On This Presidents’ Day: A Brief History of Presidential Sex


A special holiday history lesson from The Rumpus:

Less than two weeks after Congressman Christopher Lee (R-NY) resigned from the House after being caught sending half-naked pictures to a would-be paramour, many of us are forced to take a Monday off during one of the coldest months of the year to honor the cultural contributions of our nation’s highest elected office.

With the patriotic crepe paper, off-putting quizzes, humorless platitudes about The Founding Fathers, and stoic cartoon Washington heads slapped on everything, the iconography and milieu of Presidents’ Day is something that has inspired vapidity and indifference for generations. If you’re in the market for a mattress or a TV, you’re in luck, but otherwise there isn’t much to make the day even marginally amusing, let alone special. You don’t even get a fun extra day to drink, let alone barbecue or burn your face off with fireworks. The best you can hope for is a humanizing bit of trivia overheard on NPR, or a surreal homework assignment given one of your kids where you’re helping them write a letter to Zachary Taylor or glue dry macaroni to a drawing of Lincoln’s beard.

Then again, maybe it’s a blessing that the exact kind of holiday that would inspire traffic-killing parades and riot gear in most of the world is met with a shrug around here. Our Presidents are as weird and flawed as anyone’s, and the timing of Rep. Lee’s attempt at philandering brings to mind that it’s actually been a quiet fourteen years on 1600 N. Pennsylvania Avenue since Lewinskygate jumped up and bit off the last few useful years of the Clinton administration.

The way most Republicans and some of the more sanctimonious Democrats went on about Clinton’s indiscretions before/during his time in the White House, you’d swear that the office was exclusive to folks of impeccable faithfulness. While other countries can be ruled by pig dog assholes who have not-so-secret harems, the United States has dreamt up the idea that we’re better than that, and we’re going to hold men and women of power to a moral standard while elevating them to a position of power so obscene with recognition and money and contention, it would take a pervert to even desire it.

Somehow, there have been and will be devoted husbands and wives in the White House, and realistically, a person’s sex life only says so much about their ability to govern effectively. This is not meant to excuse the cheating bastards, but a sex scandal on a Presidential level is an amazing variation on the theme, and the 99% of us that will never understand what it’s like to wield one iota of that power and responsibility can at least be disturbed and amused by our judgments of, and our analogues with, these people.

While poor Jimmy Carter got in hot water for even admitting that he “committed adultery in [his] heart many times”, the guy was just born too late. The Oval Office has a long proud history of indiscretions and improprieties, and being that the current resident isn’t ever going to show up shirtless on Gawker, at least we can celebrate this Presidents’ Day by remembering a few that could’ve.

The BMOC is still JFK. Not only did he single-handedly knock the fedora out of fashion, he boasted a list of interesting conquests deep and wide, and each confirmed rumor only seemed to strengthen his legacy instead of defame it. Who wouldn’t envy the recipient of Marilyn Monroe’s breathy b-day wishes, and almost admire the rich hot President for having the charisma to inspire it?

Since losing his virginity as a teenager in a Harlem brothel, Kennedy had relationships with rich girl Charlotte McDonnell, former Miss Europe Inga “Binga” Arvad, San Francisco women Harriet Price and Nancy Burkett, and textile heiress Frances Cannon, among countless unserious dalliances. Cannon later married a writer named John Hersey, whose New Yorker story on Kennedy’s incredible WWII PT-109 incident was one of the reasons Kennedy started totally blowing up in the late 1940s. Moral: Stay friends with your exes.

He married Jackie Bouvier in 1953, who single-handedly brought a certain hat into style, but, and I have to say “allegedly” here even though everyone knows better, Kennedy didn’t stop there either. John F. Kennedy, a man who was known to have co-ed nude pool parties at the White House, a man who once said “If I don’t have a woman for three days, I get terrible headaches,” allegedly hooked up with stripper Blaze Starr, actress Angie Dickinson, intern Mimi Alford, mob moll Judith Campbell Exner, painter Mary Pinchot Meyer, Jackie’s press secretary Pamela Turnure, actress Kim Novak, and Marilyn Monroe, among who knows who else, after his marriage, and/or while in the White House.

While Kennedy certainly didn’t invent marital infidelity or abuse of power or success as aphrodisiac, he took it to an extreme the White House did not know before or since. The Presidents who flanked him, Eisenhower and LBJ, didn’t even try; they were primarily two-women men, Dwight Eisenhower with Kay Summersby and Lyndon Johnson with Alice Glass.

Eisenhower’s dalliance didn’t last past the war, and it’s unlikely they even slept together. By the time he was a politician, he stuck to playing poker (he was the best poker player to ever occupy the White House), painting landscapes, and making ponderous proclamations about the evils of the military-industrial complex.

Johnson, meanwhile, cheated on his rabidly devoted wife a number of times, and his affair with his mentor’s girlfriend Alice Glass lasted over thirty years. Like Richard Nixon after him, Johnson proposed to his future wife on their first date (both women said no, at that time) but in Johnson’s case the batshit intensity didn’t play out into faithfulness.

Similar story with FDR, who split about thirty years of his life between one of the awesomest First Ladies of all time in Eleanor Roosevelt and her briefly-employed secretary Lucy Mercer. Among the reasons that Eleanor was awesome include the facts that she cut FDR off for the rest of their marriage after she discovered the affair and subsequently, if not consequently, served him the worst food the White House has ever known, for the better part of twelve years.

