Presidents' Week: Warren G Harding

the book:

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold

published 2001    overture

[President Warren G Harding is talking backstage with the magician Charles Carter, and meeting the animals used in his illusions]

Though significantly overweight, with a high stomach that seemed to pressure his breastbone, Harding was still an impressive man, olive-skinned and with wiry grey hair, caterpillar eyebrows and the sculpted nose of a Roman senator. Yet in a glance, shrewd men noted his legendary weak nature: his several chins, too-wet mouth, and his gentle, eager eyes…

[Carter asks:] ‘Have you met Baby [a lion]?’

Harding shrugged. ‘Not much of a cat man. Allergic, you know. I have a dog.’

‘Of course. Laddie Boy.’

Harding beamed, looked surprised. ‘You know him?’ Then his face fell. ‘How foolish of me. Mr Carter, for a moment I forgot I was President.’ He fell silent, and directed himself to feeding the rest of the bag of peanuts to Tug [elephant]. When he spoke again, it was to mutter, ‘I’ve been counting dogs these last few minutes. I’ve owned many dogs. People are so cruel to dogs, aren’t they?...’

observations: The book is fiction, but both Warren G Harding and Charles Carter were real, and so were many of the other characters in this wide-ranging novel. President Harding died in San Francisco in 1923 – that much is true. In the book, he has just visited, and taken part in, a magic show:

'Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the head of state.’ And then, falling from a great height, a vision of grey matted hair, and a blur of jowls atop a jagged gash, President Harding’s head tumbled down to the stage…

But of course he’s fine – that’s not what killed him. So what did? About 550 pages later you finally find out what really happened that night, with an awful lot of other stuff going on along the way. It’s a terrific book, very well-written and entertaining, and gives a nice little view of corners of American life of the era.

Harding is not usually remembered as a great President, and there are a lot of scandals associated with his name, including various allegations of extra-marital affairs. More to follow in another entry and another book.

Links up with: Saki and his dogs here. Lots of stage shows elsewhere on the blog. More presidential & election entries yesterday and for the rest of this week.

The picture is of Warren G Harding and Laddie Boy, and comes from the
Bain Collection at the Library of Congress.