David Wallace’s parents migrated from Kentucky to Independence, Missouri in 1833 and were among its earliest settlers. In 1869, Benjamin Wallace, the future First Lady’s paternal grandfather, was elected mayor. Elected to represent one of the districts of Jackson County, he then served in the Missouri legislature. In that position, he was able to get his fourteen-year old son David Wallace the job of a state senate clerk. In 1878, David Wallace used his own Democratic Party connections to get himself appointed as Independence Missouri’s Deputy Recorder of Marriage licenses, the position he held at the time of his own marriage.
His imploring of President Grover Cleveland in 1885 for the position of collector of the Kansas City Customs House was denied. In 1888 and 1890 he was elected as Jackson County treasurer but remained unemployed for a year once his second stint ended in 1892. In 1893, Wallace was successful in lobbying President Cleveland and was finally awarded the patronage position of Deputy Surveyor and Clerk at the Kansas City Customs House.
Affable and kind, David Wallace held steadfastly onto a vision of himself in politics, but both timing, in terms of the political climate at various points he was pushing for higher positions, and his personal habit of heavy drinking worked against him ever achieving this.
As a young woman, Madge Gates attended local public schools and then the private Independence Female College in 1875. Taking an additional independent course of music study with local piano teacher Madge Scott, she then left Independence in 1881 for a year of study at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.
Madge Wallace was the daughter of George Porterfield Gates, co-founder of the local Waggoner-Gates Milling Company, a successful business that made the family extremely wealthy by regional standards. It was George Gates who commissioned the famous "gingerbread" Victorian mansion that would always be associated with Bess Wallace and later Harry Truman.
After the sale of their home, the young family relocated to a second home located just two blocks away from the mansion owned by Madge Wallace’s parents. As the first grandchild in the Gates clan, Bess Wallace was the center of attention from her two maternal aunt and two maternal uncles, Maud, Myra, Walter and Franklin. Despite the fact that her parents had their own nearby home, young Bess Wallace spent much of her developing years in the home of her grandparents.
Irish, English. Bess Truman's paternal Wallace ancestors came from Ireland to the U.S. in the 1700's. Her maternal grandmother was an orphan immigrant from England.
Bess Truman stood five feet, four inches tall; dark blonde hair that turned gray early in her married years, blue eyes. She had a stout appearance, but was in excellent health. After discovering she had high blood pressure, she regulated her life to reduce it.
Local Public School, Independence, Missouri, 1891-1897: Bess Wallace was a classmate of her future husband starting in the fifth grade. They became more familiar with one another as part of a small circle of students who were privately tutored in Latin.
Independence High School, Independence, Missouri, 1898-1901: Apart from excelling at her studies while in high school, Bess Wallace’s physical agility first manifested, with especially strong arms, which she put to good use as star of the school’s girls tennis team, and also pitching in baseball games being played by her brothers and their male friends, casting a long reel while fishing, and rowing oars in a boat with friends. She graduated in the same class as her future husband. During these years, Miss Wallace also took lessons at Miss Dunlap’s Dance Academy and demonstrated her skill for the polka, waltz and reel on the dance floor at Saturday night gatherings hosted in wealthy, private homes. She was also a skilled horsewoman. Her lifelong love of large and varied hats also began while she was of high school age.
Miss Barstow's School, Kansas City, 1901-1903: Bess Wallace attended what was then often called a "finishing school," but which also served as a course of transitional training for many women intent on then pursing college educations. There, Bess Wallace studied language and literature, earning the highest marks possible in French and rhetoric. Her physical prowess continued, as she assumed the forward position on the women’s basketball team and won the prize for shot-put as part of a track meet.
Bess Wallace had hoped to attend college upon her high school graduation in 1901, but her father’s debts prevented him from underwriting her tuition at even a local institution. She briefly considered becoming a schoolteacher but did not pursue it.
Bess Truman’s mother felt herself under great emotional strain given the ongoing financial uncertainty of her husband’s employment and the death of her three-year old daughter Madeline created enormous stress. Mrs. Wallace began taking lengthy vacations away from home with her younger sister Maud Wells, wife of a successful banker and began relinquishing household and parenting responsibilities to her eldest child, daughter Bess.
The suicide of her father, As Bess Wallace matured, the instability caused by her father’s growing debts and imminent loss of their home ended in tragedy. In the early morning of 17 June 1903, the Wallace household awoke to the sound of a single gunshot and the horror of David Wallace’s suicide.
Early Managerial Skills
Following the suicide of her father, Bess Wallace, her mother and brother lived for a year in Colorado Springs, Colorado. When they returned they moved in with her maternal grandparents. It would be the home of Bess Truman for the rest of her life.
