I don’t want to be coy with this review, so I will simply begin by saying that The Strange Death of President Harding is a dreadful book, and no one should read it… at least, not without considerable forewarning and forearming with real history. Written by Gaston B. Means and May Dixon Thacker, who first met Means when she was visiting prisons in furtherance of “good works,” the book allegedly derives from Means’ diaries, kept during the 1910s and 1920s. It is a chronicle of rampant invention and fiction, spewed forth by a man who seems to have an almost psychopathic aversion to the truth. But what is really interesting about this terrible book is the far-reaching impact it has had on twentieth century history.
The Strange Death of President Harding revolves around events almost one hundred years in the past, events which took place during the contentious Presidency of Warren Gamaliel Harding (1921-23). Harding was a Republican populist who beat out the Woodrow Wilson legacy candidate, James M. Cox, in the 1920 election. Harding was a newspaper editor from Ohio who had entered the U.S. Senate in 1917, although his Senate career was undistinguished, to say the least. Several leading newspapermen of the day, including William Allen White, were less than complimentary about Harding, who was said to be charming, but not over-gifted in the brain-box. Harding’s years in office saw a number of minor policy successes, but Harding himself died in office on the cusp of several scandals, for which he did not survive to accept or deny responsibility. Harding, who was impressively popular for most of his tenure, was, upon his sudden death in a San Francisco hotel, mourned on a scale to rival the slain John F. Kennedy forty years later. Yet, within a few short months, his administration – now under President Calvin Coolidge – was the subject of a series of accusations of impropriety and corruption (of which Coolidge had no part).
None of the accusations of Harding’s complicity in the cases of abuse of office by members of his Cabinet (in the cases of the Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall and the Teapot Dome oil leases, the Veteran’s Bureau abuses under Charles R. Forbes, and improprieties surrounding Attorney General Harry Daughtery) were ever proven. Nor were any of the personal attacks: of booze-soaked debaucheries, of profiteering by Harding and his cronies, and even of murder, ever proven. These unsubstantiated attacks include those made anonymously by Samuel Hopkins Adams, author of the roman à clef entitled Revelry (1926),which purported to expose some of the scandals of the Harding Administration in fiction, and those of Gaston B. Means in 1930. Only in 2015 were the 1927 allegations made by Nan Britton, a young woman from Harding’s home town of Marion, Ohio, that Harding had fathered her child. DNA testing of descendants of both families have shown little doubt that Harding was indeed the father, as Britton alleged in The President’s Daughter.
Since the 1960s, Harding has also been known to have had an affair with Carrie Phillips, a married woman, in the early 1910s, and this dalliance has been the subject of several books. But the view of Harding as a crook to rival Nixon (who was a crook and has repeatedly been documented to have been such) has persisted to this day. In surveys, Harding is often ranked dead last among American Presidents in terms of favorability (including some, like Garfield or William Henry Harrison, who served a scant few months before their deaths in office). Yet two members of his cabinet, Calvin Coolidge (Vice President) and Herbert Hoover (Secretary of Commerce), went on to become President. No one would argue that Harding was somehow secretly a great President, but what seems to have been a posthumous smear campaign against him definitely tarnished his reputation, excessively so. Something about these disconnected facts doesn’t add up.
Into this mix, Means interjected himself like a fiery arrow of misinformation and salacious innuendo. “Author” Gaston B. Means was a liar, a thief, a crook, and likely a murderer, if we are to accept Edwin Palmer Hoyt’s Spectacular Rogue, a biography of Means, as a reliable source. It has been strongly suggested that for Means to have had the level of intimate, all-hours access which he claims to have had: to the workings of government and to the White House, to Mrs. Harding, and to the President, it would have had to have been without the knowledge of the commanding officer of the White House security detail, Col. Edmund Starling. Fortunately, Starling wrote his own book, and in Starling of the White House depicts Means’ book as a “fantastic web of lies.” Starling continued: “Means turned the investigation of Daugherty into a vaudeville act, with himself as the star” (p. 218-19). In an earlier reference, Starling characterised Means as “a man who would not have been caught dead telling the truth” (p. 182).
