On February 15, after the chocolate hearts and platitude-filled greeting cards have been exchanged, Americans will celebrate Presidents’ Day. It’s an opportunity to recognize those honorable men who have held our nation’s highest office.
Or, in some cases, not so honorable. Everyone remembers the tawdry tale of Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky and the stained blue dress, but that’s merely one example of Presidential philandering—and it’s far from the most salacious. Sure, Clinton was the only POTUS ever impeached for cheating on his wife (and then lying about it under oath), but extramarital affairs were par for the course for many of his predecessors. (Beloved chief executives Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, among others, strayed from the marital bed.) If not for an overzealous special prosecutor and morally vindictive—not to mention wildly hypocritical—Republican Congress, Clinton’s scandal would never have gotten as far as it did. The details of the affair—young intern, Oval Office shenanigans, a strategically placed cigar—were downright pedestrian.
Don’t believe us? Let’s take a look at the top five Presidential sex scandals…
5. Warren G. Harding Considered one of the worst Presidents in history, Harding was also a topnotch horndog. He carried on an extended affair with his wife’s married friend, who later blackmailed him while he was in office. But the real scandal involved his alleged relationship with young Nan Britton. Despite a 34-year age difference, the two supposedly had a lovechild, Elizabeth Ann, who was the subject of Britton’s tell-all book, The President’s Daughter. Harding died of mysterious causes while in office, and Britton, who lived until 1991, was never able to prove the veracity of her claims.
4. Grover Cleveland In 1884, while running for President, Cleveland was hit with allegations that he had an illegitimate son with a woman named Maria Crofts Halpin. Cleveland took responsibility for the boy and was elected anyway (a lesson other politicians have failed to heed). Then, two years after taking office, he got married—not to the mother of his child, but to the 21-year-old daughter of his friend, Oscar Folsom, who also had an affair with Halpin. Oh, and the name Halpin gave her bastard child? Oscar Folsom Cleveland.
3. John F. Kennedy Kennedy’s affair with Marilyn Monroe is the one history remembers, but a dalliance with another, much less famous woman led to allegations of mafia connections. Judith Campbell Exner (who, like Monroe, was supposedly introduced to Kennedy by Frank Sinatra) was linked to both Kennedy and Chicago mob boss Salvatore Giancana in the 1960s. In 1988, Exner told People magazine that she’d carried messages between Kennedy and Giancana. She later said she had Kennedy’s child aborted and also slept with the President’s brother, Bobby.
2. Thomas Jefferson In the 18th century, it was no scandal for the President of the United States to own slaves. But for the President to have sex with one of those slaves and father her child? Another matter entirely. And yet that is, according to some accounts, exactly what iconic Founding Father Thomas Jefferson did. Allegations of an affair between Jefferson and Sally Hemings first sprouted up during his Presidency. But it wasn’t until almost 200 years later that a DNA test on descendants of Jefferson and Hemings confirmed a genetic link. Adding another layer of intrigue is the fact that Hemings may have been the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha.
1. James Buchanan Lately, rumors of homosexuality in the White House have swirled around Abraham Lincoln. But it’s Lincoln’s predecessor, Buchanan, who many historians believe was the first gay commander and chief. Buchanan was the only President to remain a lifelong bachelor—his adopted niece, Harriet, assumed First Lady duties—and he lived for more than a decade with Senator William Rufus King, who, according to biographer Jean Baker, was variously referred to as “Aunt Fancy,” “Miss Nancy” and, most unambiguously, Buchanan’s “wife.” In an 1844 letter written while King was in Europe, Buchanan complained of “having no companion in the house with me,” and said he’d “gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but [had] not succeeded with any of them.” Of course, Buchanan never came out of the closet—to do so would surely have ruined his political career, a fact that, sadly, hasn’t changed 150 years later.