Curator of Harding's Letters to Mistress: ‘Our Job: to Not Look Judgmental’

By Penny Starr | August 6, 2014 | 4:11 PM EDT

President Warren G. Harding. (Library of Congress)

( -- The Library of Congress has posted on its website 100 letters written by the then-Senator Warren Harding (R-Ohio) to his mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips, over a 15-year period early last century, but the exhibit never mentions the adulterous nature of their relationship as both were married.

The curator of the exhibit, Karen Linn Femia, told that it does not use the word adultery in the exhibit because it is the national library’s job to “not look judgmental.”

“It’s not intentional,” Linn Femia said when asked if the word adultery was intentionally left out of the exhibit description. “I guess you just try to use words that don’t look judgmental.”

“And that’s kind of our job: to not look judgmental,” Femia said.

A letter written on U.S. Senate letterhead by Sen. Warren Harding (R-Ohio) to his mistress Carrie Fulton Phillips in 1917. Warren often addressed Phillips in his letters as 'Sis.' 100 letters written by Harding to Phillips over a 15-year period before he was elected president are now in an online exhibit at the Library of Congress' website. ( Starr)

In the online “overview” of the exhibit, the relationship, which took place before Harding was president, is referred to as “romantic.”

“That Harding and Phillips had a romantic relationship dating from 1905 to at least 1920 is clear from these letters,” the overview states. “Although the first letter in these papers dates from 1910, other letters refer to 1905 as the beginning of the relationship.”

Harding was elected the 29th president in 1921 and served until 1923, when he died of what most historians agree was heart disease.

“Intricate plans had to be made to meet or even to direct where the next letter should be sent,” the overview states.

Some of the letters Harding wrote are sexually explicit, describing Phillips’ “darling breasts,” “surfacing thighs” and “quivering body.”

Carrie Fulton Phillips' family donated some of her papers to the Library of Congress, including these two photos that are now in the library's online exhibit about Phillips and the collection of some 100 letters written to her by then-Senator Warren Harding (R-Ohio). ( Starr)

“I’d like to make those darling breasts swell and throb with the admiration and attention I am eager to bestow,” Harding wrote in a 1915 letter.

The letters also provide insights into political discussions between the future president and Phillips, including her opposition to the United States engaging in World War I.

Harding’s letters were donated 50 years ago by Harding’s brother George T. Harding II, with the understanding that the library would honor the 50-year waiting period he requested before making them public. The letters’ exhibit was posted on the library’s website on Jan. 29, 2014 -- 50 years to the day after the donation was made.