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Known as “The Duchess,” Florence Mabel Kling Harding served as First Lady from 1921 to 1923 as the wife of President Warren G. Harding.
Daughter of the richest man in a small town–Amos Kling, a successful businessman–Florence Mabel Kling was born in Marion, Ohio, in 1860, to grow up in a setting of wealth, position, and privilege. Much like her strong-willed father in temperament, she developed a self-reliance rare in girls of that era.
A music course at the Cincinnati Conservatory completed her education. When only 19, she eloped with Henry De Wolfe, a neighbor two years her senior. He proved a spendthrift and a heavy drinker who soon deserted her, so she returned to Marion with her baby son. Refusing to live at home, she rented rooms and earned her own money by giving piano lessons to children of the neighborhood. She divorced De Wolfe in 1886 and resumed her maiden name; he died at age 35.
Warren G. Harding had come to Marion when only 16 and, showing a flair for newspaper work, had managed to buy the little Daily Star. When he met Florence a courtship quickly developed. Over Amos Kling’s angry opposition they were married in 1891, in a house that Harding had planned, and this remained their home for the rest of their lives. (They had no children.)
Mrs. Harding soon took over the Star’s circulation department, spanking newsboys when necessary. “No pennies escaped her,” a friend recalled, and the paper prospered while its owner’s political success increased. As he rose through Ohio politics and became a United States Senator, his wife directed all her acumen to his career. He became Republican nominee for President in 1920 and “the Duchess,” as he called her, worked tirelessly for his election. In her own words: “I have only one real hobby–my husband.”
She had never been a guest at the White House; and former President Taft, meeting the President-elect and Mrs. Harding, discussed its social customs with her and stressed the value of ceremony. Writing to Nellie, he concluded that the new First Lady was “a nice woman” and would “readily adapt herself.”
When Mrs. Harding moved into the White House, she opened mansion and grounds to the public again–both had been closed through President Wilson’s illness. She herself suffered from a chronic kidney ailment, but she threw herself into the job of First Lady with energy and willpower. Garden parties for veterans were regular events on a crowded social calendar. The President and his wife relaxed at poker parties in the White House library, where liquor was available although the Eighteenth Amendment made it illegal.
Mrs. Harding always liked to travel with her husband. She was with him in the summer of 1923 when he died unexpectedly in California, shortly before the public learned of the major scandals facing his administration.
With astonishing fortitude she endured the long train ride to Washington with the President’s body, the state funeral at the Capitol, the last service and burial at Marion. She died in Marion on November 21, 1924, surviving Warren Harding by little more than a year of illness and sorrow.
The biographies of the First Ladies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The First Ladies of the United States of America,” by Allida Black. Copyright 2009 by the White House Historical Association.
Learn more about Florence Kling Harding’s spouse, Warren G. Harding.