Watch CBS News

Death of a President: A look back at Warren G. Harding's sudden passing at San Francisco's Palace Hotel

A look back at the sudden death in San Francisco of President Warren G. Harding
A look back at the sudden death in San Francisco of President Warren G. Harding 03:29

Exactly a hundred years ago Wednesday night, the President of the United States died in San Francisco. In a story that stunned the world, President Warren G. Harding breathed his last in a famous landmark hotel.  

In his bed at the Presidential suite at the Palace Hotel on August 2, 1923, Warren Harding had been given permission to sit up for the first time in days. By his side, his wife Florence was reading a Saturday Evening Post article, extravagant in its praise, out loud to her 57-year-old husband.

At the time, the author of the article -- along with his wife, and indeed most of the country's population of 106 million residents -- had not a clue that the President had sired a daughter by means of an affair struck up with the teenaged Nan Britton — something vehemently denied by Harding relatives and debated quite hotly until his fatherhood was quite firmly established via the test tubes of a few years ago. The Britton dalliance followed a 15-year long affair with Carrie Phillips, wife of his good friend (I'll say) James Phillips. Let's just say Warren got around.

Especially in the summer of 1923. Beginning to feel the press of work and wanting to avoid the oppressive heat of a Washington summer, Harding embarked on a tour that would take him north to Alaska -- the title of the great Johnny Horton's 1959 song which accompanied the John Wayne movie (but let's stick to the point). But if Harding was seeking relief, he found none, his staff having overscheduled his tour and the trains of the day lacking air conditioning (an innovation that wouldn't happen until the spring of 1931). By the time he reached Alaska by ship, he found himself unable to complete his normal Presidential duties: meeting people, making speeches, and playing a complete round of golf.

He was well and truly fatigued by the time he headed south to Seattle, when his doctors decided to cancel a Portland stop and proceed directly by train to San Francisco, where he was taken to the Palace Hotel and the spacious confines of the Presidential Suite.

Which is where we find him four days later, propped up in bed, feeling better, being read to by his wife, and for all we know, eyeing the help.

The late rays of the August day were slanting through the windows (I'm not making this up) when, at 7 p.m., Florence read the encouraging words from the Post, to which the President responded with the deathless words: "That's good. Go on. Read some more."

Actually, they were deathful words, as they were the last ones he ever spoke. At this point, with a twist and a gasp, the President collapsed. Mrs. Harding ran from the room, calling for doctors, but there was nothing to be done. At 7:30 p.m., the 29th President of the U.S. was dead.

At the time -- almost incredibly, considering we're in an age when a watch can produce an ECG -- heart attacks weren't well understood, and the death was attributed to "apoplexy," a stroke. But the chronic fatigue, upper-abdominal pain, and shortness of breath will alert the modern medico to the likelihood of a heart attack.

We'll never know. Florence Harding refused an autopsy, the body was carried by train back across the U.S., where some nine million mourners are said to have lined the tracks. After a stay in the Capitol rotunda, he finally returned home to Marion, Ohio for burial. Only afterward would cabinet members be indicted and Teapot Dome scandal reach a boil. And almost a century later his progeny lay claim to their antecedents.

By the way, in the video that accompanies this article, Harding's featured campaign song was written by Al Jolson. The newspaper is from my own collection, which led me to recall the big anniversary. And you can stay in the same suite where Harding breathed his last at prices beginning at $7,500.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.