Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A beautiful, cold and sunny late winter day in New York

Looking north through Gramercy Park. 9:00 PM.
Politics and Poker and Sex. There was a lot of mail about yesterday’s Diary in which it was perceived my defending Mr. Spitzer. And my father’s story which I told briefly and without the embellishment that makes for drama. The majority of mail from the women, interestingly, had sympathy for both man and wife. Some had no sympathy as well; and  no sympathy for me whom they judged as approving of “lying” and “cheating.”

The men weighed in mainly agreeing but then some angrily disagreed with my point of view and were even offended by it.  Some allowed that while they had never taken the “risks” Mr. Spitzer took, they empathized. Others just plain felt: Condemn and punish. Many brought up the irony of Mr. Spitizer’s earlier prosecutions of prostitution rings and his present dilemma. If he hadn’t done that, they claimed, then it wudda been okay. Sorta.

Aren’t we the wise ones. Ironically I’ve met very few, very very few people in my no longer short life who could be regarded as truly “wise.” Good, yes; wise, not very. And I’ve noticed: even the wise ones have their pronounced shortcomings.

Florence and Warren Harding
Coincidentally I’m reading a very good new book called “The Teapot Dome Scandal” by Laton McCartney (Random House). If you have even the slightest interest in 20th century American history, this book is like an ice cream sundae. Mr. McCartney is a storyteller with a keen sense of history and humanity. He wastes no time in cutting to the chase in describing and explaining what happened during that time known as the Roaring 20s; and how it so naturally came to a crashing halt. With blood on the rug.

It is a story that tangentially has intrigued me since I first moved to Los Angeles in the late 1970s and I learned about the Doheny family and the murder that occurred in the family’s then brand new palatial mansion “Greystone” on the night of February 16, 1929. It remains an unsolved murder although the family and advisors invented a solution.

Warren G. Harding was our 29th President. He was fifty-five and Senator from Ohio when a couple of backroom political operators engineered him into the Presidency because they thought he “looked” like the perfect image of a President. Good enough reason, no? He didn’t even want it. Right after he won, he had a taste of the Numero Uno wine but soon thereafter he still didn’t like it.

He was, by nature, a womanizer, a man who had copious and intensely sexual affairs and even wrote passionate love letters to all the girls. One of his mistresses was a married neighbor in his hometown of Marion, Ohio. They once made it on the Harding front porch (god know where his wife was) because Warren liked making love (with women other than his wife) in “dangerous” places (i.e., public).
Edward "Ned" Doheny on the floor of a guest bedroom, shot in the head, lying in a pool of his own blood. Upper center, the face-down in the hallway outside the bedroom, the body of his friend Hugh Plunkett, also shot in the head. February 16, 1929.
When he moved into the White House he was having a long affair with a woman named Nan Britten with whom he had a daughter. He would often smuggle her into the White House and they would make love in the Oval Office. It was there he told her that living in the White House was like living in prison.

Mr. Harding had a wife. Florence, who was five years his senior. She knew about a lot of her husband’s peccadillos because they were so numerous and closeby enough of the time. She loved living in the White House because then she could be sure where he was most of the time. She was the prison warden. Other times, however, she didn’t know. Like the Oval Office business. Or the house two blocks away on H Street where Ned McLean (who owned the Washington Post) had parties with show girls and ... prostitutes.
President Harding throwing out the ball at the beginning of the baseball season for the Washington Senators, 1922.
The Harding residence in Marion, Ohio, where Warren Harding began and conducted much of his Presidential campaign.
The President would sneak away for these late night parties. Once during some raucous melee, a girl got hit in the head by a bottle of water. She died the next day. The President was present. At least physically. It was never mentioned or written about.

Nan Britten, Harding's serious love affair during his White House years, and mother of his daughter.
The upshot of Mr. Harding’s Presidency is that the men around him were greedy thieves on many counts. Using the Presidential authority, they busily looted the assets of the United States including the Oil reserves of the US Navy at three different locations including the Teapot Dome oil reservoirs in Wyoming.

With everything for sale at bargain basement prices (it pays to know someone), rich businessmen such as Edward L. Doheny Sr., a Los Angeles/West Coast oilman, actively sought access to Federal properties. Mr. Doheny’s pursuit (and downfall) was the Teapot Dome in Wyoming. His access was arranged by a man named Harry Fall, a former Senator from the brand new state of New Mexico who was Harding’s Secretary of Interior.

There were big bribes and other scurrilous activities. Mr. Fall was “lent” $100,000 (about $10 million in today’s dollars) by the elder Doheny. This was discovered and began the exposure of the greatest political scandal of that or any decade up to Watergate.  At the end of the story, Edward Doheny Jr., known as “Ned,” the father’s only son and heir, who with his wife Lucy and five children and staff of fifteen moved into the baronial Greystone mansion (see NYSD 8.30.07), and where a few months later he was murdered and silenced forever.

This death and his friend Plunkett’s death gave the elder Doheny’s lawyer enough ground to plead for mercy for their client “who lost his only son.” And so it was, mercy granted, trial over.

Mr. Harding died six years before, in 1923, the third year of his term, on a train in San Francisco. Many believed that the scandals that grew up around him taunted him to death. Whatever it was, the nation was well rid of this pleasant, distinguished-looking skirt chaser who had sex on the brain (and the train), and a wife in the old bedroom.

Click to order
The Teapot Dome case dragged on through the 1920s until that fatal moment in 1929 when young Doheny and the elder Doheny were going to have to make appearances before a Senate Investigating Committee, which would lead to indictments and trials. This never happened, however, because of the fortuitouness (for someone) of that tragic night on Doheny Road in Beverly Hills when Doheny, age 35, dressed in an expensive silk dressing gown, was shot in the head at point blank, as was his friend/assistant Hugh Plunkett. Three or four hours after the deaths, the family and the family doctor called the police. With their stories straight they recited what and how.

However, and whatever, that gunshot effectively ended the deeply corrupt Presidential Administration of a hapless, pleasure-seeking hedonist from Marion, Ohio, who blessedly (or maybe not) never lived to see what he had wrought.

The Doheny murder has never been solved but Laton McCartney’s book comes closer than anyone else ever has. One thing we do know: his death was for love of money.

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