As American as apple pie
Why all the fuss about Wayne and Liz, Wilbur and Fanne? They were only doin’ what comes historically
Washington, a city that should know better, rings today with the shocked cries of citizens following the unraveling of the Hays-Ray scandal and its successors. Venerable observers can be seen toppling off their porches, shaking their heads, wagging their fingers. But the only surprising aspect of the hanky-panky between Representative Wayne Hays of Ohio and his non-typing secretary, Elizabeth Ray, was that Americans were surprised by it. They have had public sex scandals since before they were Americans. They have reveled in them, trotted them out at election time and, as often as not, chuckled slyly at the miscreants. Thomas Jefferson fooled around. So did Benjamin. Franklin. And George Washington may have told the truth about the cherry tree, but about his love life he was somewhat less honest. From the Founding Fathers to John F. Kennedy, from Andrew Jackson to Dwight Eisenhower, U.S. politicians have joined sex and power in joyful and often public union. It is a sense of history the Americans lack, not a sensë of play.
In Canada sex and politics don’t mix—at least not in public. Mackenzie King was dead nearly 30 years before Canadians found out that he used to consort with prostitutes. King was tainted by political corruptions, and survived them with ease, but could he have withstood a sex scandal? Perhaps not. Canadian politicians fool around, just as U.S. politicians do, but they take care not to get caught. They fear they would never be forgiven. In the United States, however, they know better. When John F. Kennedy, a famous womanizer, was being put forward for President, an old journalist friend asked Joseph P. Kennedy, the candidate’s father, if all the rumors about JFK’S girls would affect his chances. Kennedy replied that the American people didn’t give a damn whom politicians slept with. He was speaking from sound historical precedent.
George Washington conducted a discreet but long-lasting liaison with Sally Fairfax, the wife of one of his Virginia
neighbors, and not long before he died he wrote her that not all the glories of the revolutionary war, not all the splendors of his presidency, had “been able to eradicate from my mind those happy moments, the happiest of my life, which I have enjoyed in your company.”
Washington was above criticism at the time, so there was no public scorn. It was different with Benjamin Franklin. He was a skirt chaser of such vigor that it’s a wonder he didn’t do himself injury. (Although he did worry about contracting a venereal disease: “That hard-to-be-governed Passion of Youth,” he wrote, “had hurried me frequently into intrigues with Low Women that fell in my Way, which were attended with some Expence and great Inconvenience, besides a continual Risque to my Health by a Distemper.”) Franklin had an illegitimate son, William, who rose with his father’s help to become governor of New Jersey. Historians are unsure whether William was the product of one of Franklin’s “low women” or the premature fruit of his union with Deborah, his wife. In any event, Deborah and Benjamin were not church-wed; she simply moved into his house and started calling herself Mrs. Franklin. The bastard son was injected into Franklin’s political life by way of a scurrilous pamphlet called What Is Sauce For The Goose Is Also Sauce For The Gandor, when he was running for Pennsylvania assemblyman in 1764 (Franklin lost that election, but not because of the scandal). As envoy to France and England, Franklin—whose wife was afraid of sea voyages and conveniently stayed home—was active in more than diplomatic circles. In England, a young painter who presented himself unannounced at Franklin’s house found him dandling a comely lass on his knee and made a sketch of the occasion. In France, John Adams’ wife, Abigail, denounced Franklin as “the Old Deceiver,” whose behavior with the French ladies left her “Highly Disgusted.” Franklin had a perfectly plausible explanation: “Somebody, it seems, gave it out that I lov’d Ladies; and then everybody presented me their Ladies.”
Thomas Jefferson, the complex and multi-talented President (and friend of both Washington and Franklin), also had his affairs paraded for the rude public gaze. When still a young man, he tried to seduce Elizabeth Walker, the wife of a neighbor, but it came to nothing. He then married, but his wife died in 1782, 10 years later, after extracting a promise from him that he would not marry again. He didn’t. He did, however, frolic and gambol with Maria Cosway, the beautiful but spoiled wife of a famous English painter, while he was in France on a diplomatic posting. The Cosway affair faded in 1787, after the arrival in France of Sally Hemings, then about 15 (Jefferson was 44). Sally was a mulatto slave sent to attend Jefferson’s eight-yearold daughter. Polly, n the sea voyage to join her father. Known around Monti-
cello, Jefferson’s home, as “Dashing Sally,” she was light in color and, by all accounts, handsome and lively. Over the years, Jefferson had four children by Sally Hemings. The liaison, widely known around Monticello, became a political issue in 1802, during Jefferson’s second year as President, and led to the composing of a song (to the tune of Yankee Doodle) that began:
Of all the damsels on the green On mountain or in valley,
A lass so luscious ne’er was seen,
As Monticellian Sally.
Yankee Doodle, who’s the noodle?
What wife were half so handy?
To breed a flock of slaves for stock,
A blackamoor’s the dandy.