Once her mother became widowed, she gradually ceded management of the household to Bess Wallace, forcing the young woman to develop an administrative efficiency often overlooked, but clearly manifested in her later management of the White House household budgets and other mundane matters without any need for advice.
While the societal shame then cast around families with a member who had committed suicide did make Bess Wallace more reticent, it did not inhibit her socialization. She went on to organize a group of women friends into a bridge club and joined another one that undertook study and discussion of various cultural topics. Miss Wallace also signed up with the local branch of the Needlework Guild, sewing clothing for the disadvantaged, an organized to which other First Ladies including Frances Cleveland and Edith Roosevelt belonged.
Dating Harry Truman
It was nearly a decade after they had graduated from high school together that Harry Truman and Bess Wallace again saw each other. In 1910, claiming to have first fallen in love the first time he ever saw her while they were just children in Sunday school, he was eager for the chance to return a cake plate that his cousins had borrowed from the Wallace family, who lived across the street. At the time, Truman had returned to work on his family’s farm, after holding a series of clerical jobs with the railroad, a bank and a newspaper. He devotedly returned to Independence on weekends to spend time hiking and fishing with her. She turned down his first marriage proposal in 1911, but two years later agreed to marry him.
Bess Wallace’s ambivalence has been attributed to the harsh disapproval of Truman that her mother would maintain throughout her lifetime, based solely on her perception that, having come from a lower working-class background, no degree of achievement would permit him to rise to her family’s higher social status. To what degree she truly believed this cannot be known, but also at play was her intention to keep her adult children within her control, having convinced her wealthy father to build homes for her sons George and Frank on the adjoining property as each married, thus creating a Wallace family compound. At what point Bess Wallace openly defied her mother’s willfulness is unclear, but by 1917 she was committed enough to Truman that she invested money in his brief venture into oil drilling that her grandfather loaned her. Later that year, with the U.S. entry into World War I, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Despite her desire that they marry before he left for the front, he convinced her that they should wait until he returned, in case he returned with a permanent injury.
World War I:
Bess Wallace and Harry Truman maintained a long-distance romantic correspondence with each other while he was stationed in Europe during the war. In Independence during the war, Bess Wallace was acting as a leader in the promotion of Liberty bonds, conducting her sales throughout the city door-to-door. She joined the organizing committee planning local activities for visits by soldiers stationed in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Like millions of people around the world, she was struck by the dangerous Spanish flu with an especially virulent case that would leave her with partial deafness.
34 years old, on 28 June, 1919, Independence, Missouri, to Harry S. Truman, World War I veteran, salesman, (born 8 May 1884, Lamar, Missouri, died 26 December 1972, Kansas City, Missouri).
The Trumans made a honeymoon trip to Lake Huron, Michigan, Chicago and Detroit. At the insistence of Madge Wallace, the newlyweds moved into the Gates Mansion, unable to know at the time that for the rest of their lives, it would remain their permanent home.
One daughter; Mary Margaret Truman, 17 February 1924, Independence, Missouri. After suffering two miscarriages, at the age of thirty years old, Bess Truman gave birth to her only child in the Gates-Wallace Mansion.
Professional Work Experience:
In every aspect of whatever professional or political position Harry Truman held, Bess Truman worked as his partner in both unsalaried and salaried jobs.
Manager, Accountant, Truman-Jacobsen Haberdashery, Kansas City, Missouri, (1919-1922). Unsalaried in all her capacities at the store, Bess Truman also worked as a sales clerk in the endeavor, which he co-owned with his wartime comrade Eddie Jacobsen. She also managed all the records of inventory, sales, returns, taxes, profits and loss, and also took charge of the advertising, selling ads in newspapers and conceived of them creating a large window sign to attract street traffic. Due to an economic depression in 1920, the store failed. Instead of declaring bankruptcy, the Trumans arranged to pay off their debt share over a period of years, leading them to develop frugal living and spending habits.
Advisor, Aide to County Judge, eastern district of Jackson County, Missouri, (1922-1924). Overcoming misgivings related to memories of her father’s failed effort to make a career in politics and the fact that Truman was being placed in nomination for the position of county judge by the corrupt political boss Thomas J. Pendergast, Bess Truman urged him to accept the offer to stand as a candidate, relying on her husband’s integrity. Upon his election, it was Mrs. Truman who suggested his move to improve every mile of the county’s public roads; together they drove the roads for inspection and she further urged him into requesting that a county engineer be appointed to oversee what proved to be a successful public works project. She similarly acted on behalf of a county-supported retirement home for indigent senior citizens, resulting in the renovated housing center being held up as an ideal example throughout Missouri. She also served as the practical liaison between him and the constituency, processing requests and suggestions on county matters by correspondence, telephone and in-person.
