Presidents are no strangers to womanizing, cheating or secret affairs. You’re probably familiar with the legendary dalliances of President Kennedy and the scandal that rocked President Clinton’s White House. History shows us that outrageous behavior is nothing new in our nation’s capital. Read on for seven of history’s most scandalous affairs involving U.S. presidents.
1. Thomas Jefferson
Rumors of an affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, began during Jefferson’s first term as president. He is speculated to have fathered at least six children with Hemings, who remained a slave in his home until his death in 1826. Jefferson’s family members denied reports of an affair, but in 1998, DNA tests conducted by geneticist Dr. Eugene Foster found conclusive evidence that Eston Hemings, Sally’s youngest son, was fathered by Jefferson.
2. James Garfield
Garfield’s philandering began even before his marriage did; he started a four-year affair with a friend while engaged to his fiancée Lucretia Rudolph. While serving his first term in Congress, Garfield had a brief affair with Lucia Gilbert Calhoun, a 20-year-old reporter for the New York Tribune and a long-term affair with Alameda Booth. When Lucretia learned of the affairs, he confessed everything but failed to change his ways. During the 1880 presidential election, he was dogged by allegations that he routinely visited a New Orleans prostitute.
3. James Buchanan
While this relationship wasn’t adulterous, it was certainly scandalous for the times. James Buchanan shared a home with fellow politician William Rufus King for 13 years until King died from tuberculosis in 1853. King briefly served as vice president under President Franklin Pierce before his death; he holds the record for shortest-serving vice president with only 45 days in office. Buchanan became president four years later in 1857.
Buchanan and King’s close relationship did not go unnoticed in Washington, where the pair were referred to as “Buchanan and his wife.” After King moved to Paris to serve as the American ambassador to France, Buchanan wrote to a confidante, “I am now ‘solitary and alone,’ having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them.” As Buchanan requested that all of his correspondence be destroyed after his death, it seems we’ll never know for sure. Notably, Buchanan is the only U.S. president to never marry.
4. Grover Cleveland
At the age of 48, Cleveland married his good friend’s daughter, 21-year old Frances Folsom, whom he’d known since her birth. If that isn’t unsettling enough, she was also Cleveland’s ward, having taken her in at the age of nine after her father’s death. If you think the details of his marriage are salacious, that’s nothing compared to the scandals of his past.
Years earlier, in 1873 he was courting sales clerk Maria Halpin. According to Halpin, Cleveland took her out for dinner and insisted on seeing her home, where he then raped her and threatened to “ruin” her if she told anyone. She discovered she was pregnant weeks later. After the child was born, Cleveland placed the baby in an orphanage and attempted to have Halpin committed to an insane asylum. He then spread rumors that she was a drunk who carried on affairs with married men. In fact, she was a churchgoing widow with a good reputation. She never changed her story that Cleveland was the father of her child.
5. Warren G. Harding
President Warren Harding had a legendary weakness for women, having numerous affairs, the most famous being with Carrie Phillips, despite both being married at the time. Harding never bothered to hide any of his relationships, and during the 1920 presidential election, the Republican National Committee paid Carrie and her husband to stay out of sight, giving them $20,000 and sending them on a trip to Asia.
Before his relationship with Phillips had ended, he began seeing campaign volunteer Nan Britton, a woman 30 years his junior. She eventually gave birth to a daughter, claiming Harding as the father. Evidence shows he felt some responsibility to the child – he had the Secret Service hand-deliver child-support payments. Two other women claimed to have conceived children by Harding and he is linked to at least one more.
6. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
FDR and and his wife Eleanor’s relationship was a complicated one, and at one point, both the president and the first lady had mistresses living in the White House. FDR began an affair with Eleanor’s social secretary, Lucy Mercer. When Eleanor found out, she asked for a divorce, and FDR agreed, but his overbearing mother stepped in and threatened to cut off his finances if he went through with it.
He and Eleanor came to an agreement to remain married on the condition that he never see Mercer again. Eventually, rumors began to fly that Eleanor was having an affair of her own with female reporter Lorena Hickock, who was known to prefer women. She invited Hickock to live in the White House, telling her to not to worry about the gossip. FDR wasn’t too concerned about the affair: he was already carrying on a new affair with his live-in assistant Missy LeHand.
7. Lyndon B. Johnson
LBJ once bragged that he “had more women by accident than Kennedy ever had on purpose.” Just three years into his marriage Johnson began an affair with the glamorous Alice Glass, the wife of one of his political supporters. When Johnson’s wife “Lady Bird” found out about the affair, she blamed herself for not being as glamorous as Glass and ignored the liaison.
Not satisfied with just the one affair, Johnson continued on. At one point, after Lady Bird interrupted her husband having sex with a secretary in the Oval Office, he instructed the Secret Service to install a buzzer to alert him when his wife was on her way to see him. One woman named Madeleine Brown claimed to have been LBJ’s mistress for 21 years. She came forward to say that Johnson set her up in a nearby home with a maid and her own credit cards. She also said that Johnson had a bit of a “kinky” side.