The Means book itself is terrible and almost unreadable, stylistically. It would have been far less aggravating to simply put it down, were it not for the imminent train-wreck feeling that it gives the reader. Whether May Dixon Thacker was trying to capture Means’ speech in her atrocious writing, whether she herself could not write, or whether the writing style was a deliberate choice for some unknown stylistic reason, Strange Death is a disaster of grammar, logic, and construction. It is hard to see why it is written that way… one is left thinking that perhaps it was because the authors simply didn’t know any better? Means also has a way of putting himself “on the spot” for key events, which is quite remarkable and extraordinary… or rather, it would be, if it were true. Means also regularly talks about his “evidence” and “files” in almost ridiculous volumes: sometimes files occupy “several suitcases,” in other instances, he has “two filing cabinets full.” If any of this lurid documentation was ever given to Thacker, or anyone else, the hand-off has not been noted by history.
Why then has Means been so often sourced by other authors of the day, and those who were to follow? Whatever they thought of him, certain Harding biographers and historians of the period have been quick to cite Means’ book as evidence of Presidential and Administration misconduct, despite its wildly dubious and lurid nature. For every Starling who, whatever his natural inclination politically, tended to view men by their words and deeds, rather than by their party, there is a Frederick Lewis Allen (Only Yesterday) or Samuel Hopkins Adams (Revelry, Incredible Era) who finds the serendipitous lies of someone like Means to have merit enough, just because they were there.
To characterise Strange Death as a web of lies is perhaps the best way to put it: Means wove fact and fiction until they were almost inextricably linked, and it would take a real historian some considerable time and effort to adequately annotate and analyse the lies. Much is still unknown about exactly how some of the events “described” by Means unfolded, but the impression that one takes away from Strange Death and other books about the period is that Means was an inveterate, compulsive, and chronic liar. So when he appears to claim that Harry Daughtery and Jess Smith were lovers, is he lying? When he claims that Jess Smith was murdered “by the gang”, what really happened? What about when he claims – after numerous interviews that almost certainly never happened – to have learned from Florence Harding that she, herself, murdered her husband, President Warren G. Harding in a hotel in San Francisco on 3 August 1923, what should we think? Florence Harding had died in 1924, and was therefore not present to respond to the libel. And although Harding’s death was surprising to some of his doctors of the day, it is now generally considered to have been caused by years of hypertension and heart disease. Should we think that Means was imprisoned by the “gang” to ensure his silence, rather than that his imprisonment was a just sentence for his many and varied crimes?
In the last analysis, what should we believe in The Strange Death of President Harding? I would suggest one simple measure: nothing. Not one damn word that can’t be independently corroborated. And for those lazy “historians” (Adams, Russell, Mee, McCarthy and all the rest who have given Means so much as an ounce of credence), I call shame, because that’s more than this lying waste of space ever, ever deserved. To any so-called historian who has ever done more than dismissed Means out of hand (except for Ferrell, perhaps, who takes Means apart in no uncertain terms), I would say that Means has gotten the last laugh on you. I’m not kidding around here: Means was and is bad news, and people who can’t grasp that are having serious problems with reality. Read this book for fun, or for misery, but read Robert H. Ferrell’s The Strange Deaths of President Harding (note the plural) if you want something which is much more likely to be the truth.
Finally, thinking about Means, I found myself wondering… what has happened to his descendents? After Means finally died in disgrace in Leavenworth, , in 1938, what became of his line, of his wife and son? He ended up in prison in north-eastern Kansas not for the lies he told, not for his collaborations with the Germans during the First World War, nor indeed his crimes under the Volstead Act, the murder, or anything else. No, Means was finally jailed for extorting money from Evalyn Walsh McLean while he pretended to help “find” the already-dead Lindberg baby. I wonder if he has descendants, and if they hang their heads over his criminality, or if the family line has already died out? How long does the long, tarnished arm of a crook hang over a family? Or, perhaps, have they moved on? Everyone deserves a second chance, and I hope that the descendants of Gaston B. Means, should there be any living, have taken theirs, and moved on.
Originally reviewed 28 July 2014.
If your curiosity is piqued and you really want a copy of The Strange Death of President Harding of your very own, try AbeBooks.com (links to the title directly).
For a more reliable history, which refutes the claims of some Harding detractors, you might consider The Strange Deaths of President Harding, by Robert H. Ferrell, also found on AbeBooks.com (links to the title directly).
For a biography of Gaston B. Means, you might consider Spectacular Rogue: Gaston B. Means, by Edwin Palmer Hoyt, also found on AbeBooks.com (links to the title directly).