Advisor, Aide to Presiding Judge of County Court, eastern district of Jackson County, Missouri, (1926-1934). After losing his re-election as county judge, Truman successfully won two consecutive four-year terms as county court judge. During this period, Mrs. Truman continued to work as a scout of sorts to problems and issues that needed addressing in the county. She also regularly explored the local and regional newspapers for information relevant to her husband’s work or news reporting on him. Much of Truman’s success was again related to infrastructure he initiated, including a renovated waterworks, a new courthouse and roadway network. Mrs. Truman wisely had his successes summarized into a pamphlet used for his re-election and the summary of his efforts helped earn him appointments to state and national city planning commission.
Advisor, Aide to U.S. Senator, (1935-1945). Fifteen years into her marriage, at the age of 49, Bess Truman was first exposed to the national political scene and the ensuing public obligations and media scrutiny inherent, when her husband was elected to the United States Senate. She would assume the salaried and unsalaried role of his adviser, speechwriter, and office manager.
Not wanting to have her small family living apart from one another, she kept her ten-year old daughter in her deeply-rooted Missouri life by enrolling her in school there during the fall term and then in Washington, D.C. during the spring term. The Truman trio lived in a large but modest apartment complex and while she had her family’s domestic employer doing the cooking and cleaning in Missouri, the Senator’s wife took care of all household duties herself and especially enjoyed being able to drive her own car.
Bess Truman preferred her life back home in Missouri and when Congressional sessions were over, returned with her daughter to Independence for lengthy stretches. In the same way she had when her husband’s job was in Jackson County, Mrs. Truman continued to give acute attention to concerns of the constituency of Missourians whenever she was back home, reading state and local papers, tipping him off to political news items he was likely to miss.
She developed permanent mistrust for President Franklin Roosevelt when he unsuccessfully sought to maneuver Truman out of seeking a second term as Senator in 1940. Attending rallies with her husband during that campaign, she began her role of writing speeches for her husband, often ensuring that while he maintained his accessible style of speaking that he did not compromise the dignity of his position.
During World War II, with her daughter now a teenager in school in Virginia, Bess Truman largely remained in Washington, D.C. She became more active outside of her family. She joined the Senate Wives Club efforts to aid the Red Cross, and also volunteered at the H Street USO. She also encouraged Truman’s investigation into claims of fraud at national defense plants and military installations, leading to his chairing the Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. It led to his rising national profile, including frequent radio addresses. These Mrs. Truman would critique.
Salaried Senate Staff Aide & Ensuing Controversy
When Senator Truman became the Senate committee chairman, he hired Bess Truman to work as an office clerk. She not only answered constituent mail and edited his committee reports and speeches while he continued to travel the nation in his chairman role, but managed his Senate office. Mrs. Truman also provided a sound advisory role to her husband, reading the Congressional Record daily, serving as an unnamed pro-Truman source for newspaper reporters. Senator Truman needed her effort full-time and hired her as a salaried staff member, using a federal salary appropriation. Within a year her salary rose from $2,280 a year to $4,500.
After Truman's 1944 nomination as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, she was dubbed "Payroll Bess" by Republican Clare Booth Luce, but Truman refused to relent to critics and kept his wife on the payroll, defending her genuine ability and work: "She earns every cent of it. I never make a speech without going over it with her, and I never make a decision unless she is in on it."
1944 Democratic Convention, Truman Nomination as Vice President
In attendance at the 1944 Democratic National Convention with her husband and daughter, Bess Truman had strongly mixed reactions when she learned that her husband had accepted the offer of President Franklin Roosevelt to run as his vice-presidential running mate. She was angry at the possibility of "What if he should die?" she asked him. "Then you would be President." Despite her misgivings, she supported her husband, even participating in a rare radio interview, although she did not actively campaign for him, able to maintain a relatively obscure national profile.
Brief Tenure as Vice President’s Spouse
Bess Truman held the highly visible position of the "Second Lady," as the wives of Vice Presidents were sometimes dubbed, for less than three months. In that brief time, she created no headlines and assumed no prominent role in the capital. The White House Chief Usher at the time even admitted that he did not even know what she looked like.
Death of Roosevelt, Becoming First Lady
When Roosevelt died less than three months after the January 1945 Inauguration, she was overcome not only with grief but fear of what her new role would entail. She and her daughter rushed to the White House on 12 April, several hours after FDR's death to witness Truman's swearing-in as president, in the Cabinet Room. Eleanor Roosevelt promised that she would do anything she could to help Mrs. Truman with her being suddenly thrust into the position of First Lady. Here is a newsreel showing the event:
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60 years old
12 April 1945 - 20 January 1953
Fear of Public Judgment:
Bess Truman had never wanted to be the Vice President's wife, let alone the President's wife. There was nothing about being recognized by strangers or superficial adulation that she found flattering. According to her daughter, however, Bess Truman's fear of public knowledge of her father's suicide was the primary reason she insisted on maintaining a low public profile. In the 1940s there still remained a stigma attached not only to the memory of the individual who had taken their own life but also to their surviving family members.
