The pomp and ceremony of the American presidency often hide its dark underbelly. And in that underbelly, presidential sex scandals are almost as old as the country itself. Sometimes it takes the cold, calculating eye of history and hindsight to understand a scandal in full such as Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings.
At other times, the nation watched a scandal unfold before its very eyes like Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. Every scandal is different. But every one of them fascinates common people as they prove that behind the presidential seal, the leader of the free world is not infallible.
- Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings
Soon after Thomas Jefferson became the US President in 1801, a journalist named James T. Callender published a stunning expose on him. He declared that Jefferson had sexual relations with one of his slaves.
In 1802, he further stated the name of Jefferson’s slave was Sally and referred to her as the president’s ‘concubine’. He also claimed that Jefferson had fathered several children with Sally.
However, nothing became of the scandal and it fizzled out. Callender was known to have a grudge against Jefferson and was notorious as a drunk. He died one year after the scandal while drunkenly trying to bathe in the James River.
For two centuries, Callender’s allegations remained only a rumor. But he was proved right by a DNA test the results of which were published in Nature in 1998. Thomas Jefferson had indeed enslaved a woman named Sally Hemings and her heirs had traces of his DNA.
The story of this scandal had most likely started in the 1780s. By then Jefferson was a recent widower serving on a diplomatic mission in Paris, France. He had also brought an enslaved woman, Hemings, to help him take care of his daughter, Maria who was nicknamed Polly.
Jefferson had an affair with the 14-year-old Hemings, who was the half-sister of his deceased wife Martha. By the time, they returned to the US, Hemings was pregnant. According to Hemings’ son Madison, Hemings had only agreed to leave France, where she was free after having made a deal with Jefferson, who pledged to free Hemings’ children at the age of twenty-one years.
According to Madison, Sally Hemings gave birth to four children and Jefferson was the father of all of them. Their names were Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston. Though Jefferson avoided serious scandal during his lifetime, modern critics have reexamined his relationship with Hemings and recognized it as essentially rape since being an enslaved woman, Hemings could not have any consent on her own.
Although her children were freed, Hemings herself was never freed from the bonds of slavery. However, after Jefferson died in 1826. his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph allowed Hemings to leave Jefferson’s estate.
- Grover Cleveland and Maria Halpin
When Grover Cleveland had run for US President in 1884, he had been greeted by jeering crowds with an infamous chant: ‘Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?’
The nation had been captivated by allegations that Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock. The allegations were worse than that.
The Buffalo Evening Telegraph had claimed in July 1884 that Cleveland had impregnated a woman named Maria Halpin, probably by rape, and then had sent her to an insane asylum and put up their child for adoption.
The Chicago Tribune had reported in October after interviewing Halpin that Cleveland had pursued her relentlessly and she had finally consented to join him for a meal at the Ocean Dining Hall and Oyster House. After dinner, Cleveland had escorted her back to her boarding house.
In an affidavit in 1874, Halpern had strongly implied that Cleveland had entered her room without her consent and that the incident which had transpired later had been forceful and violent and later promised to ruin her if she went to the authorities.
Cleveland had however insisted that Halpin had slept with many men in his circle. Though he had accepted in his presidential campaign to be illicitly acquainted with Halpin, he had suggested that he had only claimed paternity because his friends were married.
Subsequently, in the election, Cleveland was judged to be less corrupt than his opponent, James G. Blaine. After his presidential victory, Cleveland’s supporters smugly answered the ‘Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?’ chant with ‘Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!’
Cleveland became notorious for another reason when he became the first president to get married at the White House. His bride, 21-year-old Frances Folsom, was his best friend’s daughter and 27 years his (Cleveland’s) junior.
Although Cleveland lost reelection in 1888, he won the presidency again in 1892. This made him the only president to serve non-consecutive terms and one of the only presidential candidates who won despite a presidential scandal.
