The wife of 29th US President Warren G. Harding, Florence Kling was born on August 15, 1860, in Marion, Ohio. She was the eldest of three children born to Amos Kling, a successful banker in Marion, and Louisa Bouton. Her father was of German descent, and her mother’s ancestors were French Huguenots who came to the United States to escape religious persecution.
As most children of wealthy or well-off parents, Florence had an excellent education that included a strong focus on the arts and culture. Therefore, it was no surprise when Florence expressed a desire to study to become a concert pianist. When she was old enough, she began studying at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. However, as many young women before and after her, romance took the lead over studies in her priorities. When she was 19 years old, she fell in love with and subsequently eloped with Henry DeWolfe. They were married in Columbus, Ohio on January 22, 1880.
Florence gave birth exactly nine months to the day after her elopement, on September 22, 1880. This child, a son named Marshall Eugene DeWolfe, would be her only child. And, as so many marriages between very young people go, Florence and Henry DeWolfe found their relationship to be too volatile to sustain. They separated not long after Marshall’s birth and divorced in 1886.
Florence’s father was not happy about any of this. Amos Kling was a man used to getting his way, and Florence both dropped out of college and got married without his permission or approval. When she returned home without her husband, but with a baby in tow, Amos agreed to raise young Marshall, but refused to support Florence. She made a living for herself by teaching piano.
One of Florence’s students was Warren Harding’s sister, Charity, and the two met through her. However, their would-be courtship was not without its obstacles. For one, Warren owned The Star, a newspaper in Marion, and often found himself in conflict with Florence’s father, of whom Warren was critical in the paper. In retaliation to the constant bad press from Warren, Amos Kling started a rumor in town that the Harding family had African-American ancestors in it (which was a social scandal in white society at the time), and encouraged local business to boycott Warren’s paper. Warren, in turn, threatened to beat the tar out of Amos if he did not retract his slanderous statements about the Harding family.
In the midst of the feuding between Warren and Amos, Warren and Florence managed to fall in love and get married. They were wed on July 8, 1891, in Marion, at the Queen Anne-style home they had designed together for themselves. Florence’s father naturally opposed the marriage and claimed Warren was social climbing by marrying her.
She and Warren had no children together, and it was widely believed that Warren was sterile due to having mumps as a child. However, he was known to have affairs during his marriage to Florence, who he affectionately called “The Duchess.” One of these affairs was alleged to have produced a daughter named Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s mother even wrote a book about it after Warren’s death and said he sent her child support money every month, even though he never met his daughter.
Historians argued over whether Elizabeth could have been Warren’s daughter for decades, until 2015, when DNA technology finally proved she was, in fact, Warren’s biological child.
Though they had no children together, Florence’s son, Marshall, lived with them on and off, alternately staying with them and with his grandparents, who had agreed to raise him. Warren encouraged his step-son to enter journalism as a career.
When Warren was ill, before beginning his career in politics, Florence showed incredible business acumen by taking over operations of The Star. She did everything, including purchasing new equipment at good prices, installing the paper’s first news-wire device, organizing a circulation department, and even hiring new employees. Those who worked with her expressed a belief that Florence was the true driving force behind The Star.
In 1905, Florence required emergency surgery for nephritis (referred to at the time as “floating kidney”). She relied on a homeopathic doctor who was close friends with the family, and this decision proved controversial among relatives and the public. During her convalescence, Warren began his first known extramarital affair, with Carrie Phillips. It was one of a few affairs he had while married to Florence, and while she did consider divorce when she learned of it, she never pursued it.
In fact, after her recovery, Florence managed everything for Warren, including his finances, social life, and public image. It was thanks to her efforts that Warren was able to enter politics in the first place. By 1914, he was in the US Senate, and by 1920, he was being considered as a candidate for president, though was not a front-runner in the contest at the time.
Florence gave him a lot of support in his presidential bid, thanks to a prediction by Washington fortune-teller Madame Marcia Champrey. Champrey correctly predicted Warren would win, and also that he would die while in office. During the election, Carrie Phillips tried to extort money from Warren by threatening to expose his adultery. However, Florence’s experience with newspapers allowed her to deflect Carrie, as well as questions about her own first marriage to DeWolfe. Since DeWolfe was dead by this time, Florence merely told the papers she was a widow when she married Warren, and not a divorcee, which would have been frowned upon at the time.
Florence hit her role as First Lady with enthusiasm, beginning by prompting Warren to read a speech she had written at the inauguration. She had strong political opinions on many issues and was always willing to make these opinions known. Her most passionate cause was the care and welfare of war veterans, which she promoted with vigor.
Florence was the 1stFirst Lady to own a radio, invite celebrities to the White House, operate a movie camera, and, most importantly, to vote, as women gained that right nationwide the year before she became First Lady.
She also flew in planes, introduced new fashions to the nation, and showed movies to guests after White House dinners. She even quietly served alcohol to White House during Prohibition. Like her father, Amos, Florence did what she wanted, and was used to being given her way.
By two years into Warren’s presidency, both he and Florence were ailing. They went on a coast-to-coast rail tour of the country, anyway, and Warren died on this tour, in San Francisco. Though Florence did not request an autopsy, the cause is widely believed to have been a heart attack, brought on by pre-existing and misdiagnosed heart issues.
While Florence wanted to continue living in Washington during her widowhood, her kidney ailment returned shortly after losing her husband, and her homeopathic doctor recommended she move to a cottage at the health retreat he operated in her hometown of Marion, Ohio. She did but died of kidney disease only a little more than a year after becoming a widow.
She left most of her estate to her two grandchildren by her son, Marshall.
She and Warren were both kept in the receiving vault at the Marion City Cemetery until the completion of the elaborate Harding Tomb. They were both moved there, and are there today. The Harding Tomb is also in Marion.