The Backstory of
"Empire of Eden"
My first brush with Warren G. Harding came when I was seven years old and my parents took me to Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, which had been the setting of the ill-fated Chief Executive’s next-to-last public appearance and contained one of the nation’s few memorials to him.
The occasion was a Boy Scout bicycle-decorating contest (a lost ritual of the 1950s), which was held both on the bandstand-like Harding Memorial and in front of it. My older brother’s crepe-paper-wrapped bike won second prize. I was too young to be a Scout and was present only as an observer.
The memorial, which was built in 1925 at the instigation of the Elks Club, was itself situated on the very spot where Mr. Harding had addressed a vast assembly of Seattle Boy Scouts some thirty years earlier.
To my young eyes, this monument—a bas-relief panorama of admiring Boy Scouts flocked around the soon-to-be late President, flanked by two life-size bronze Boy Scouts saluting him—was most impressive. Living not too far away, I returned to it many times in my growing up and even developed a strange affection for it.
Years later, in 1977, the city decided to dig a gigantic hole next to the memorial, tip it into the hole and bury it without a marker, like a potter’s field corpse. Today you cannot even find a decent picture of it on Google images. Exactly how and why and by whom this
ignominious municipal vandalism was carried out remains something of a mystery (one of many in the Harding story) but it could not be a more perfect metaphor for how America came to regard its twenty-ninth President in the wake of Teapot Dome.
The second time President Harding and his trip to Seattle entered my sensibility in a significant way came more than a decade later, in the mid-1960s, while I was a student at the University of Washington.
I was giving a tour of the city to my aunt, Allie Beth Martin, who would a few years later become president of the National Library Association. She had lived in Seattle as a young girl in the 1920s and had not been back since, and the return was traumatic because her father had deserted the family here without explanation, so that mother and daughter had to return to their native Arkansas like refugees.
Curiously, her most vivid—and perhaps only happy—memory of that time was the day President Harding came to town and all the kids at her elementary school on Queen Anne Hill were given a snow day. With some detective work, we managed to retrace her steps as she watched the Henderson steam into Elliott Bay and then stood in the crowd before his passing motorcade and even later caught a glimpse of the President as he was parked outside the Children’s Orthopedic Hospital, but had been too ill to enter for his appearance.
We later went to the Seattle Public Library and looked up some of the newspaper accounts of the Harding visit, for which the city turned out like no time before or since. The pictures showed the bunting-decked streets of the city clogged with people five-deep on every sidewalk and hanging from lampposts to see the great man. By this time I well knew Harding was a disgraced President, often considered our worst President, so I was shocked to learn just how popular he had been in life, elected by the greatest landslide in U.S. History and clearly beloved by the country in those brief first few years of his term.
Part of the Harding Tour
Seattle Press Corps
July 27, 1923
Her misty-eyed description of that epic Seattle day in 1923—the thunderous reception, just days before his surprise death and only months before he would be totally discredited by history—somehow seized my imagination in a powerful and lasting way.
My third impact with Harding and his fatal trip to the Great Northwest came as a surprise legacy from my father, several years after that day with my aunt, probably in the summer or fall of 1969.
He had retired by then but in the early 1950s, he had been a U.S. Army colonel and head of the Corps of Engineer’s Alaska District, which had its headquarters in Seattle. His job took him regularly to the North Slope and it also gave him a say in which Seattle firms got which governemt contracts throughout the territory. With this influence, his favor was highly coveted by the Seattle business community and some of my earliest memories are of my family being feted at various mansions in the old-money enclave of the Highlands. Thus, he knew, maybe better than anyone, how Seattle controlled its colony of Alaska and how that system worked—though he never talked about it and I never once heard him refer to Harding.
