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Love, Valour, Compassion

Florence Harding was an ambitious and savvy political wife who stood by her man. Hmmm...

By Ginia Bellafante

TIME magazine

By the 199th page of Florence Harding (William Morrow; 645 pages; $30), Carl Sferrazza Anthony's comprehensively documented biography of America's 29th First Lady, her husband Warren, now running for President, has already fallen into a reckless affair with Mrs. Harding's friend Carrie Phillips, trysted with a female Senate aide, ogled nude, frolicking teenage girls on a farm in Ohio, and sired two illegitimate children--one of them conceived in his Senate office with a woman 32 years his junior. It is with some amusement, then, that the reader at this point in the book finds a chapter titled "Women." Perhaps Anthony ran out of heading ideas, having already trotted out "Adultery Again," "Betrayal and Confrontation" and "Lust and War."

As all this might suggest, Florence Harding is less a deconstruction of this First Lady's tastes and thinking than it is a titillating--and unquestionably entertaining--look at an early 20th century political marriage devoid of a mundane moment. Warren Harding, who died of heart failure in his second year as President in 1923, ran the country during a time of baroque corruption and excess that the book also engagingly chronicles. Like the current occupant of the White House, he seemed incapable of economizing on his affections for women or on following his wants cautiously. Among the previously unpublished records featured in the book are love letters and poems he sent to Phillips. Byronesque they were not: "I love your knees, their dimples kiss/I love your ways of giving bliss," he wrote in one.

At first Mrs. Harding approached her husband's infidelities as a jealous lover, traveling with him wherever he went. During his presidency, however, she seemed to settle into the role of palace guard, concerned more with shielding her husband's reputation than preventing his persistent philandering.

Above all, Florence Harding was an ambitious and headstrong First Lady, a key adviser to her husband, an agitator for women's rights and an advocate for injured veterans. She also comes off as a woman who would be terribly au courant today. Not only did she employ an astrologer, but she also championed animal rights and wooed Hollywood as a sort of Nancy Reagan meets Hillary Clinton meets Kim Basinger.

What's missing, alas, from Florence Harding is any real exploration of her emotional life beyond a diary entry that reads, "To me, love seems to have been a thing of tragedy." But perhaps that is all of her pain she'd want us to know.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: July 20, 1998

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The Middle East
Love, Valour, Compassion
Glory Raised High By Horns

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