My Search for Warren Harding by Robert Plunket
published 1983 chapter 17
God, the things I found. In ten seconds I knew this was a major historical find. In twenty seconds I knew it was not just major but unique: the complete record of the relationship of a President and his mistress. Incredible mind-boggling things passed through my hands:… a letter from Florence Harding to Rebekah warning her to keep away from her husband ‘or else I fear for your safety’, Harding’s childhood stamp collection, … and some strange stuff like a shaving brush, a pair of pyjamas, and even some underwear, all initialled WGH.
But where were the letters, the ones from Harding? There were letters from everybody under the sun (including from Rebekah’s mother rebuking her for combing her hair in church) but there I was, almost at the bottom, with nothing but a few noncommittal postcards. I was beginning to get panicky. There had to be letters.
Then, under the pyjamas and underwear, I found them…
I read one, then another, then a third.
No wonder she kept them under lock and key.
They were filthy.
observations: Two coincidences. We’ve been looking for Presidents in novels, and there are two books hugely devoted to the slightly obscure Harding – whereas other more notable figures don’t seem to have featured much. (The other is Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold, featured on Wednesday).
The other point is this: there are not many books that make the reader laugh out loud to a painful degree, books that you would try not to read on public transport – but this is one, and Thursday’s The White House Mess is another. The presidency isn’t intrinsically funny, but these two books are standout comedies. (This one also has similarities with Lucky Jim, another ravishingly funny book, in its theme of a young academic on the make, and with a similar high-handed approach to the women in the young man’s life.)
My Search… is about a young(ish) historian looking for a trove of Harding’s letters to make his name and his fortune. He tracks down and stalks the President's ancient former mistress to do this. He is an unreliable narrator, and is also vicious, mean-mouthed and with a brilliant turn of phrase. The plot is very much based on The Aspern Papers, so if you know your Henry James you know what’s coming, but the journey there is truly hilarious. It is a mystery why this book and its author are not better known – this should be accepted as a classic.
Links up with: The Day of the Dead features again, with a Mexican family who have made their fortune out of sugar skulls. More Presidents and Election entries during this week.
The picture is of an actual pair of Warren G Harding’s silk Chinese pyjamas, which are owned by the Smithsonian Institution.