Jefferson maintained a tight-lipped silence during the congressional elections of 1802, even when the attempted seduction of Elizabeth Walker came out with the release of a letter from the President to John Walker in which he admitted the assault on virtue. None of this did Jefferson any political harm; he had barely squeaked into office in 1800, before the revelations, but he won a thundering victory in 1804, after them.
Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the Treasury, was another founding father whose sex life led to public scandal. During the summer of 1791, he began an affair with one Maria Reynolds, who had come to him for help. Mrs. Reynolds’ husband found out about it and demanded and received hush money. He blabbed anyway in 1797, but while Hamilton had a tough time explaining things to his wife no permanent damage was done. Then his conduct with Angelica Church, a beautiful society matron, caused John Adams to complain of Hamilton’s “fornications, adulteries and incests” (Mrs. Church was Hamilton’s wife’s sister, considered offside in the 18th century), but this affair did nothing to undercut his influence either, though it may account for the slight leer he wears on the face of the U.S. $10 bill.
But the times they were a-changing. Andrew Jackson, a rough fellow by all accounts, lived for a time in the same blockhouse in the fortified settlement of Nashville with a voluptuous beauty named Rachel Robards, then separated from her husband, Lewis Robards. Robards suspected Jackson’s attentions to his wife and said so; Jackson promptly challenged him to a duel, which Robards prudently declined. The Robards then returned to Kentucky, quarreled again, and Jackson rode over to fetch Rachel back to Tennessee. Robards sued for divorce, named Jackson as the corespondent, and Jackson and Rachel, apparently thinking the divorce had gone through (in fact, it wasn’t granted until two years later) were married.
This unconventional marriage gave the future President trouble. In October, 1803, during a public discussion with Governor John Sevrier of Tennessee, Jackson was enumerating his achievements when Sev-
rier interrupted to say, “I know of no great service you have rendered the country, except taking a trip . . . with another man’s wife.” Jackson, always a hothead, leapt on the old man and slugged him with his walking stick, a crude way of challenging him to a duel. When the two men met on the field of honor they began shrieking at each other, Sevrier drew his sword, and his horse very sensibly ran off, taking the dueling pistols with him. (Jackson did fight a duel over Rachel, however, in 1804, with Charles Dickinson, who had twice sullied her name. Dickinson shot Jackson in the chest—he carried the bullet to his grave— but Jackson shot Dickinson in the groin
and he died in agony.) Jackson went on to become President in 1828, but during the campaign his marriage was dragged out for a good gossip. One campaign pamphlet asked, “Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband to be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?” The electorate answered by sending Jackson to the White House, but the slurs, along with pleurisy and a heart condition, did Rachel in. She died just before Jackson’s inauguration, and he declared, “May God Almighty forgive her murderers, as I know she forgave them. I never can.”
With that background, Jackson was predisposed to come to the aid of his Secretary
of War, John Eaton, who took up with Margaret O’Neale, described as a “darkhaired, round-faced vamp” who, before she was 16, had to her credit one suicide, one duel, one nearly wrecked military career and one aborted elopement. At 16, she married a Washington-based navy purser, John B. Timberlake, who was promptly sent to sea and kept there by Secretary Eaton. The secretary then called around to console the lonely bride. He consoled her so well that she produced two children, but her husband conveniently died at sea, and Jackson told Eaton he must marry the widow to “shut the mouths” of Washington gossips. Eaton did that, but social Washington snubbed the girl anyway, even after Jackson pronounced her “chaste as a,virgin.” His cabinet split on the issue. Vice-President John C. Calhoun led “the moral party,” and Secretary of State Martin Van Buren led “the frail sisterhood party”—those willing to see Peggy Eaton socially.
Van Buren succeeded Jackson as President and in turn was saddled with the sexual proclivities of Vice-President Richard M. Johnson. As a congressman, bachelor Johnson had fathered two girls by a mulatto slave named Julia Chinn, but nobody
seemed to mind and he was nominated and elected vice-president in 1836. It was only when he tried to introduce the girls into Washington society that southern opposition built up against him. (Sleeping with the lesser races was one thing, but one drew the line at clinking teacups with them.) By the time of the 1840 election, Johnson’s political sponsor, the retired Andrew Jackson, pronounced him a “dead wait” (Jackson was stronger on fighting than spelling), and he was dropped from the Democratic ticket. He insisted on running anyway, with a slogan to remind Americans of his early role as a hero of the Indian wars: “Rumpsey, dumpsey, Colonel Johnson shot Tecumseh.” The magic failed, and he lost.
Sex was becoming a political liability. Jackson suggested to another of his protégés, James Knox Polk, that he get married and cease his “promiscuous attentions to the ladies.” Polk complied and rose to become President, one of the string of nonenties that stretch—with the exception of Abraham Lincoln—from Jackson’s retirement in 1837 to the campaign of 1884 that brought Grover Cleveland to the White House.