Conventional in adhering strictly to the upper-middle class societal expectations, Mrs. Truman seemed unable to cope with this ongoing possibility, but less so as a reflection on herself. Her primary concern seemed to have been her daughter and her elderly mother. Bess Truman almost never discussed her father with her daughter to the point where she had to clarify for an unwitting adult Margaret his first and middle name.
Most especially, the new First Lady remained even more keenly protective to her demanding elderly and ailing mother. The spouse of a suicide victim was especially singled out, often blamed as either creating an intolerable situation or failing to intercede. Mrs. Truman lived in fear that emotionally upsetting her mother could have a potentially damaging physical affect on her.
A New Press Policy:
As she returned with the President and Cabinet to Washington from the funeral of President Roosevelt, she asked Labor Secretary Frances Perkins if it was necessary for her to conduct press conferences as Eleanor Roosevelt had; in fact, her predecessor had already scheduled one for them both to appear, as a way of introducing Bess Truman to the reporters. Assured that she could do as she wished, Bess Truman cancelled the press conference and never held one. Nor did she ever grant a full interview as First Lady to a newspaper or magazine.
Although she did respond to submitted written question from the press, her dictated answers were calculated to be cryptic and often sarcastic, reflecting her resentment at even being asked about what clothes she intended to wear to public social functions, considering that a private matter. Eventually, when approached by reporters she knew and trusted, Mrs. Truman might offer a carefully worded response.
Initial Resistance to Public Role:
Several incidents in her first year as First Lady solidified Bess Truman’s instinctive determination to avoid press coverage or more than the most obligatory of public appearances and ceremonial tasks.
Just after the official mourning period for President Roosevelt ended in May of 1945, during what was her first sound and motion picture recorded event as First Lady and soon after seen by millions of Americans in theater newsreels, Mrs. Truman realized how little control a public figure can have over the persona the mass media might convey of them.
In the waning days of World War II, she went to christen two naval medical planes. When she swung the traditional champagne bottle on the nose of the first plane, it repeatedly resisted shattering. Always proud of her physical prowess, she kept trying as the media kept recording the incident. Finally, a serviceman smashed the bottle from below with a hammer, and it was later learned that the bottle had not been properly scored with a cut that would have let it smash upon impact. There was no disparaging analysis of the incident but to Bess Truman her personal dignity had felt compromised, according to her daughter.
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Eager to return to what she assumed would be the relative anonymity of the family home in Independence, Bess Truman discovered that even there she would generate enormous interest. She was shocked to find a startling mob of regional reporters gathered at the local depot when she arrived from Washington, estimated at nearly two hundred.
Inside the "Summer White House," there was chaos, the new First Lady having scheduled an entire renovation of the old mansion and not realizing how the presence of carpenters and painters would intensify her feeling she had lost her privacy. Outside the house was an endless stream of tourists, glaring and shuffling along, hoping to glimpse the new First Lady. Some even felt free to snip her prize tulips and roses.
Everything worsened when the President made a brief stop home, on his way from the west coast to the east coast. Rather than escape the media, her presence in Missouri made her an easier target for the press and public. Resentful, she refused to pose for wire service photographs in front of the house with her husband and daughter.
In Washington, she also discovered that the Secret Service would not permit her to continue driving her own car, and would follow her every move when she left the White House. At least in Missouri, she was able to insist that they not trail her as she went about her mundane tasks. What she could not stop, however, were those bold citizens who might follow her or even snap her photograph as they passed her on the street. She invariably gave them not a smile, but a stone cold glare. In this excerpt of a PBS documentary on Harry Truman, historian David McCullough describes her reaction:
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Charges of Racism:
During Bess Truman’s first year as First Lady one incident had the potential of creating a political controversy. In the autumn of 1945 she accepted an invitation to attend a tea hosted by the Daughters of the American Revolution, seemingly oblivious to the potential controversy doing so might cause, given the organization’s adherence to the city’s racial segregation edict and banning of any but white performers in its Constitution Hall performance center.
The incident might not have generated as much attention as it did had it not been for the fact that, after the First Lady had accepted the invitation, the African-American jazz pianist Hazel Scott had been refused use of the hall for a public concert and the fact that she also happened to be married to the powerful African-American Congressman Adam Clayton Powell.
