armenian relief. She urged the reduction of sentences in civil cases and lobbied for the removal of children from the penal system. At heart, she was worried about Warren’s grasp of political affairs and asked the Cabinet to report to her. With this heavy workload, it is not surprising that in September 1922, she collapsed and was diagnosed with kidney failure. Her recovery was long and slow, lasting for more than 6 months.
During the summer of 1923, Warren was implicated in a corruption scandal involving their friends and political cronies from Ohio. The scandal threatened to destroy Warren’s presidency. They decided to travel the country to tell their side of the story, planning speeches across the nation, in Alaska and in Canada. Warren was unwell when he began the journey and Florence was still recovering from the previous fall’s illness. His health collapsed while in Seattle, Washington, and he was rushed to San Francisco for medical attention. He died August 2, 1923, in San Francisco. Florence refused to permit an autopsy. In addition, the President’s physician stated that he died of ptomaine poisoning. These two actions gave rise to the rumors that she had poisoned him. In reality, he had suffered a massive heart attack and stroke. She made the long trip back to Washington, endured the state funeral, traveled to Marion for his burial, then returned to Washington to pack up their things and move from the White House. She finally left Washington in mid-August and returned to their home in Marion. It is reported that she spent many hours going through Warren’s papers, destroying those that would damage his reputation.
Florence spent her remaining years arranging for the creation of the Harding Memorial Association to honor her husband. She remained busy and active but was extremely lonely. She returned to Washington in January 1924 and stayed at the new Willard Hotel, enjoying the city, its social whirl, and her old friends. In July of that year, her doctor asked her to come home to Marion in order to take better care of her health. She made her last public appearance in the fall of 1924 when she walked the Veterans’ March in a parade. The weather was cold with a drenching rain. She became chilled and never recovered. She died November 21, 1924, and was buried in Marion, Ohio, beside her beloved Warren.