Cleveland was a successful politician and businessman who, with the aid of a comely widow, Mrs. Maria Halpin, fathered an illegitimate child in 1874, 10 years before he ran for President. He acknowledged the child and contributed to its support, but wasn’t exactly bragging about it when, in the middle of the 1884 campaign, the story broke in a newspaper under the headline A TERRIBLE TALE. Cleveland’s campaign manager was besieged by reporters, and Cleveland advised him to “tell the truth.” The voters were then treated to two election songs, one that went: Blaine, Blaine, James G.
Blaine,/Continental liar from the state of Maine. And the other: Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa?/Gone to the White House./Ha! Ha! Ha! Nevertheless, Cleveland served two (non-consecutive) terms and is generally judged to be the most effective President between Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.
The next President to have his amours paraded before the people was decidedly ineffective. He was Warren G. Harding, of whom H. L. Mencken once wrote, “No other such complete and dreadful nitwit is to be found in the pages of American history.” As a senator, the handsome Harding carried on two affairs simultaneously, one with the wife of a merchant in his hometown of Marion, Ohio, which apparently ended when he became President in 1920, the other with another hometown girl, Nan Britton, which didn’t. Miss Britton was 31 years younger than Harding, who was 55 when elected, and she must have been a comfort to him. His wife, known as the Duchess, was five years older than he was and possessed of a fierce mien and tough disposition. Nan was a clinger, and something of a simp, but luscious. She visited
Harding in Washington, even in the White House, and he visited her in hotels. Once, while he was still a senator, they were engaged in an exchange of views in a New York hotel bed when the police burst in on them. But the cops retired, clutching their hats, when they discovered that they had flushed a senator. Harding slipped them $20. The Britton affair was hardly a secret—especially after Nan carelessly produced a baby in 1919—but didn’t become generally known until after Harding’s death in 1923. Nan wrote a slightly sappy book called The President’s Daughter, which contained a shrewd pitch for part of Harding’s estate for their daughter (she
didn’t get a dime). But discretion wasn’t Harding’s strong suit; besides the baby, he left behind letters to Mrs. Carrie Phillips, his other lady friend. In one, addressed to “Carrie Darling, Sweetheart Adorable,” he notes that “I wanted to kiss you out of your reserve—a thousand of them, wistful, wild, wet and wandering .. ./’after that, it gets dirty, with talk of shapely breasts and matchless curves, body quivers and divine paroxysms.
Franklin D. Roosevelt also enjoyed extramarital enterprises which were con-' cealed during his lifetime. So did Dwight Eisenhower, whose chauffeur, secretary and mistress (all the same person) has a
book coming out posthumously about their affair. So did John F. Kennedy. Politicians weren’t doing it less, they were clamming up better, until Congressman Wilbur Mills, besotted by booze and the charms of stripper Fanne Foxe, fell into the Washington Tidal Basin in 1974, and Elizabeth Ray emerged to point a finger at Congressman Wayne Hays this year.
The reaction of the American people to these revelations—it is fair to call the atmosphere on Capitol Hill today supercharged, not far off the paranoia of the McCarthy years—stems from a number of factors. The scandals broke at a time when Congress is in bad odor, and American politics free of enchantment: given a choice between discussing sex, the Panama Canal and the de-regulation of natural gas, Washingtonians tend to opt for sex. There is also a substantial women’s lib content to the furore. Women have been and are used as chattels in Washington, as elsewhere, and at least some of the fury that has attended the sex scandals reflects a rejection of that worn-out custom. And finally, there is the fact that Elizabeth Ray’s revelations have made her a good deal of money and—the Americans being a competitive people—served to stimulate rivals. Almost at once Colleen Gardner, another congressional aide, said that her duties included sleeping with her boss, Representative John Young.
Now hardly a day goes by without someone, somewhere, bobbing up to describe a game of slap-tickle with a senator or congressman. Utah Congressman Allan Howe was arrested in Salt Lake City and later convicted of soliciting sexual favors from two undercover policewomen posing as prostitutes. Then Louisiana Congressman Joe D. Waggoner admitted a run-in with Washington police-prostitute decoys but said it was an effort to “entrap me.” The police promptly released him when he established his congressional credentials, in keeping with a 100-year-old policy, which has since been abandoned, of avoiding arrests of members of Congress. Then there were allegations against Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia by a constituent who claimed, despite his denials, that when she came to him for help with a constituency problem he seduced her instead. Then Congressman CharleVanik of Ohio allowed that he had kept a former prostitute on the payroll of his district office, even after she became ill and could do no work. Vanik said he didn’t know about the lady’s past, and kept her on out of compassion. There was also a spin-off from the original Elizabeth Ray story when the Washington papers published a claim that she had entertained Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska on a houseboat owned by former Congressman Kenneth Gray of Illinois, her former boss. Gravel denied the reports, but concern over the ease with which unproven stories are being spread has not dimmed the ardor of those seeking yet more revelations. 0