Part of the story of this incident that has never been included in studies of Bess Truman was he perspective of the Congressman. Roiled that such overt bigotry could continue, Powell prompted a movement to revoke the organization’s tax-exempt status and sought to pressure it into revoking its discriminatory policy by order of the District of Columbia Commission that dictated such matters. The commissioners were appointed by the President and could be removed by him as well. Powell immediately contacted Truman who concurred with the congressman’s argument but before the day was over, the press announced that Mrs. Truman had accepted the DAR invitation. Powell immediately sent a telegram urging the First Lady to rescind it. She refused, writing him that, "I regret that a conflict has arisen for which I am in nowise responsible. In my opinion, my acceptance of the hospitality is not related to the merits of the issue which has since arisen. I deplore any action which denied artistic talent an opportunity to express itself because of prejudice against race or origin."
The First Lady released her letter to the press and then attended the DAR reception. Powell then issued a statement referring to Bess Truman as the "last lady of the land," suggesting that her compliance with the DAR’s invitation amounted to tacit approval of its segregation policy. Angry at the attack on his wife, President Truman refused to ever have the Congressman and his wife invited to any White House events for the remainder of his term. Yet he may have also regretted the failure to coordinate the public response, later issuing a statement deploring such acts of bigotry.
Mrs. Truman’s refusal to either rescind her acceptance of the event or resign from the DAR has also rarely been presented in the larger context of how other public figures reacted. There was bipartisan support when Democratic Congresswomen Helen Gahagan Douglas introduced legislation to revoke the DAR’s tax-exempt status and Republican Congresswoman Clare Booth Luce resigned from the DAR. Both of New York’s U.S. Senators supported the move to deny the DAR its tax status.
Bess Truman received a share of support from conservative women who praised her for being a "retiring, charming and homey First Lady." She also received letters from those, including her lifelong confidante Mary Keeley, who suggested she resign from the organization. The press was uniform in avoiding direct attack on the First Lady, nor did African-American groups or publications, blaming instead the DAR. The controversy was one that dramatically illustrated the risk for political liability created by First Ladies who refused to acknowledge the symbolism of even their small gestures and who gave priority to their personal desires over prevailing public expectations. The pressure led by Powell eventually saw the end of the DAR racial policy, when it permitted African-American Dorothy Maynor to sing in the hall in February of 1952, eleven months before the end of Bess Truman’s tenure as First Lady.
Six years earlier, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had publicly resigned from the DAR and criticized the organization for refusing their auditorium for a concert by African-American opera singer Marian Anderson, a symbolic yet seminal moment of her tenure. In contrast, Bess Truman took the Powell reaction as a personal insult, seemingly refusing to grasp the power of the position she now held. Privately admitting that Powell’s remarks left her "plenty burned up," Bess Truman’s reaction had nothing to do with supporting racial discrimination and everything to do with resentment towards the fate of being thrust into a public role she did not want. In later years, she never reflected on the incident, specifically, or on racial discrimination, generally.
From another perspective, however, Mrs. Truman’s acceptance of the DAR invitation was entirely within the context of her tenure as First Lady. Throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, hundreds of national, regional and local women’s clubs and organizations, with membership based on charitable, civic, professional or social intent, invited her to appear at their events or seek an invitation to be received by her. As her weekly schedules illustrated, she felt it her duty to comply with as many of these requests as possible.
Traditional Hostess and Charitable Leader Role:
Organizing her day with regularity and order from a tiny office area she created on the second floor, near the family rooms, the First Lady planned the most active social life the White House had seen in almost two decades. She revived the traditional winter and spring schedule of dinners and receptions honoring members of different branches of the government. In planning the formal honor of state dinners for the large increase of foreign leaders who came to meet with the President, Mrs. Truman’s menus were plain American food with a fondness for ham and corn dishes, reflecting her Midwestern roots.
Throughout her eight years as First Lady, Bess Truman sponsored charities and causes associated with First Ladies, by opening fairs and sales, or accepting honorary membership or title of honorary chairmanship. She would greet leaders of various voluntary organizations in the White House and pose for photographs that were released to the press, or attended a charity luncheon as a headliner whose presence had helped to sell tickets.
Bess Truman did not have a particular demographic she chose to support but while she did not limit herself by the intention of any specific social problem, all were organizations intended to provide funding for the financially disadvantaged or living with physical challenges. She continued the Roosevelt fundraising efforts for the March of Dimes, which sought to eradicate polio, and provided consistent support for organizations including the Community Chest, the Salvation Army, the Girl Scouts, the Red Cross and Cerebral Palsy.
Postwar Cultural Symbolism:
The end of both a massive economic depression and then international world war inevitably left the United States a changed nation but it was through the return of some customs to life in the nation’s household that helped pervade a perception of its return to "normal life." In this regard, Bess Truman served as an unwitting example.