Until one day after he first came down with the illness that would later take his life. I would regularly drive out to the suburb of Edmonds to see him in this period and, given the generation gap of the ’60s, it was difficult to find a subject of conversation that would not descend into a shouting match. One surefire safe subject, however, was Alaska. He loved Alaska and could talk about it for hours and I always enjoyed hearing his stories. On this particular visit, as the Prudhoe Bay oil rush was all over the news, he suddenly started opening up about the unholy connection between Seattle and Alaska, and in the process of this semi-confessional monologue he told me about the enigma surrounding the Harding trip to Alaska, the threat Harding (and the specter of Alaskan Statehood) posed to Seattle business interests in the early ’20s, and the rumors he had
heard (but gave no credence to) about possible Seattle-sourced foul play in Harding's death.
A year earlier, in 1968, The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in his Times by Francis Russell—billed by McGraw-Hill as the “definitive” Harding biography—had been published amidst much fanfare and became a surprise bestseller, largely off its thesis (later disproven by DNA analysis) that Harding probably had a black great-grandmother. Soon after this conversation, I bought the book and read it. Nowhere in its seven hundred pages was there a hint of any of these things my father had been talking about.
My Father's Ticket to Alaska
September 9, 1952
After college, I became a journalist in Seattle and, almost a decade after this revelation from my father, I wrote a book called Shadowland, which dealt with the prejudiced actions of the Seattle political, business and medical establishment in the 1940s’ psychiatric commitment of the outspoken film actress Frances Farmer.
The book (which, ironically, was also published by McGraw-Hill) did not touch on the Harding death but it did deal with several other shadowy events that may have been influenced by the vigilante-minded Seattle leadership of the pre-WWII era, including the 1936 suicide of the ultra-radical U.S. Congressman Marion Zioncheck. (Under mysterious circumstances, Zioncheck had plunged to his death from the fifth floor of the Seattle Arctic Club and, in later years, many people—including one especially determined former Seattle police captain—would make the case that Zioncheck had been murdered.)
Seattle's Arctic Club,
August 7, 1936
After my book became a bestseller, and I spent half a year promoting it around the country, I found myself considered (unjustly) something of an authority on this dark strain of the city’s past. I was soon deluged with letters and calls from people who had never had anyone to share their special knowledge or handed-down family stories relating to this skeleton in the civic closet. This was often a time-consuming nuisance but it was also frequently enlightening, and I was, for the most part, a good audience.
One of these callers in the period after Shadowland was published was a man named Don Sherwood, who believed—and claimed even to have some evidence—that a connection existed between the Seattle forces that had quieted Farmer and Zioncheck, the threat the environmental vision of Warren Harding posed to those forces and Harding’s death.
Zioncheck and wife,
Just before the fall
I had interviewed Don Sherwood some eight years earlier for an article I was doing on another ecologically-themed Seattle mystery: the unexplained disappearance of what was considered the world’s tallest grove of trees from the city’s Ravenna Park shorty before World War I. He was the official historian of the Seattle Parks Department as well as an architect and artist who had illustrated a popular history of the city, Totem Tales of Old Seattle.
It turned out that he had been one of those Boy Scouts who greeted Harding in Woodland Park that day in 1923 and he had retained a special interest in Harding’s Seattle visit and mysterious death shortly thereafter. He had, for instance, interviewed one of the deathbed physicians, Dr. Joel Boone, as well as one of the attending nurses. A lifelong member of the Sierra Club, he had also
gathered evidence of the influence of pioneering ecologist Harry Slattery on Harding over the last year of his life and evidence as well of what might have been a secret environmental motive behind the Voyage of the Henderson to Alaska.
Above all, he was intrigued by the circumstances and incongruities of Harding’s final speech, haltingly delivered to some 50,000 people in the University of Washington stadium at the conclusion of the Alaska trip. The speech was so fascinating to him because: 1) It was one of the most environmentally visionary ever delivered by an American President, and yet it had gone unnoticed by the world (and by history) in the larger shock of Harding’s death a few days later; 2) It slapped the face of Seattle by dramatically and unequivocally calling for Alaska Statehood, more than thirty-five years before that would actual happen; and 3) From Harding’s pauses and strange reaction to what he was reading and brief, muffled exchange with Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover near the climax, it seemed easy for Sherwood (and several aged members of the audience that day he later interviewed) to imagine that there might have been even more to the speech and that Harding had been unhappily surprised to discover that it had been deleted from his text.