- Warren G. Harding’s irrepressible Libido
In 1927, a woman named Nan Britton started a presidential sex scandal with her book, The President’s Daughter. Britton claimed that she had had a six-year affair and a child with former President Warren G. Harding.
Britton gave sensational particulars, like how the married then-Senator Harding had taken her virginity in a hotel room in New York, and how they’d had sexual intercourse in a closet of the White House. Britton wrote that it was in the darkness of space barely five feet square that the President and his adoring sweetheart (herself) had made love.
Even after Harding had passed away in 1923, his allies had recriminated Britton vehemently by calling her a prostitute, a gold-digger, and a liar. But her claim which was later validated by a DNA test in 2015 was nothing when compared to letters that Harding had written to a different mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips.
Harding had written the letters between 1910 and 1920, frequently on official Senate stationery. In them, he had described his love life in poetic, lurid detail.
In one letter, Harding had written that “There is one engulfing, enthralling rule of love, the song of your whole being which is a bit sweeter — the ‘Oh Warren! Oh Warren!’ When your body quivers with divine paroxysm and your soul hovers for flight with mine.”
In another, Harding had turned his affections into poetry, writing, “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.”
Philips had later threatened to reveal the affair when Harding had run for president. He avoided a presidential sex scandal when the Republican establishment paid her money in return for her silence off, and the letters weren’t revealed in full in 2014.
When Harding died abruptly in 1923, some speculated if his long-suffering wife, Florence, had essentially poisoned him.
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt died suddenly on April 12, 1945, he was not with his wife, Eleanor, but with his mistress. Eleanor Roosevelt was in Washington, D.C., while Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd was with the president at his cottage in Georgia.
Roosevelt met Rutherfurd 30 years previously in 1914 after she had been hired as his wife’s social secretary. She rapidly became an adored member of their family. But in 1918, Eleanor Roosevelt was hurt on finding letters written by Rutherfurd to her husband when she unloaded her husband’s luggage.
She later wrote to a friend that her world had been broken and she had faced her surroundings and her world honestly for the first time.
Shocked, Eleanor offered her husband a divorce. However, Roosevelt balked at the idea as not only was his mother against it, but divorce could sink his rising career in politics. Instead, he accepted his wife’s stipulation. He would never share her bed again and he wouldn’t contact Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd.
Though Roosevelt observed the first part of this agreement, it appeared highly likely that his affair with Rutherfurd had continued.
From then on, Roosevelt and Rutherfurd had cautiously and sporadically continued to meet. But over the years, they had left a faint trail.
Some historians believed that Rutherfurd was present at Roosevelt’s inauguration as president secretly while hiding in the back of a limousine car. She also probably visited the White House under a false name.
Rutherfurd destroyed most of her mail with the president after his death in 1945. In the surviving letters, they seemed to be informal and talkative, but also oddly precise about times and places, and when Eleanor Roosevelt would not be present with Roosevelt.
When Lucy was reminded of an old remembrance, Roosevelt replied that he did remember the times they had spent together very well àtoujours et toujours,” which was a conclusion in French meaning “forever and ever.”
Though some were suspicious of Roosevelt carrying on several other affairs, his relationship with Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd was probably the most noteworthy. Three decades after they met, she was at his side when he passed away.
- Dwight D. Eisenhower and Kay Summersby
According to her own assertion, Kay Summersby’s affair with then-General Dwight D. Eisenhower began when he was the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II and she was his driver.
In her 1976 posthumous memoir, seven years after Eisenhower’s death, Summersby wrote that they had found themselves in each other’s arms in an uninhibited hug. Their jackets had come off, and they unbuttoned their buttons. It was like they were frantic, and they indeed were.
However, she wrote that the relationship was not consummated. Eisenhower snuggled his face into the hollow between her neck and shoulder and said that he was sorry that he was not going to be any good for her.
Summersby’s claims sent a tremor through the American public as Eisenhower and his wife Mamie had always seemed the picture of conjugal bliss. Mamie Eisenhower had even publicly stated that she liked sharing a bed with her husband because she could pat him on his bald head anytime she wanted to, during the night.
