What does Oliver Stone do for an encore? How...


January 18, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

AFTER "JFK" what does Oliver Stone do for an encore? How about "WGH"? As in Warren Gamaliel Harding?

Harding was president from 1921 to 1923. He was the man Republican pols picked in the legendary "smoke-filled room" at the 1920 Chicago convention, after delegates hopelessly deadlocked. (Trivia buffs: What room? What hotel?)

President Harding presided over the most corrupt administration in history. His secretary of the interior, attorney general, Veterans Bureau chief and other high-ranking officials -- many of the president's friends -- were indicted for and in some cases convicted of crimes.

The president himself was not personally involved, being too busy having an affair with Nan Britton, 30-odd years his junior, often in a 25-square-foot closet in the White House.

At any rate, in 1923 on a trip to the West Coast, Harding became ill. His physician said it was food poisoning from eating crab meat. But nobody else in the entourage was stricken. A few days later, recuperating in San Francisco, Harding suddenly died. (Trivia buffs: In what hotel? What room?) His own doctor said he died of a stroke. Others said it was a heart attack. His widow prevented an autopsy. Remember that.

In 1930, a former investigator in the Department of Justice, Gaston B. Means, wrote a book called "The Strange Death of President Harding." In it he discussed some of the scandals of the administration from his insider's vantage point. And he was insider enough to have gone to jail for bribery and bootlegging.

He strongly insinuated in his book that several other insiders who died suddenly [he always used italics when making this point] were murder victims. As he put it, they were "silenced forever."

As was the president, in his view. Means had been hired by Mrs. Harding to investigate the president's cronies and Nan Britton. His book recounts verbatim many conversations he says he had with the First Lady, in which she is shown to have thought she had motive to kill. But he quotes her in a way that suggests she killed her husband not out of jealousy but concern for his reputation. Fearing that he would be impeached, she poisoned him as he recuperated from his upset stomach in room 8064 of the Palace Hotel.

(Other trivia answer: Suite 404-406, the Blackstone Hotel.)

Though played down by the mainstream press, Means' book was a best seller. It would make a terrific movie.

Gaston Means later got involved in another criminal endeavor involving another major event in American social history. That was the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. This was a national front-page story for weeks in 1932.

Means conned wealthy do-gooding Washington socialite Evelyn Walsh McLean into believing he alone could ransom the child of the famous aviator. Means got $104,000 from her, for which he got sent to prison, where he died in 1938.

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