Don Sherwood was particularly keen on hearing the details of my father’s revelation of a decade earlier and, for several months, we continued to converse on this subject on a more or less regular basis. It struck us both, I think, that Harding’s death and what happened on the Henderson constituted one of the most enthralling and potentially explosive unexplored mysteries of American History.
But neither of us knew how to explore it any further, or, indeed, what to do with what we already had. As a prominent Northwest historian I assumed that he would eventually publish something about it but he apparently never got around to it before he passed away not long after our conversations, in 1981. Many years later I went through his papers and could not find a single page of his Harding research that he deemed worthy of preserving for posterity. I could only assume that he concluded
U.S.S. Henderson At Sitka, Alaska
July 21, 1923
that our shadowy take on the episode was simply not substantial enough for history. It was just a collection of rumors and conjecture and malevolent possibilities based on a quirk of history—Seattle’s “ownership” of Alaska through the Jones Maritime Act and the threat Alaskan statehood posed to that ownership.
I did, however, sense it might make a tremendous premise for some sort of historical mystery novel or screenplay, and I wrestled with that idea for a time. But there was no obvious or compelling story to go with that premise. Also, the Harding Administration was the most reviled in history and Harding himself was remembered as an ineffectual, corrupt, womanizing boob. Our worst President. How do you make a reader or viewer care about a character like that? Despite Don Sherwood’s spotty evidence of Harding’s consciousness change in his last year, the idea that such a Sinclair Lewis nightmare might suddenly become a visionary environmentalist would be a hard sell. I couldn’t even sell it to myself.
My life was full of other, better possibilities. The Harding scenario moved to the rear of my back-burner, where it simmered, virtually unnoticed by me, for the next thirty-three years.
during the pre-production of the biopic Lust for Life. Its detective story was fictional but the steps of its detective were a compressed version of what I had actually gone through and all the information about Van Gogh and his strange demise was as authentic as my decades of digging into the real story could make it. Writing the book was an enormously satisfying experience and I had especially enjoyed the challenge of setting two interrelated historical mysteries in two eras that were remote to my own, one in 1955, the other in 1890.
When the book was finally done, I was at a loss. I had been so cocooned by my long habitation in its two worlds that an abrupt emergence from it was devastating. For weeks I cast about for some new project, something that would be as all-involving, another big subject. Then one night, literally in the middle of the night, an idea leaped from the back of my mind: what about Warren G. Harding? That old business about him in Seattle? His mysterious death, the assassination theories, the Seattle speech, the Voyage of the Henderson?
I was vaguely aware that it was back there, a promising premise, but I had given it no serious thought in all that time. Why not look into it again?
In the meanwhile, I got hooked on another mystery surrounding the death of another historical personage: the artist Vincent van Gogh. In 1987 I was hired by the Oscar-winning Dutch movie director Fons Rademakers to write a screenplay about the artist for a film that would be released
on the centennial of his death in 1990. The film didn’t come off but the many incongruities of that famous suicide in the wheatfield utterly captured me and I spent years, even decades, investigating it. In the process, I uncovered a startling body of evidence not only of a Van Gogh murder but murder by the case’s most unlikely and earthshaking of suspects.
The book that resulted from this investigation, Exile in the Light, was a mystery novel that mixed this body of original research into a story about a blacklisted screenwriter in 1955 Paris investigating the Van Gogh death
In those intervening decades, The Shadow of Blooming Grove had remained pretty much the definitive Harding biography but a number of other Harding books had been written. I decided to collect everything I could on the subject.
