Early Life, First Marriage and Motherhood
Born on August 15, 1860 in Marion, Ohio, Florence Mabel Kling was the oldest of three children of Amos Hall Kling and Louisa Bouton Kling. She had two younger brothers named Clifford and Vetallis. Her father was a self-made businessman and real estate owner who became the richest man in Marion and a prominent city leader. As such, her father was able to give her many of the best things in life, including a childhood in a large home, proper equestrian training, and piano lessons. As a young woman, Florence studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, and eventually gave private piano lessons around Marion.
In January 1880, Florence surprised her family and fellow citizens by eloping with Marionite Henry Atherton DeWolfe (sometimes known as “Pete”). Living at first in the Marion County village of Prospect, the couple’s only child, Marshall Eugene DeWolfe was born on September 22, 1880. Henry was a undependable husband and father, failing to provide for his wife and young son and disappearing for weeks at a time. He also was an alcoholic. They divorced in 1886, and Florence took back her maiden name. Marshall spent part of his childhood at the Kling home and alternated between using the Kling and DeWolfe last names. Marshall married in 1908, and he and his wife, Esther, had 2 children, George and Jean. Marshall passed away from tuberculosis on January 1, 1915 in Denver, CO.
Second Marriage and New Start
Around 1889, Florence met and started dating the owner and publisher of one of Marion’s local newspapers. Warren G. Harding, who had purchased the struggling Marion Daily Star in 1884 when he was just 19 years old, was handsome, personable – and broke. Her father, never letting Florence forget about her first mistake in marriage, was vocal about his disdain for her new beau. He felt that Harding’s profession as a publisher was beneath his daughter’s station in life. Nevertheless, 30-
year-old Florence and 25-year-old Warren were married in the entrance hall of their new home on Mount Vernon Avenue in Marion on the evening of July 8, 1891.
Nearly from the start, Florence took an interest in the business side of the Star, working with the financial books of the newspaper. As she put it, “I stopped by the Star office one afternoon and stayed fourteen years.” She realigned home delivery of the newspaper in Marion to make it more efficient and profitable and made sure than every penny coming into the paper made its way to the bank. Florence’s help, along with a growing staff, allowed Harding to spend the bulk of his time with the editorial product. The newspaper turned a financial corner in the 1890s and provided the Hardings with a comfortable income.
Stepping Onto a Larger Stage
As Warren Harding took a more active role in Ohio Republican politics, he had a loyal supporter and sounding board by his side: Florence. She enjoyed the inner workings of politics and loved to talk strategy. She was a visible and active participant in all of her husband’s campaigns. Mrs. Harding, starting in 1905, suffered from chronic kidney disease. Episodes of the nephritis would send her to bed for days or weeks at a time, as she waited for the high fevers and abdominal pain to subside. She was determined, though, not to let the disease limit her activities. The Hardings loved to travel, and the couple visited Europe three times, as well as Egypt, Hawaii, and the Caribbean, with Florence’s favorite destination being Italy. These trips provided both Hardings with a wider range of experiences and new perspectives on the world. She also developed a growing interest in women’s rights, veterans’ care, and animal protection, topics which would serve her well in years to come.
During Mr. Harding’s famous Front Porch Campaign for the presidency in the summer of 1920, Mrs. Harding was always by his side as thousands of people filled Mount Vernon Avenue to hear the senator’s speeches. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (allowing women to vote) passed in August, making it possible for Florence Harding to become the first woman to be able to cast a vote for her husband to be President of the United States.
Mrs. Harding as First Lady
After Mr. Harding’s landslide election to the presidency on November 2, 1920, and his inauguration on March 4, 1921, the Hardings became very popular with the American people. Mrs. Harding assumed a visible role as First Lady. One of her first tasks was to urge her husband to open the White House grounds to the general public after the inauguration ceremony. The Hardings understood that they worked for the people; both referred to the White House as “the people’s house.”
Throughout her two-and-a-half-year tenure as First Lady, Mrs.Harding blazed many new paths that previous presidential wives had never done, so much so that she was often called “The Model for the Modern First Lady.” She was especially committed to helping the disabled veterans from the recent world war assimilate to society and spent a lot of time with “my boys” in the Washington hospitals. She realized that the White House could act as a stage where accomplished women could be recognized. Because of her, female journalists, scientists, athletes and singers were frequent guests. She was generous in letting the Hardings’ dog, Laddie Boy, ride in parades and participate in events that would call attention to ending cruelty to animals. Mrs. Harding was the honorary National Chairwoman for the girl scouts and spoke about empowering women in politics, as well as in society in general.
In the summer of 1923, President Harding decided to take a long-planned–and very ambitious– train trip west across the country, north into Canada, and finally to Alaska. The plan was then to return to the mainland by boat, travel down the west coast by train, then board a ship bound for the Panama Canal. The trip would continue to Puerto Rico, and then return to Washington, D.C. Many people were fearful that Mrs. Harding would not be able to make the trip safely, especially since she had barely survived a brutal attack of her kidney disease the previous fall. The trip proved instead to be too much for President Harding, and he died of a massive heart attack in the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, California, on August 2, 1923.
Suddenly, Florence Harding was forced to return home from California by train, as a new widow. She vowed to “not break down” as she accompanied her husband’s casket to the White House, then to the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, where it lay in state. Traveling by train once again, Florence held her head high as the president’s body made its final journey to Marion. Following a simple funeral, the president’s body was placed in a temporary receiving vault in Marion Cemetery until a permanent burial spot could be prepared.
Widowhood and Death
After her husband’s funeral, Mrs. Harding returned to Washington, D.C. to tie up loose ends, finish outstanding business, and get settled into the Willard Hotel, where she would live for the next few months. During this time in Washington, she was inundated with requests for endorsements, financial donations, personal appearances, and various interviews by journalists and authors of magazines and books. She turned down almost all of these due to a lack of time and a lack of desire to subject herself to the constant barrage of requests. During this time period, the specter of her kidney disease kept re-appearing. As her health steadily declined in the early months of 1924, her friends urged her to return to Marion so that her personal physician and family friend, Dr. Charles Sawyer, could take care of her at his medical facility, the Sawyer Sanitarium, located just outside of the city. At first, Florence resisted returning to Marion, which held so many memories of her husband. But in July of 1924, Florence finally agreed to return to Marion and take up residence at Dr. Sawyer’s estate, under his care. Unfortunately, Dr. Sawyer passed away on September 23 of that year, and Florence’s medical care then fell to Dr. Sawyer’s son, Dr. Carl Sawyer. That fall, her kidney disease and heart ailments continued to worsen, and she passed away on November 21, 1924, just a little over fifteen months after the death of her beloved Warren.
Florence Harding’s body was placed beside her husband’s remains in the receiving vault in the Marion Cemetery. They both remained there until 1927 when their tomb, designated the Harding Memorial, was completed. Their bodies were then interred in the Memorial, which was officially dedicated in 1931 by President Herbert Hoover.