As my students know I had a cold the other day so I went home early to crash. I took the couch time as an opportunity to catch up on Boardwalk Empire. Several people mentioned the HBO series to me because of its setting in the 1920s and it overlaps my book, Dead Last: The Public Memory of Warren G. Harding’s Scandalous Legacy (2009).
Tuesday morning, Brian Burnes, of the Kansas City Star, interviewed me for my upcoming talk as part of the Hail to the Chiefs series for the Kansas City Public Library. Boardwalk Empire came up, adding to the pressure to watch it. How could I claim to be a scholar of the public memory of Warren G. Harding and not be watching a major tv show with him in it.? I had to confess that I was behind the popular culture curve with Boardwalk Empire and Breaking Bad. I partially fixed that. My initial reaction is that I really like Boardwalk Empire. It is well written with high production value. The show highlights much of what is fascinating about the 1920s. Broadly speaking it captures the zeitgeist of the period: the racial tensions, the emerging popular culture (boardwalks!), the sexual revolution, and the disillusionment that followed the Great War. With Boardwalk Empire, you can see the characters wresting with many of the issues that confronted the United States as it undergoes rapid social and economic change, the contradictions built into prohibition and the roles of men and women during this sexual revolution.
However, Boardwalk Empire falls into the category of historical fiction that is “loosely based” on real people and actual events. When discussing historical movies or TV I try not to nitpick; there is a difference between entertainment and academic history. Directors and script writers often alter or streamline events to make for better drama. In this way, the show is part of a long tradition of fictional accounts of Warren Harding’s life. Harding and his associates move through the background of the Prohibition-era story of corruption and bootlegging. In season one, we are introduced to Nan Britton, Harry Daugherty, and Warren Harding. The portrayal of Harding, to this point, is typical of the fictional and non-academic accounts of Harding. He is a hail fellow well met bloviating patriotic platitudes about America. Florence Harding also seems to fall within the usual stereotypes, the dour wife that justifies Harding’s infidelities. The most developed characters, yet, are Nan Britton and Harry Daugherty.
The Britton character is loosely taken from her book, The President’s Daughter (1927), in which she claimed to have had an affair and child with Harding. In the tv show, protagonist and gangster “Nucky” Thompson, another character loosely based on real person, strikes a deal with Harry Daugherty, Harding’s campaign manager, to hide Britton in Atlantic City so she and their baby won’t derail Harding’s presidential campaign. The real story isn’t that clear cut. There is a lot of dispute over the accuracy and validity of Britton’s story. What I find interesting about the Britton story is its role in the emerging tabloid culture, the use of the president’s personal life to discuss social change much as we use television shows like Boardwalk Empire to reflect on our wrestling with issues like personal responsibility and drug laws. True or not, these stories help us reflect on our own times.