My Search for Warren Harding by Robert Plunket

Dear Robert Plunket,

You don’t know me, but I was assigned to review your book, My Search for Warren Harding, which New Directions is reissuing this month. They publish Ezra Pound and other anti-Semitic writers I love. I know your book was published in 1983, but I’m just getting around to it now. Congratulations!

Some people say because your main character, Elliot Weiner, says so many unpleasant things that your book couldn’t be published today, only republished, which I guess is the next best thing.

As you probably recall, your book tells the story of a cranky academic, Weiner, who travels from New York City to Los Angeles on a meager grant to hunt down the hot and heavy love letters between our beloved 29th president, Warren G. Harding, and his mistress, whom you call “Rebekah Kinney” in the book, but whose real name was Nan Britton. She wrote a memoir called The President’s Daughter, in which she claimed that Harding was the father of her child, Elizabeth Ann.

I remember reading somewhere that Britton’s book was treated like a pornographic magazine and sold door-to-door wrapped in brown paper. I hope people won’t feel that way about My Search for Warren Harding, because I’m sure you know, especially now that you’re living down in Florida, that people want to ban all sorts of books.

Nan Britton (right) and her daughter, Elizabeth Ann, who Britton claimed was fathered by Harding.

It might interest you to know that I, too, wrote a novel, about 20 years ago, called Sinatraland, featuring another cluelessly judgmental protagonist. My “hero,” Finkie Finklestein, would do anything to get his hands on a ticket to Frank Sinatra’s first farewell concert, at the Ahmanson Theatre, in 1971. Your character goes so far as to seduce a woman he’s personally repelled by, the elderly granddaughter of Harding’s mistress, just because he feels she could help him get his hands on those Harding love letters, which would make his name in academia.

I laughed out loud when you write about Weiner’s best friend in L.A., Eve Biersdorf, and her German housekeeper, Freda, who spends all of her time in her room watching soap operas. Eve is terrified to ask Freda to do anything because of rumors that she “had survived Auschwitz. And not as an inmate, if you get my drift.”

One of your really smart readers, Danzy Senna, who had the privilege of re-introducing the novel in its new edition, describes Weiner as “cruel, racist, fat-phobic, homophobic, and deeply, deeply petty.” He’s also a bit of a snob: “Suffice it to say that I teach at both Mercy College and the New School, and I feel that speaks for itself.” Like I said, clueless. In fact, he’s so clueless he doesn’t even realize that he’s gay himself. He’s so deeply in the closet he’s practically a mothball.

Some people say because your main character says so many unpleasant things that your book couldn’t be published today, only republished.

Speaking of Hollywood, one of the many things I love about your book is the way you skewer the movie colony itself. Biersdorf is married to a producer and lives in a big, beautiful house with many bookshelves but no books (except for “some novels by Harold Robbins and a complete set of books about that person named Seth”).

My Search for Warren Harding reminds me of Nathanael West and Evelyn Waugh and more recently Bruce Wagner—writers who really understand that upside-down, looking-glass world. That’s why I wasn’t surprised to learn that there’s a kind of greenroom for your book’s better-known fans, such as Larry David.

There’s a lot of My Search for Warren Harding in Curb Your Enthusiasm—both feature a hapless, stubborn character navigating the comic emptiness of modern life. And if I’m not mistaken, you’ve had a brush with movie stardom yourself. Didn’t you have a small part in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, playing a shy gay man trying to pick up Griffin Dunne?

It says at the back of your book that you used to be a gossip columnist for Sarasota Magazine, and that you called yourself Mr. Chatterbox. It has served you well, because your book is like the best kind of gossip; it shows us who we really are and what we think really matters. That’s why I hope people don’t flinch from what you’ve done. I truly hope that the second time around, My Search for Warren Harding is a great success. It only took 40 years for us to catch up with you.


Sam Kashner

Sam Kashner is a Writer at Large at AIR MAIL. Previously a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, he is the author or co-author of several books, including Sinatraland: A Novel, When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School, and Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends