The Sappy, Poignant, and Risqué Love Letters of 7 World Leaders
Napoleon Bonaparte was a bit of a clinger. Richard Nixon was shockingly sweet. And Warren Harding was a smut peddler.
We learn a lot about world leaders when the love letters they’ve written to their sweethearts become public. The results can either be humanizing or humiliating—and there’s been plenty of both over the years. Check out some of the sweetest, strangest, and steamiest love letters written by seven world leaders.
1. Richard Nixon's shockingly sweet Love Letters to his future wife, Pat
Sappiest line: "Let’s go for a long ride Sundays; let’s go to the mountains weekends; let’s read books in front of fires; most of all let’s really grow together and find the happiness we know is ours."
The list of words used to describe Richard Nixon over the past 70 years is long and not particularly flattering—and chances are, not many people would have described the 37th president of the United States as a romantic. But it turns out the brusque politician could really lay on the schmaltz in his pre-White House days.
In 2012, love letters written to his soon-to-be wife, Pat, were put on display at the Nixon Library, and they show [PDF] a whole different side of Tricky Dick:
"Dearest Heart As I look out the window at the clouds with the sun trying to break through, I am thinking of how much you have meant to me the past two years. Do you remember that funny guy who asked you to go to a 20-30 ladies night just about two years ago? Well—you know that though he still may be funny—he’s changed since then. But you may not know—dear one—that he still gets the same thrill when you say you’ll go someplace with him—that he did when you said one time that he could take you for a ride in his car! And did you know that he still looks out the window toward wherever you are and sends you the best he has in love, admiration, respect, and 'best of luck'? And when the wind blows and the rains fall and the sun shines through the clouds (as it is now) he still resolves, as he did then, that nothing so fine ever happened to him or anyone else as falling in love with Thee—my dearest heart— Love, Dick"
The two met while auditioning for roles in a community theater production of The Dark Tower in 1938—Nixon, the thespian!—and were married after two years of courtship and maudlin letters. Though critics called their marriage loveless and "dingy" while they occupied the White House, those closest to them told a different story. Former Secretary of State Alexander Haig said that "[Nixon] worshipped Pat," and the couple was often found watching movies together or relaxing at the Camp David pool during their rare downtime.
The couple remained together until Pat’s death in 1993. Less than a year later, Richard Nixon followed at the age of 81.
2. Warren Harding's X-rated letters to his mistress
Most scandalous lines: "Wouldn’t you like to get sopping wet out on Superior—not the lake—for the joy of fevered fondling and melting kisses? Wouldn’t you like to make the suspected occupant of the next room jealous of the joys he could not know, as we did in morning communion at Richmond?"
Yikes. Of all the historical documents the U.S. government would unearth, the erotic writings of President Warren G. Harding couldn’t have been high up on anyone’s wishlist. These ribald notes were written while Harding was lieutenant governor of Ohio and later through his stint as senator, stopping before his presidential inauguration in 1921. The only problem is that the letters weren’t written to his wife, Florence, but instead to her close friend—and the couple's neighbor, Carrie Fulton Phillips—with whom he had an ongoing affair.
In the letters, Harding described the "glorious kisses and fond caresses" of their secret dalliances, while bemoaning his own marriage as "merely existence, necessary for appearance’s sake." To throw people off their trail, Harding concocted a lurid code for his writing, referring to his penis as "Jerry" and her genitalia as "Mrs. Pouterson." ("Wish I could take you to Mount Jerry. Wonderful spot," Harding once wrote.)
And it's more than just the standard letters of lust—Harding also threw in some racy poetry, like this little number from January 1912:
“I love to suck Your breath away I love to cling — There long to stay... I love you garb’d But naked more Love your beauty To thus adore...”
Eventually, the whole affair went south, with some theories saying Phillips’s pro-German sentiment was a strain on Harding as a politician during World War I (some even believed she was a spy), and others claiming she became infuriated over his affairs with other women (of which Harding apparently had many).
The letters themselves were ordered sealed by the courts until July 29, 2014, when they were released for all the world to blush over. Phillips probably should have just listened to Harding's plea from a January 1913 letter when he told her, "I have been thinking about all those letters you have. I think you [should] have a fire, chuck ’em!"
3. Napoleon Bonaparte’s turbulent love letters to Josephine
Most fiery lines: "You are going to be here beside me, in my arms, on my breast, on my mouth? Take wing and come, come ... A kiss on your heart, and one much lower down, much lower!"
Before he was crowned emperor of France in 1804, Napoleon was leading armies, consolidating his power, and pitching woo to Josephine de Beauharnais, who would become his wife and empress. And one look at his early love letters shows a conqueror who isn’t shy about displaying his passions—or his clinginess:
"Since I left you, I have been constantly depressed. My happiness is to be near you. Incessantly I live over in my memory your caresses, your tears, your affectionate solicitude. The charms of the incomparable Josephine kindle continually a burning and a glowing flame in my heart. When, free from all solicitude, all harassing care, shall I be able to pass all my time with you, having only to love you, and to think only of the happiness of so saying, and of proving it to you? I will send you your horse, but I hope you will soon join me."
But in many of his letters to her, Napoleon just bemoans how many notes he writes and how few he receives in return:
"I have your letters of the 16th and 21st. There are many days when you don't write. What do you do, then? No, my darling, I am not jealous, but sometimes worried. Come soon; I warn you, if you delay, you will find me ill. Fatigue and your absence are too much."
