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Archive for the category “Letters”

Warren Harding Gets Lucky – in Montreal


Jordan Michael Smith, “All the President’s Pen” (The New York Times Magazine), July 13, 2014

An interesting article in the The New York Times Magazine outlines future President Warren Harding’s extramarital affair with Carrie Phillips, and includes selections from letters he wrote to her over the course of the affair and afterwards. A few of them are quite steamy (or “NSFW,” if you prefer), including the following, in which the man who would one day be President is so overwhelmed by his feelings that he actually launches into verse:

Jan. 28, 1912

I love your poise
Of perfect thighs
When they hold me
in paradise…

I love the rose
Your garden grows
Love seashell pink
That over it glows

I love to suck
Your breath away
I love to cling –
There long to stay…

I love you garb’d
But naked more
Love your beauty
To thus adore…

I love you when
You open eyes
And mouth and arms
And cradling thighs…

If I had you today, I’d kiss and fondle you into my arms and hold you there until you said, ‘Warren, oh, Warren,’ in a benediction of blissful joy…. I rather like that encore discovered in Montreal. Did you?  (32)

Whoa! It’s a little difficult to discern exactly what went on in Montreal, but that’s a very suggestive reference. What was this “encore” they “discovered”? Based on the context, I think we have to assume it’s sexual. But was it a new position? A new technique?

Alas, the wording is just vague enough that knowledge of the specifics probably passed from the earth with the participants – though perhaps that’s as it should be. If nothing else, it leaves us free to speculate.

One of the chronological notes in the margin of the article offers some context for the reference to Montreal, at least, if not for exactly what went on there:

1911-13: In the fall of 1911, Carrie left her husband behind in Marion and traveled with her daughter to Berlin. She returned around Christmas and spent New Year’s Eve with her lover in Montreal, where they made love at the stroke of midnight; a moment Harding would revisit again and again in his letters.  (33)

So apparently Montreal played a key role in their relationship, and whatever sexual dynamite they discovered there lived on in Harding’s memory … forever? And of course, it would be Montreal – Warren Harding’s erotic discoveries are just one more addition to the accumulating legend of Montreal as Canada’s sexy, swinging, European-style city, while Toronto remains the staid banker’s paradise it has always been.

It occurs to me, re-reading the letter above, that “Warren” must be one of the least sexy names in the world. As for Harding’s poetic gifts, I simply quote the work; I will leave the reader to judge its value. I must say I think there’s a certain artistry – or perhaps I should say an attempt at artistry – in the way the final stanza carries the verb “open” from “eyes” (which is so banal it’s absurd – he loves her when she opens her eyes?) to “thighs”. This suggests that Harding at least had some understanding of the way poetry worked, even if his attempts to replicate it weren’t always completely successful.


A Plaything for Aristocrats

Madame de Sevigne, Selected Letters

Madame de Sevigne, Selected Letters

Madame de Sévigné, Selected Letters (1648-1696)

My interest in Madame de Sévigné grew out of my interest in Proust; those familiar with In Search of Lost Time/Remembrance of Things Past/A la recherche du temps perdu (whatever title you prefer) will recall that the narrator’s grandmother is one of the most affecting characters in the first couple of books; Madame de Sévigné is her favourite author, and she carries a book of her letters around with her and continuously re-reads it. The Penguin edition (pictured above) is a useful introduction, though I would have appreciated a few more explanatory notes.

This passage is from a letter, dealing with issues of household economy, from Madame de Sévigné to her daughter (the majority of her letters are to her daughter):

M. de Grignan [Mme de Sévigné’s son-in-law] is asking for a very good jerkin. This is a matter of seven or eight hundred francs. What has become of a very fine one he had? Do let me remind you, my love, that one doesn’t exactly give away rags of this kind and that even the pieces are good. For God’s sake do save at least some of the excessive expense. Without knowing exactly what effect it will have, do keep a general eye so as not to let anything be lost and not to relax your efforts about anything. Don’t, as they say, throw away the handle after the axe. Look at Canada as a good thing no longer available. M. de Frontenac possesses it, and others don’t always have the same resources. (134; letter dated April 6, 1672)

The basic meaning of the letter is clear: Madame de Sévigné is instructing her daughter not to be wasteful or careless with money, and reminding her that once something is gone, you can’t always recover it. First she quotes a cliché (marked by “as they say”) about not throwing away the handle with the axe; this leads directly into Canada as an example of a “good thing no longer available.”

But in what sense is Canada “no longer available”? Unlike the reference to Canada in Casanova, which occurs after France lost Canada to England in 1759, this mention of Canada occurs when it was still solidly in French possession. In fact Frontenac had just been made Governor General of New France at the time of the letter – Madame de Sévigné observes that he now “possesses” its “resources.”

This is a classically colonialist view of Canada as a treasure trove of natural resources to be exploited by a European country. But Madame de Sévigné seems to see it in very personal terms, as though it is not really France that possesses Canada, but only Frontenac. Why?

I found the answer here:


Francis Parkman’s 1877 book Count Frontenac and New France Under Louis XIV, which includes the following:

The Comte de Grignan, son-in-law of Madame de Sévigné, was an unsuccessful competitor with Frontenac for the government of Canada. (20; footnote in Chapter 1)

So there it is: Madame de Sévigné seems to take Frontenac’s possession of Canada personally because, for her, it was personal. She is essentially telling her daughter, “If your husband had been made governor of Canada, he could have all the new jerkins he wanted. But since he wasn’t, you have to be more frugal.”

This reveals another way Canada was viewed by Europeans: as a career opportunity which would, no doubt, offer plenty of chances for self-enrichment; and also as a kind of bauble that could be passed by the King to a favourite courtier as a reward for some service or as a sign of favour – or to get him out of the way so that the King could court his mistress, as Parkman suggests may have been the case with Frontenac.

It’s fascinating to see how large-scale political decisions about who would govern our country could be made on the basis of nothing more than royal whim, and then reverberate all the way down to such a personal level that they would become part of a domestic discussion about spending money on a jerkin.

And would our history be different if Grignan, rather than Frontenac, had been made Governor? Who knows; certainly some details would have changed. Quebec City’s most famous hotel, for example, might be called the Chateau Grignan.

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