This included the old stuff like Nan Britton’s 1927 The President’s Daughter, a tell-all about her long affair and child with Harding; ex-FBI-agent Gaston Means’ 1930 The Strange Death of President Harding, claiming he was poisoned by his jealous wife; Harry Daugherty’s 1932 The Inside Story of the Harding Tragedy, a self-serving lookback by Harding’s jailed Attorney General; and Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s 1959 Broadway play, The Gang’s All Here. And newer stuff like Eugene Trani and David Wilson’s 1977 The Presidency of Warren G. Harding; Robert Ferrell’s 1996 The Strange Deaths of President Harding; and Carl Anthony’s 1998 Florence Harding: The First Lady, the Jazz Age and the Death of America’s Most Scandalous President.
Compared to the library of books written about a Lincoln, Roosevelt or Kennedy, this was a pittance but it was still a couple of months’ worth of reading so I decided to start with the newest and slimmest volume. This was Warren G. Harding, written by none other than John W. Dean (of Watergate fame) and published in 2004 as part of Arthur Schlesinger’s American Presidents series of mini-biographies. Dean grew up in Marion, Ohio (Harding’s home town) and had a lifelong interest in Harding and his disgraced administration, partially fueled no doubt by his own experience in a disgraced administration. I picked up the book and by the time I finished its two-hundred pages (in a single sitting) I would never see Warren Harding in the same dark light again.
Dean traces the evolution of the Harding Myth down through the decades and skillfully debunks just about every element of it. His primary source is The Harding Era, a 1969 Harding Administration study by historian Robert K. Murray that was the first Harding book to be written with full access to the previously thought-to-be destroyed Harding Presidential Papers uncovered in 1964. Published by a small academic press, Murray's book went unnoticed for many years but has gradually, Dean contends, come to be regarded as one of the most perceptive of all Presidential biographies. And its conclusion is that Warren G. Harding was not only our most unfairly maligned Chief Executive, he was actually one of the twentieth century’s more effective and enlightened: a profile in courage who guided his own ship, bucked the party bosses, worked for world peace, spoke out fearlessly for civil rights and bore no responsibility for Teapot Dome or any of the other scandals with which he would be so indelibly identified.
All those years ago, when I initially considered a Harding mystery novel, its fatal drawback for me was Harding’s legacy as the hedonistic patsy of Teapot Dome. He just didn’t seem worth the attention. Now here was John Dean saying, no, no, no, that’s all wrong. Harding was almost a great man, a hero.
I hunted down Murray’s The Harding Era, and read it and the rest of the neo-Harding books it influenced. As Dean said, Harding’s standing in history has been inching higher in just about every subsequent book written about him after 1969—and also encouraging, none of these authors seemed to completely discount the idea of an assassination by poison. At the same time, none of the books, including Murray’s, contained any hint of the explosive Seattle-Alaska-environmental element of the mystery that would be my premise.
I was in business.
Now determined to do the novel, the first thing I needed was a credible murder weapon. I went through all the accounts of Harding's last days and made a chart of his reported symptoms as they
occurred on the Henderson, in Seattle, on the train to San Francisco and at the Palace Hotel during the week before he died. These I took to a University of Washington toxicologist I knew slightly. I asked him if he could think of any particular poison that might generate those distinct symptoms in that span of time. His answer was zinc, which I didn’t even realize was a poison.
So I had what I considered a dynamite mystery premise, an authentically heroic central figure and, now, a credible murder weapon. But I still didn’t have a story. As I struggled, trying this or that in my mind, testing various perspectives and angles and scenarios, nothing clicked. I needed some unique and special framework to showcase the Harding Mystery but it simply was not coming. Gradually, I sank into such a bog of frustrated inertia that I decided to put the thing aside.