She went out to a modest hair salon to have her "poodle cut" style fixed weekly, ate supper on the "porch" of the White House’s south portico (and then the famous second-floor balcony installed at her husband’s direction). She handwrote her personal correspondence, including some responses to the public. Spending much of the summertime at her Missouri home, she cultivated her flower garden and even enjoyed grocery shopping for the household.
In the private quarters of the White House, Bess Truman was not above occasionally cooking or cleaning for her own family, although she always had a housekeeper and servants to assist her when she wished. Nothing seemed to symbolize the return to regular, if mundane, life better than the visit by her Independence, Missouri bridge club, a dozen or so middle-aged, middle-class Midwestern housewives whose week of activities in Washington were covered by the press.
The Trumans also reflected some aspects of the so-called "Latin craze" that had a moment in the popular culture during the late 1940s. After becoming First Lady, Mrs. Truman arranged to relocate from a hotel to the White House her weekly Spanish language classes with other Washington women, including Mamie Eisenhower. The First Lady also joined in the preparation of an elaborate Cuban cuisine feast, using the White House kitchen and overseen by the class instructor. Among her favorite band leaders of the era was Xavier Cugat, a native of Cuba who helped popularize the mambo and was chosen to perform for guests at one of the 1949 Truman Inaugural Balls. Mrs. Truman’s interest in Latin culture also prompted her to take a trip to Cuba without the President and to Brazil with him (see Foreign Trips below)
Presidential Confidante & Adviser:
Whenever they were apart, Harry Truman wrote detailed and affectionate letters to his wife, giving her inside observations and political assessments of figures such as England's Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. She evidently destroyed any of her written responses.
When they were both in residence in Washington, Bess Truman spent about two hours every evening with the president, reviewing his speeches, schedule and policy decisions. Precisely what advice she gave him or suggestions she made are speculative and uncertain, accountable only by the informed opinion of those close to them at the time, since there was no documentation generated when the couple was meeting together. It is known that she dismissed widespread speculation that he would name a prominent editor as his press secretary, and successfully recommended that he instead name their former schoolmate Charlie Ross, St. Louis Post-Dispatch Washington editor. There is circumstantial evidence that she also sought to use her influence with the President to intervene on behalf of individuals who appealed to her for help in dire situations, as illustrated in one letter to a Charlie Tucker seeking to have a friend and his wife safely returned from a threatening but unspecified international situation; her letter also suggests Tucker helped facilitate installment of a controversial freezer she was given (see Diffused Scandals below).
As disclosed by Sara L. Sale in her biographical overview, Bess Wallace Truman: Harry’s White House "Boss," Mrs. Truman never sought to contradict a decision if the President made it resolutely, but when he wavered between options, she made the case for what she believed to be the most sensible choice. Having followed the growth of the Arabia-American Oil Company, for example, she knew well of the Saudi Arabian king’s plans for regional development and desire to obtain a U.S. Import-Export Bank loan to develop a railroad. After seeking the First Lady’s advice, the President endorsed approval of the $10 million loan.
The Atomic Bomb, Truman Doctrine & Marshall Plan:
Bess Truman provided reliable, informed and professional advice that gave the President confidence in his decisions to initiate monumental postwar foreign policy. Circumstances placed Harry Truman in the role of making some of the most momentous global decisions of the twentieth century. Truman declared to reporter Marianne Means in 1962, that he never made an important decision without first seeking the advice and reaction of his wife.
Although their daughter would later claim otherwise, Truman affirmed to Means that he had consulted her on the dropping of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, which led to the Japanese surrender and end of World War II. Bess Truman later defended his decisions, affirming that it ultimately saved the lives of countless other Japanese and Americans from an otherwise expected land war.
Perhaps the First Lady’s most consequential participation was in editing portions of the March 1947 speech in which the President outlined his Truman Doctrine. Bess Truman added the important point that if the U.S. failed to affirm a policy supporting fragile democracies against the domination of the communist Soviet Union, as seemed fearfully imminent in postwar Greece and Turkey, it would have dire consequences for the West. It led to the approval of $400 million in aid to the two struggling nations. Guided by her sense of morality and compassionate, she also urged immediate action by the U.S. to financially rescue postwar Europe, struggling with debt, before it collapsed in bankruptcy.
Conscious of the likely resistance for approval of this by the Republican Senate if it had strong partisan association with President Truman, she suggested the legislation asking for $17 billion for postwar European recovery carry the name of the Secretary of State who had prepared the report detailing the danger, General George Marshall. The President followed her suggestion and the first installment of what came to be known as The Marshall Plan was approved in April of 1948.
Postwar World Charitable Work:
Following the end of World War II in August of 1945, Bess Truman signed a "housewife's pledge" of voluntary food rationing in the White House, setting an example for other Americans to limit their consumption so as to permit food donations to be sent to the many devastated populations of postwar Europe, in short supply of basic food staples.
