‘Fifteen Men in a Smoke-Filled Room’: How Warren G. Harding became president
David Hunt Stafford and Sarah Walker / Ed Krieger

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.—“Yes, ladies and gentlemen,” the radio announcer opened his news report, “another day, another scandal! It seems like nothing can prevent further improprieties from staining President Harding and his administration prior to this year’s midterm elections. The blazing spotlight of impropriety has now focused its glare on Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty…. Congressmen from both parties can only wonder if there will be an end to the widespread corruption sweeping the nation’s capital.”

The biggest White House corruption scandal ever recorded up to that point in history took place during the early years of Warren G. Harding’s administration. It was known as the Teapot Dome Scandal. Theatergoers watching Colin Speer Crowley’s new play will have to decide for themselves if the current occupant of the White House has topped Harding on the scandalometer.

Crowley’s thesis is that Harding (David Hunt Stafford) was a fairly innocuous small-town fellow from Marion, Ohio, who by some early algorithm of the Peter Principle got to become a U.S. Senator. It was the scheming men around him who, realizing what an inattentive pushover Harding would be, manipulated his election so as to take advantage of their access to power and make a killing for themselves once he got into office. The later Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty (John Combs) is seen here as the ringleader of this cabal as Harding’s campaign manager.

The setting of the play is Chicago, Friday night, June 11, 1920, in the elegant Florentine Room and the Restaurant of the Congress Hotel, with a balcony over the street below. The Republican National Convention is in full swing. There are several ambitious candidates for the presidential nomination but no one has a clear mandate.

Warren G. Harding, feeling old, fatigued and beleaguered, is overwhelmed by the prospect of running for president—if for no other reason than he would like nothing more than to quietly keep enjoying the only thing that gives him peace and joy in life, his adoring young mistress Nan Britton (Sarah Walker), by whom he has a toddler daughter, his only child, whom he can’t see or hold. “I’ve always had an election banner plastered across my mouth,” he laments.

Daugherty is a shrewd operator, however, and in round after round of voting, against all odds, he manages to push his candidate to the fore on the tenth ballot. The last linchpin in the plan is to meet with the Ohio delegation and make sure they are on-board with their native son (and willing to overlook the mistress thing).

Harding is portrayed as an unconscious tool of other men, other forces, almost hounded by inevitable fate, preordained by destiny as if in some ancient Greek play where the gods command the last word in the action. From a dramatic point of view, perhaps it could be said that Harding is not even the protagonist. That part goes to Daugherty, who also has to overcome the paralysis he encounters in Florence Kling Harding (Roslyn Cohn), the senator’s superstitious, shrewish wife (five years older than Harding), whose fervent belief in “the stars” and in their infallible interpreter, a certain clairvoyant Madame Marcia, presents a powerful obstruction to the progress of the plan.

Mrs. Harding, smart, sarcastic and sassy, has the best lines in the play. “You and your friends,” she snarls to Daugherty, “will dictate to my husband. And why not? He never had any ideas of his own to begin with…. I can see nothing but tragedy, turmoil and heartache.” She and Warren are all either of them has (how much she knows or cares about Nan is a question): “Desolation is my home town—population 2.”

To those who know a little of our country’s history, it’s no spoiler to say that Harding unexpectedly died in office, on August 2, 1923, at the age of 57, in eerie coincidence with Madame Marcia’s prediction. Which is why, according to Crowley, Mrs. Harding did not want her husband to run. (He also had had heart problems from a much earlier time in his life).

Harding, incidentally, was the only U.S. president to have had a career in journalism, and up until his time was the only president to have been a union member—of the typographers’ union.

Although the action of the 90-minute intermissionless play all occurs on one night, Crowley introduces an out-of-body, out-of-time element in the form of a radio broadcaster (Roger K. Weiss) giving occasional updates on the Teapot Dome scandals as Harding’s presidency ensues. Director Jules Aaron, along with his set designer Jeff G. Rack, both regulars with Theatre 40, came up with an ingenious way of inserting the future into the present. The lighting designer, Brandon Baruch, also deserves credit in making this time travel credible.

John Combs and Roslyn Cohn / Ed Krieger

Two small roles, a newspaper publisher and a waiter, are handled ably enough by Kevin Dulude. Costume design is by Michèle Young, and sound design by Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski.

For some playgoers Fifteen Men may support the notion that a “fate” beyond human powers controls our lives. Were there not—and aren’t there still—those who in 2016 latched onto a purported prophecy by Nostradamus (1503-66) to the effect that in time the most powerful nation on Earth would come to be ruled by a foolish idiot? (That prediction has already “come true” several times already, with or without benefit of prophecy!) Of course we also know that Nancy Reagan was a devoted follower of astrology and had a profound effect on her husband’s presidency in accord with the “stars” (and I don’t mean Hollywood).

For what it’s worth, I do not believe Daugherty would have used the Yiddish term “shmuesing” in 1920, as in buttering up the delegates. Other than that, the dialogue is crisp and the story engrossing.

The Los Angeles premiere production of Fifteen Men in a Smoke-Filled Room plays through Dec. 16 on Thurs.- Sat. at 8:00 p.m., and Sun. at 2:00 p.m; also, a final performance on Mon., Dec. 16 at 8:00 p.m. (dark on Nov. 28 and 29). Theatre 40 is located at the Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills 90212. The venue is on the campus of Beverly Hills High School. Free parking is available in the parking lot beneath the theatre. To access parking, enter through the driveway at the intersection of Durant and Moreno Drives. For reservations call (310) 364-0535, or visit the company website.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.