Then one day I happened to be flipping through a 2009 issue of Archeology magazine when I came across an article called “Digging the Age of Aquarius,” about a team of archeologists excavating the site of a hippie commune that had existed between 1967 and 1969 at what was now Olompali State Park in Marin County, north of San Francisco. I vaguely recalled hearing about the
Olompali commune back when and the idea that this era of my generation’s flowering was now so buried under history that it had entered the domain of archeology startled me, profoundly affected me, and unleashed a flood of haunting memories that had been bottled up in me since the ’60s.
The rush of bittersweet emotion this notion shot through me was so powerful, in fact, that I knew I had to write about it; and I began to wonder if there might be a way to attach it to that other siren that was still calling out to me in the fog, the Harding Mystery.
As I was still in the sway of this Proustian experience, I suddenly recalled that I had kept a journal during that same time Olompali was collapsing at the end of the ’60s. I hunted around in a box of my old college papers until I found it: a thin, spiral notebook stuffed in the flap of a folder that I had labeled “69” in bold magic marker. It covered the last six months of 1969. Each monthly section began with a small calendar stapled to the top of the page.
Why did I do this? I had never kept a journal before or would I ever again. I simply don’t remember why.
But the experience of reading my daily accounts of that amazing half-year was both eerie and exhilarating. It was a time when something monumental, and increasingly apocalyptic, seemed to be happening literally every day. The Moon landing. The trial of the Chicago 8. Woodstock. The break-up of the Beatles. Vietnam. Demonstrations. Riots. Altamont. The Manson Murders. And those entries of forty-five years ago expressed an amazing awareness that I was living in a unique moment of history that was climaxing all around me. (There are numerous references to “the ’60s,” as if it was a thing as tangible as the French Revolution.)
The irony was that I really didn’t experience very many of these monumental events personally: I had just seen them on television. As I kept that journal, I was still in college (mostly to avoid the draft), the girlfriend of my dreams had recently dumped me, my literary aspirations had come to nothing, I was living like a hippie and I was not connected, really, to anything. It was an incredibly low point in my life. Like most people living through that tumultuous decade, I felt I was missing the ’60s.
But it was that very irony—the sense the journal gives of recognizing the magic of the time, of wanting to be part of it but remaining, because of circumstances, outside of it—that gave me an idea of how I might blend my nostalgia for the lost Eden of my youth with Warren G. Harding.
The idea was to make the Harding mystery novel a sequel to the Van Gogh mystery novel and set it in those last six months of 1969. This would later seem obvious but it really did not occur to me until Olompali and the journal.
The Van Gogh Mystery, Exile in the Light, takes place in Paris over twenty-one days of April, 1955, and leaves its blacklisted-screenwriter hero changed by his experience from a prototypical ’50s character to a man on the cusp of a brand new sensibility. On one level, the whole thing could be viewed as a set-up for a ’60s novel. Why not end Wally Boyd’s French exile with a pardon from the Kennedy White House, invent a decade of subsequent history for him and then plop him in those six months of 1969, on the trail of the Harding Mystery?
As in that earlier outing, the device that hooks him into the murder mystery would be a movie. In this case, a big-budget version of the (real) 1959 Broadway play, The Gang’s All Here, which would lampoon Harding & Co. as a way of slyly attacking the new Nixon administration. Hired to adapt the play, Wally’s research would lead him to the Murray book (just published in 1969) and its dramatic reappraisal of Harding would put him at odds with his assignment and, with a few other plot twists, pull him into the mystery.
The one caveat to this scheme was that, in 1969, Wally would be forty-five years old and a generation removed from Woodstock. But I reasoned that having him outside the revolution looking in, and rather pathetically yearning to be part of it, would be just the point-of-view I needed.
In Hollywood history, the year 1969 is remembered as the year of Easy Rider, the year in which the success of that and a series of other innovative and low-cost counterculture films showed the studios there was a daring new audience of baby-boomers out there that was embracing the movies as its own personal religion.