There may be a reason for the seemingly one-sided passion in their relationship: During the First Italian Campaign, just months after their marriage, rumors of Josephine’s infidelity reached Napoleon’s ears. This changed the tenor of their relationship, and by November 1796, his letters took a turn for the erratic:
"I don’t love you anymore; on the contrary, I detest you. You are a vile, mean, beastly slut. You don’t write to me at all; you don’t love your husband; you know how happy your letters make him, and you don’t write him six lines of nonsense… Soon, I hope, I will be holding you in my arms; then I will cover you with a million hot kisses, burning like the equator."
Eventually, Josephine’s affair was confirmed to Napoleon, and the passion he once had for her slowly fizzled. They both took new lovers, but they remained officially married until 1809, when Napoleon announced plans to divorce Josephine, mainly because she couldn’t bear any children for him.
4. Joseph Stalin’s playful love letters to his wife, Nadya
Most uncharacteristic line: "I miss you so much Tatochka—I'm as lonely as a horned owl."
The man who once chillingly said, "If the opposition disarms, all is well and good. If it refuses to disarm, we shall disarm it ourselves," was also known to end his love letters to his second wife, Nadya, with the adorable sendoff, "My kisses! Your Joseph."
Not many of Stalin’s letters survive, but, according to Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar author Simon Sebag Montefiore, we do know that the notes were trafficked by Soviet secret police and that the two were rarely out of touch for long. In the letters, he would call her by her pet name, Tatochka, but unlike Napoleon’s attempts to contact a seemingly indifferent Josephine, Nadya’s responses were far more loving: "I am kissing you passionately just as you kissed me when we were saying goodbye!"
But the relationship was also fiery, with the couple arguing often and Nadya threatening to leave Stalin and take their children with her. In November 1932, the morning after the couple had a blow-up at a party, Nadya was found dead of a gunshot wound that was allegedly self-inflicted.
5. King Henry VIII’s Extramarital Love Letters to Anne Boleyn
A line fit for a king: "And to cause you yet oftener to remember me, I send you, by the bearer of this [letter], a buck killed late last night by my own hand, hoping that when you eat of it you may think of the hunter."
Sending a freshly killed buck unannounced to your mistress may result in a restraining order in modern times, but when King Henry VIII sent one to Anne Boleyn via messenger circa 1527, she knew she was officially being courted by the most powerful man in the land. At the time the letter (and venison) arrived, Henry was still technically married to Catherine of Aragon, his first wife—but since she couldn’t produce a male heir for the king, his eye started to wander to Anne. The two exchanged letters for years as they waited for the marriage to be dissolved. (It took the establishment of the Church of England to make that happen.)
When Henry's letters weren’t humblebragging about his latest kill, they were surprisingly poignant and vulnerable for a man notorious for settling his disputes in the Tower of London. Often, Henry would anxiously profess his love while fretting that Anne wasn't reciprocating his feelings.
"It is absolutely necessary for me to obtain this answer, having been for above a whole year stricken with the dart of love, and not yet sure whether I shall fail of finding a place in your heart and affection."
After all that wooing, Henry and Anne’s marriage would go on to last just three years. Unable to bear him a male heir—just like Catherine—Henry’s eyes wandered yet again. To annul the marriage he once sought so desperately, Henry had charges of alleged adultery and conspiracy levied against Anne, who was executed in May 1536.
6. George H.W. Bush’s Verbose Letters to Barbara
Most touching lines: "I love you, precious, with all my heart and to know that you love me means my life. How often I have thought about the immeasurable joy that will be ours some day. How lucky our children will be to have a mother like you."
All the love letters George H.W. Bush wrote to his future wife, Barbara, during his time serving in World War II are lost, except for this one from December 1943, just months after becoming engaged. The letter paints a picture of a 19-year-old desperate to return home to his new fiancée but still duty-bound to the war. And coming in at over 500 words, it’s clear the young Bush had a lot to say.
“As the days go by the time of our departure draws nearer. For a long time I had anxiously looked forward to the day when we would go aboard and set to sea. It seemed that obtaining that goal would be all I could desire for some time, but, Bar, you have changed all that. I cannot say that I do not want to go — for that would be a lie. We have been working for a long time with a single purpose in mind, to be so equipped that we could meet and defeat our enemy. I do want to go because it is my part, but now leaving presents itself not as an adventure but as a job which I hope will be over before long. Even now, with a good while between us and the sea, I am thinking of getting back. This may sound melodramatic, but if it does it is only my inadequacy to say what I mean. Bar, you have made my life full of everything I could ever dream of — my complete happiness should be a token of my love for you.”
And when he wasn’t writing to Barbara, he was writing about Barbara. Existing letters H.W. wrote to his mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, are littered with effusive declarations of love for his young beau. "[I] miss Bar something terrific but I suppose it's only natural," he wrote. "It's really agony—so close and yet so far away."
7. Winston Churchill’s Timeless Letters to His Wife, Clementine
Most romantic lines: "Time passes swiftly, but is it not joyous to see how great and growing is the treasure we have gathered together, amid the storms and stresses of so many eventful and, to millions, tragic and terrible years?"
The British Bulldog’s gruff exterior may have played great on the world stage, but in the privacy of pen and paper, Winston Churchill proved himself a loving, sentimental husband to wife Clementine. The two were engaged in 1908, after just four months of courtship, and a handful of their letters to each other survive to this day.
In an early note from September 1909, Winston wrote, "Sweet cat—I kiss your vision as it rises before my mind. Your dear heart throbs often in my own. God bless you darling keep you safe & sound." The letter is accompanied by a drawing of a galloping pug—"pug" being the nickname Clementine had for Winston. For Winston, Clementine was his "cat."
The couple’s 56-year marriage remained loving as the decades moved along, through world wars and through peace. In a 1935 letter, Churchill summed it up simply: "What it has been to me to live all these years in your heart and companionship no phrases can convey."
A version of this article was originally published in 2020; it has been updated for 2022.