A review of Summersby’s book in The New York Times cast reservation on her version noting that it had been ghostwritten. The review criticized the
book’s style as being a combination of rosemary and rue that women readers were thought to find tempting but which struck the reviewer as being bereft of true sentiment.
However, Summersby herself claimed that she only came forward with the story because it was mentioned by former President Harry S. Truman first. In 1972, Truman had apparently told his biographer Merle Miller that Eisenhower had had an affair with Summersby.
Truman claimed that Eisenhower had even attempted to leave his wife for Summersby in 1945. But George C. Marshall, the Chief of Staff of the US Army, had threatened Eisenhower that if he left his wife for Summersby he would not only throw him out of the Army but also see to it that he didn’t have a peaceful life afterward.
Some historians had reservations about Truman’s account because of the hostility that had developed between him and Eisenhower. But according to Eisenhower’s biographer, Jean Edward Smith, rumors of the president’s affair with Kay Summersby did have some authenticity. According to Smith, though the fact that Eisenhower and Summersby were intimate was a matter of conjecture, there was no question that they were in love.
- John F. Kennedy’s multiple affairs including with Marilyn Monroe
After Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ Kennedy walked in on John F. Kennedy indulging in oral sex in the Senate Office Building while he was a junior senator for Massachusetts, she went to his father and told him she wanted a divorce. Joseph ‘Joe’ Kennedy offered her $1 million to retain the marriage.
Jackie stayed. But she told her father-in-law that if her husband brought home any sexually transmitted disease from any of his affairs then she wanted $20 million.
John F. Kennedy had several affairs during his marriage. He purportedly dated strippers, college students, White House interns and secretaries, and socialites.
But Kennedy’s most famous affair which was never definitively proven was with movie star Marilyn Monroe.
Rumors about Kennedy’s affair with Monroe began on May 19, 1962, when the movie star crooned “Happy Birthday” to the president at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Monroe offered birthday wishes to Kennedy while wearing a skin-tight dress covered in glistening crystals.
After she finished, Kennedy joked that he could now retire from politics after having had ‘Happy Birthday’ sung to him in such a sweet and wholesome manner.
But the television audience at home saw nothing “wholesome” about it at all. Columnist Dorothy Kilgallen labeled Monroe’s performance as “making love to the president in the direct view of forty million Americans.”
The actual facts of Monroe’s relationship with Kennedy are however obscure. They likely met in 1961 at a dinner party and possibly had a sexual tryst in March 1962. Monroe’s masseur and close friend Ralph Robert claimed that he had heard a “Boston accent” while on a call with Monroe one night and that she passed the phone to the president.
He said that Monroe told him that this night in March was the only time of her ‘affair’ with Kennedy. She had given him the impression that it was not a major occurrence for either of them. It had happened once, that weekend, and that was about it.
In the end, only Kennedy and Monroe knew what had really happened. But both met untimely deaths. Marilyn Monroe died of a barbiturate overdose on Aug. 4, 1962, and John F. Kennedy was assassinated a year later on Nov. 22, 1963.
- The Presidential Affairs of Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson had inherited the presidency after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. He once stated that he had accidental sex with more women than Kennedy ever had purposefully.
Indeed, Johnson had several love affairs in his life, as well as numerous sexual encounters outside his marriage. But he never seemed concerned about a presidential sex scandal.
Johnson told Life magazine reporter Hal Wingo that he might have seen Johnson coming in and out of some women’s bedrooms while he was in the White House. But he had to keep in mind, that it was none of his business.
Johnson had noteworthy affairs with Alice Glass, the wife of a newspaper mogul, Helen Gahagan Douglas an actress-turned-congresswoman, and Madeleine Brown, a businesswoman who claimed to have given birth to Johnson’s son.
Famously aggressive, Johnson also seduced, philandered with, and was said to have hassled numerous women during his political career. Johnson purportedly groped female staffers and put his hand up a woman’s skirt while driving.