Mrs. Truman also eagerly lent her name in support of, and showed interest in two efforts by the Girl Scouts intended to alleviate the massive global deprivation experienced by children in Europe and Japan at the war’s end: Clothes for Friendship endeavor that created 100,000 clothing kits yielding ten sets of clothes per child, and the Schoolmates Overseas program that donated school bags filled with supplies to the children.
First Lady’s Staff:
Despite the postwar increase of White House social events, Bess Truman was able to manage her social schedule and the details of entertaining with the help only of Edith Helm, who continued in the role of Social Secretary from the Roosevelt years. Edith Helm also served as the conduit between the First Lady and the Washington women reporters who covered the White House and First Ladies, functioning as a rudimentary Press Secretary. From April of 1945 until January of 1949, Mrs. Truman relied on the secretarial services of Reathel Odum, who had first been employed in the office of Senator Truman and was thus a working colleague of Bess Truman when she was employed there.
The 1948 Campaign:
According to their daughter, when Harry Truman ran for re-election in 1948, Bess Truman viewed his chances with pessimism. However, others are of the opinion that the First Lady’s strong competitive streak, marital loyalty and belief in her husband’s superior leadership qualities suggest that she believed he would win and must thus make the strongest effort to do so. One former aide believed that it was Mrs. Truman who coaxed her husband into undertaking a month-long cross-country whistle-stop railroad campaign tour.
While his aides wrote drafts of his speeches, the First Lady was included among them in strategy sessions intended to focus the candidate’s evolving messages across the country. When the prepared speeches were given to the President, the First Lady would review these, outlining them into simpler notes he could use while speaking to crowds. She gave especial attention to ensuring that the language was simple for average Americans to grasp, though she was also known to reprimand him when he extemporaneously used what she considered strong language. Too, she watched crowds to determine what phrases and fact they best responded to.
Despite her dislike of public appearances, the First Lady also became part of the whistle-stop campaign routine, introduced by the President at the conclusion of his remarks as "the boss" on the back platform. Mrs. Truman was sensitive to criticism of her husband and was known to keep at least one governor from joining the train because of his earlier belittling of the President. She was also sensitive to the way she was perceived, particularly when Republican Clare Booth Luce derided her as an "ersatz first lady." While she did not look forward to another four years in the spotlight, she was jubilant when her husband won the election and even handed him the newspaper carrying the premature headline of "Dewey Defeats Truman" when a reporter suggested he pose holding it up.
The 1949 Inauguration:
The 1949 Presidential Inauguration was the most elaborate and well-executed one held to that time and became the prototype for all future ones, with various receptions honoring different constituencies and multiple inaugural balls. At the 1949 Inaugural Parade, when Truman friend, the actress Tallulah Bankhead booed South Carolina's U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond, who had bolted the Democratic Party to run against Truman as the racial segregationist candidate, Bess Truman cheered on her gesture.
Unlike Eleanor Roosevelt who made three international trips as First Lady without the President, Bess Truman made only one independent day trip to a foreign country, a pleasure cruise with her daughter to the island of Cuba, sailing there in the presidential yacht from the presidential retreat in Key West, Florida. Made in December of 1948, following her husband’s grueling re-election campaign, she was the guest of the Cuban First Lady but participated in no public events. Here is silent footage of her trip:
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She also joined the President and their daughter on a one-week trip to Brazil in the first week of September of 1947. On the voyage home, Mrs. Truman joined in the traditional merrymaking when passengers crossed the international dateline.
In contrast to their recent predecessors, Harry and Bess Truman strove to maintain an extremely close relationship with their adult child. In some respects, Margaret Truman became a third member of their relationship, and, at times, the President confided in her as much as he did to his wife. Each one was kept informed about and involved in the daily lives of the other two, and their letters reflect this unusual degree of emotional intimacy.
Unaccustomed to such closeness, members of the White House household staff nicknamed the First Family "the Three Musketeers," and one of the most popular anecdotes about them was how a waiter entering the dining room to serve them a meal found the President, First Lady and First Daughter all throwing little balls of bread at one another around the table.
Previous presidential daughters who had played a central role in their father’s presidencies had usually done so when their mothers had either died or were too ill or disinterested in assuming the public aspects of the role. In the case of Margaret Truman, however, she became a constant companion to her mother during the initial period of the administration, often doing the speaking for cameras and visibly enjoying the attention she received, in contrast to her mother.
By 1949, Mrs. Truman had developed enough confidence in making public appearances on her own, permitting Margaret Truman to pursue her long-held intention of a professional singing career in New York City.
