Harding's White House affair was one for the books, too


AFTER the presidential impeachment trial ends, Monica Lewinsky's book will be published and some pundits wonder if it will have a large audience, considering all of the media attention the scandal has received over the past year.

To sell books, the Lewinsky camp needs a sympathetic review by a noted journalist such as the one that helped to make Nan Britton's book a best-seller more than 70 years ago.

Britton, the mistress of Warren G. Harding and mother of his illegitimate daughter, was getting nowhere with her tell-all book until H. L. Mencken reviewed it in the Evening Sun, excoriating those who tried to prevent its publication.

Publishing problems

Like Ms. Lewinsky, at first Britton had trouble finding a publisher for her book, "The President's Daughter." In rejecting it, a reader at Boni and Liveright, a publishing house, said "We're passing up $100,000 and we know it." The editor of Cosmopolitan refused to print it.

Although she needed the money, Britton said her primary motive was to dramatize "the need for legal and social recognition and protection of all children . . . born out of wedlock." She decided to publish the book herself, but a vice squad raided her printer's plant and seized the plates.

When the plates were freed by a court order, the book was published, then ignored by the reviewers and bookstores -- until Mencken, always ready to assist a lady in distress, came to the rescue. His review appeared in the Evening Sun on July 18, 1927.

He said he was not interested in Britton's "highly romantic" account of "Warren's mushy love-making." He was more interested in the efforts of the "Comstocks" to prevent publication, which he thought would eventually give the book wide circulation (he was right) and of Britton's portrait of Harding as the worst head of state in modern history. In the review, Mencken said the Carnegie Institution should put a young researcher to work immediately writing a complete history of Harding's administration. "It will throw more light on the inner workings of the American system of government than even the secret archives of the Anti-Saloon League or the Ku Klux Klan."

According to Harding biographer, Francis Russell, after the Mencken review, Brentano's book stores ordered "10 copies, then 50, then 100, then 1,000."

Other reviews

Belatedly, other reviewers broke their silence and by September Britton had a best-seller. As for the primary subject matter of Britton's book, Mencken said it was "intimate and confidential."

Harding, who died in 1923, was not around to challenge Britton's accounts of her supposed assignations with Harding in a closet in an anteroom of the Oval Office.

The fact that "men of the highest eminence," Mencken said, sometimes have clandestine love affairs is "surely not a secret to anyone who has been working for newspapers as long as I have. They are more apt to have them, in fact, than more obscure men, for women pursue them with greater assiduity and they themselves stand in greater need of sentimental relaxation."

Roy Hoopes just completed a historical novel about H. L. Mencken, the 1920s and the Harding Administration.

Pub Date: 2/09/99

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