The president also made recurrent chauvinist remarks, like demanding that his female staffers lose weight. He also boasted on one occasion that he only wanted to hire women with ‘good behinds’ so he could ‘enjoy’ their rear ends as they left his office, according to author Eleanor Herman.
Johnson was famously proud about the size of his penis, which he had nicknamed “Jumbo”. Johnson also had male and female staffers wait outside the bathroom to dictate notes.
While in Congress, Johnson even whipped out his penis to show others in the Capitol restroom asking them if they had seen anything as big as it before going on to discuss lawmaking.
Despite his numerous affairs and offensive behavior, Lyndon B. Johnson avoided any presidential sex scandals.
- The Presidential Sex Scandal of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky
On Jan. 26, 1998, President Bill Clinton went on live TV to talk about rumors of a presidential sex scandal. He declared that they were false. The president said that he didn’t have sexual relations with Miss Lewinsky.
At the time, Clinton was accused of having an affair with a 22-year-old White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. But unlike many sex scandals of his predecessors which had run quietly underneath the surface or remained hidden until later, Clinton’s had erupted into the public eye.
Actually, he had had an 18-month affair with Lewinsky. On Nov. 15, 1995, the president requested Lewinsky to come to his private study and kissed her.
Lewinsky later testified that they spoke briefly and acknowledged that there had been a chemistry that was there before and that they were both attracted to each other. The president then asked Lewinsky if he could kiss her.
During her grand jury testimony, which was later released by Republicans in Congress and broadcast across the country, Lewinsky described how Clinton’s semen had once stained her dress, and how the president had once penetrated her with a cigar.
The ensuing firestorm led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Though the president escaped with an exoneration, the so-called “Lewinsky scandal” was not the only presidential sex scandal that hung over the Clinton years.
Clinton’s sex scandals had started even before he became president. During the 1992 presidential campaign, a woman named Gennifer Flowers had claimed that she had had a clandestine affair with him.
While he was in office, another woman, Paula Jones claimed that the president had sexually hassled her and exposed himself to her while he was the Governor of Arkansas. Other women including Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Wiley, and Leslie Millwee also accused Clinton of inapt sexual behavior. Broaddrick had even accused him of rape.
Clinton denied most of the accusations but admitted under oath to having consensual relationships with Lewinsky and Flowers.
- Donald Trump and Stormy Daniels
In 2016, the then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump’s campaign was almost wrecked by a sex scandal. On Oct. 7, 2016, an Access Hollywood clip showed the future president bragging about sexual assault.
Trump boasted in the clip that he didn’t even wait and that if one was a star, they (women) let one carry out the sexual assault. He could do anything and grab women by their private parts.
Despite the ensuing uproar and the predictions that Trump had destroyed his campaign, he went on to win the presidency. It was also revealed later that Trump had also faced another sex scandal in October 2016, a month before the election.
On Jan. 18, 2018, the Wall Street Journal broke the story that in October 2016, Trump’s lawyer had paid off a pornographic film actress Stephanie Clifford, known as Stormy Daniels, to keep her quiet about a supposed 2006 affair.
Daniels broke her silence a few months later. On the TV program, 60 Minutes in March 2018, Daniels claimed she had met Trump at a golf tournament in 2006. When Daniels, then 27, whacked Trump, then 60, with a copy of a magazine with his face on the cover, he began philandering with her.
Daniels said that Trump was amazed by her and exclaimed that she was special and that she reminded him of his daughter. He called her smart and beautiful and a woman to be reckoned with and that he liked her. She also claimed they had sex, claims which Trump constantly denied.
Though Daniels said that their affair was consensual, numerous other women had accused Trump of sexual transgressions since the 1970s. Trump denied most of the accusations.
Like Trump, most of the men who were US President and had illicit sexual liaisons had simply worn down their scandals. They denied them, concealed them, or overwhelmed them.
But although the unforgiving light of history has brought many presidential sex scandals to light, some are still certainly concealed.