Now, the 20th century doesn’t have a monopoly on Presidential sex scandals by a long shot. Thomas Jefferson puts the Founding Fathers on the map with his reputed longtime dalliance with slave Sally Hemings, but it wasn’t a case of infidelity. Jefferson’s wife Martha Wayles Skelton was long dead by this time, and the only weird part is that Sally was Martha’s half-sister (!), thanks to Jefferson’s father-in-law John Wayles debauching his slaves. Now, Jefferson wasn’t known to be that kind of slaveowner—Sally was the only one even if she was in fact his lover—and if T-Jeff has a thing for the daughters of John Wayles, one could say that’s his own damn business.

Besides John Quincy Adams’ habit of taking female reporters skinny-dipping in the Potomac, Andrew Jackson was the most action-packed of our early Presidents. Jackson’s personality was a cross between a tree being struck by lightning and a game of chess played by wild boars, and he was the hot asshole bad boy of Tennessee politics.

Jackson, of course, married a woman before her divorce was final, and also appointed a man to his cabinet named John Eaton who married a woman a little too quickly after her husband died at sea, bringing the first real sex scandals to the White House. Eaton quit, and Jackson vowed bloody revenge on those who sullied his wife’s name, but after that, things mellowed on Pennsylvania Avenue for a few decades.

Skipping over the rumors of bachelor president James Buchanan’s sexuality and Abraham Lincoln’s intense correspondence with close pal James Speed – both cases where conjecture about homosexuality is almost entirely a latter-day read on the evidence, and was certainly not hyped at the time – things were pretty calm all the way to Grover Cleveland.

By the standards of sexual impropriety, Grover Cleveland was Breyer’s Vanilla, but it almost cost him an election, and if he were running today, his full story might not even get him nominated today. When he was an unmarried lawyer in Buffalo, he and some of his buddies were taking turns hooking up with a thirty-ish party girl from New Jersey named Maria Halpin, quite possibly the Snooki of her time. One of these louts got her pregnant, and as Cleveland was the only bachelor in the lot, he took responsibility for the child – but, as someone like Grover Cleveland would do with someone like Snooki, then as now, he didn’t marry her.

When rumors about this affair surfaced while he was running for President in 1884, he did something that folks like John Edwards should’ve taken note of – he admitted it. And he won the election.

Cleveland ended up remaining a bachelor until he was President. At first, he had his bad-ass lesbian sister Rose perform the duties of First Lady, but when Cleveland married Frances Folsom, his former law partner’s 21-year-old daughter, she took the job and ran with it, becoming the most big deal First Lady since Dolley Madison.

A word about this marriage. Grover Cleveland had known Frances since she was born, and when her father (Cleveland’s law partner) died when she was eleven, Cleveland took charge of her upbringing. He paid for her schooling, doted on her, and bought her everything she needed, while he was, in his words, “waiting for [his] wife to grow up.” Creepy or romantic? Your call.

While Cleveland at least was deliberate and committed to his actions, Warren G. Harding was a lifelong moral klutz. After winning the Presidency by a landslide in 1920, he filled out his cabinet and various departments with a host of friends who turned out to be criminals. While their actions were bringing down his Presidency in the Teapot Dome scandal and other misdeeds, Harding was also extorting at least two women to shut up about the affairs he had/was having with them.

After stumbling into a loveless marriage with his wife Florence, Warren G. started hooking up with his buddy Jim’s wife Carrie Phillips, and continued to do so for about fifteen years. The couples traveled to Europe and Bermuda as foursome together and hung out regularly without Florence or Jim knowing the score, but by the time of Harding’s nomination for President, everybody was hip to it. The Republican Party’s answer was to send Carrie and Jim on a long, slow trip to Japan under the pretense of Jim doing some kind of trade meeting. They also got a flat sum of $20k for their cooperation and monthly payments until Harding died.

While all this was happening, Harding was also cavorting around with a woman named Nan Britton, a fellow Ohioan more than thirty years his junior. She was a fan of his from back in the day, and her teenage bedroom walls were covered with his early campaign posters. When Harding met her he had no problem with taking on a groupie, and began regularly checking into hotels with his “niece.” She conceived his daughter about a year before he was elected President, but nobody put Nan on a boat to Asia; she continued to see him regularly, having sex in a closet near the Oval Office.

While on a national tour to do damage control for his public image, Harding died suddenly in a hotel room in San Francisco, and his wife did not allow an autopsy. There exists a school of thought that Florence was finally sick of all the bullshit and poisoned him. No one knows for sure.

Harding has gone down in history as one of our worst Presidents, judged merely from an administrative standpoint, and because folks like Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy rank among the best, it is foolish to draw a correlation between being a lying cheat and being an effective leader. We do know these things for certain: Christopher Lee will not be the last political sex scandal of the year, and should the day come where one ever reaches the White House yet again, it will become omnipresent and fierce and annoying like no scandal ever was. This Presidents’ Day, take a deep breath, and enjoy the dullness.


Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.

J. Ryan Stradal is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest and the forthcoming The Lager Queen of Minnesota. His shorter writing has appeared in Hobart, the Wall Street Journal, Granta, the Guardian, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other places. More from this author →