Coming on the heels of the resounding flop of virtually every big-budget, old-school, major studio release of the previous year, it caused a revolution in Hollywood as frantic and total as the advent of sound, ushering in a whole new wave of filmmakers and stars and experimentation, and leading, ultimately, to what Roger Ebert would call “the last golden age of Hollywood—the films of the 1970s.”
I had been part of that young audience and later, as a film critic and film journalist, I would maintain a special interest in that
era which had done so much to form my film sensibility. Over the next thirty years, I would get to know on some personal level most of the players of that revolution and the decade-long golden age that followed; and as it receded into the past and Hollywood gradually became the empty-headed monstrosity it is today, my fascination with that brief era has, as a student of film history, only increased.
Once the idea of merging the Harding Mystery with the end of the ’60s was fully engrained, it occurred to me that such a novel might also be an offbeat inside-Hollywood drama with its own credible Harding biopic at the center. The challenge of capturing the insanity and inspiration of that unique turning-point in American film history, and of making this hypothetical Harding film a convincing part of it, was just immensely appealing to me.
My own experience with student radicalism in the ’60s was practically nil. I was sympathetic but, never much of a joiner, kept my distance. I attended maybe two meetings of the Students for a Democratic Society. I once marched with a large group through the UW quadrangle, disrupting classes and demanding the end of ROTC on campus. I briefly met Tom Hayden and shook my fist as he delivered a fiery oration at a Vietnam War protest.
However, in the decades that followed, I developed a melancholy fascination for the members of my age group who went the distance in the ’60s, gave everything to the New Left
University of Washington
June 29, 1969
and the politics of the counterculture, and ended up with nothing, really, to show for it. These people seemed, in many ways, the best and brightest of their generation and, in retrospect, they changed the world. But they’ve been scorned by history and most of them ended up, in one way or another, tragically. Later, for instance, I got to know several members of the SDS Weather Underground, including one fellow who had been on the run for nearly twenty years; and for reasons even now I cannot fully understand, their stories haunted
me. I decided to make my femme-fatale heroine, Julie Chase, one of these phantoms and to give her my own age and birthday. She would look like Tuesday Weld and embody the innocence, the idealism, the dedication and the mobilization skills of her generation.
As I envisioned it at this point, the novel’s plot would involve Julie and the hardcore of the New Left in a conspiracy to influence Wally’s Harding movie in a way that would fatally embarrass the Nixon Administration and implicate one of its top financial backers in a 1923 Harding assassination.
The North Slope of Alaska plays a paramount role in the hidden Harding story and, with the opening of Prudhoe Bay and construction of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline, it also played a huge role in the year 1969. It occurred to me that the best way to link the two was to make that behind-the-scenes power in the Republican Party—the ultimate object of the SDS manipulation—an oilman.
I found the inspiration for this oilman character in the grandfather of a college friend with whom I spent part of the summer of 1966. The grandfather, who owned a
harborfront house right next door to John Wayne in Newport Beach, was a crusty old California wildcatter who struck it rich in the ’20s and became a power in the conservative wing of the Republican Party. He’d been an early backer of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and would later help put Ronald Reagan in the governor’s mansion.
As the story was developing in my mind, I elevated this character to the biggest behind-the-scenes power in the Nixon White House and the leader of an oil-producing consortium that was the prime mover of Prudhoe Bay. And it would turn out that this man had been aboard the Henderson and in Seattle and San Francisco with the Harding Party in 1923. So, as Wally probes the Harding mystery, it appears that this elderly oilman could be the unseen Harding assassin, acting as the point-man of a vigilante-Seattle effort to neutralize Harding’s support of Alaskan Statehood and foil his secret plan to convert all of Arctic Alaska into one enormous National Park.
Also, in my mind, I merged that real oilman character (who I only spoke to maybe five times in the summer I lived in his house) with the folksy shrewdness and other personality traits of the actor Robert Duvall, who I had met several times over the years and once enjoyed in a particularly memorable lunch-interview.