At the same time, the First Lady determined to move her invalid mother from their Missouri home to come live in the White House, where regular nursing care managed her deteriorating condition. Mrs. Wallace became the first presidential mother-in-law to take up full-time residency in the White House, making it her home throughout the final four years of the Truman Administration.
Renovation of the White House, 1949-1952:
In 1948, when it was learned that the old mansion was in danger of collapsing, the Trumans had to immediately vacate the premises. A debate ensued as to how best address the problem. There were some who suggested the house should be torn down and a new replica built in its stead. Bess Truman believed strongly that although it might be more expensive, it was important to preserve at least the four walls of the original house and have it serve as the shell for a modern, structurally sound presidential mansion.
This was the solution chosen. The Trumans relocated to the double-house complex across Pennsylvania Avenue, the Lee-Blair House, and lived there from 1948 to 1952. When the Trumans moved back into the newly completed White House, now with air-conditioning throughout the rooms, Bess Truman was said to have expressed some disappointment in the loss of the feel of the old house. She did not make extensive decorating decisions since it was a foregone conclusion that Truman would not be seeking another term and the family would occupy the new White House for only a few months.
The Blair-Lee House was smaller than the White House and required breaking what had usually been one large reception into several smaller ones, scheduled in sequence. Initially, she had resisted relocating there, believing it should remain a government guest house for visiting foreign leaders. In time, she came to especially appreciate its more private nature and the fact that the public was given no access to it.
Bess Truman was not in harm's way when two Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire at the entrance to the Blair-Lee House, in an attempt to assassinate President Truman in November 1950. As a result, however, her movements became even more limited by security concerns. When she had first become First Lady, she had even been permitted to still drive her own car, a privilege she had to forego for the duration of her tenure.
Bess Truman was implicated in a brief and minor political scandal during her husband's Administration. In 1949, it was learned that the President's military aide Harry Vaughan had accepted a $375 deep freezer for the First Lady from a Chicago firm seeking federal contracts. Senator Clyde Hoey opened congressional hearings on the contractor, but as the role of Bess Truman was investigated, it was found she had simply accepted it as a routine gift and was cleared of wrongdoing.
No less a person than the sharp anti-Truman critic, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, then leading a rabid anti-Communist campaign, praised Bess Truman, declaring she was "the only good thing about the White House."
In the waning Truman Administration, as part of McCarthy’s assertion that communists had infiltrated the ranks of U.S. State Department employees came an effort to determine those believed to be gay and terminate their employment on the claim they were vulnerable to blackmail by Soviet interests. The suicide of State Department employee John C. Montgomery is attributed to this "witch hunt." A close friend of Margaret Truman, he hung himself in the home he shared with attorney Martin Braverman, who she identified as her boyfriend and who, newspaper articles recorded as her steady companion during her father’s presidency.
Press coverage labeled Montgomery as a "bachelor by choice," and implied that he took his own life due to "personal reasons." The seemingly rapid investigation by local police prompted an initial congressional inquiry into his background but was abruptly halted. Montgomery hung himself four days after Truman left office. To what degree Mrs. Truman knew about the life of her daughter’s friend is unknown. A suggestion that his suicide may indicate his job was "protected" until the Administration ended, warrants further study. The Trumans issued no statement upon word of the incident.
The Korean War:
According to one credible source, Bess Truman affirmed her husband’s decision to commit American troops to the conflict that split the nation of Korea, supporting troops from the south in fighting off incursion from the north, back by Communist China. She was said to have offered a "warning that if the free world did not stop the North Korean communists, it could lead to World War III." With American entry into the Korean conflict in 1950, Bess Truman sponsored Red Cross and other voluntary aid efforts to benefit servicemen.
For the last two of her eight years as First Lady, Bess Truman especially enjoyed hosting afternoon receptions at Blair House for the returning servicemen from the Korean War. She also vigorously defended Truman's controversial decision to fire General Douglas MacArthur in 1951 for insubordination.
Influence on Government Programs:
There are two known examples of Mrs. Truman urging the undertaking of federal initiatives. According to their daughter, Bess Truman was responsible for the approval and funding of a cultural exchange program with the Soviet Union. After meeting with Florence Mahoney, an advocate for a national center leading the "war" on fatal diseases such as cancer, Mrs. Truman successfully advocated that the President commit to increasing research funding on cancer and other serious diseases in the federal budgets of 1949, 1950, 1951 and 1952. With her reminder to include the funding in his annual proposal, she helped empower the fledgling National Institute of Health as it went from a mere $2 million budget to one of $46 million.
Her measured opinion is believed to have been the key factor in leading the President to appoint Fred Vinson as Chief Justice of the United States in 1946. Although Vinson was a friend and former congressional colleague of Truman and his wife was a close friend to Bess Truman, it had been his judicial experience and temperament, which led the First Lady to endorse him.
From her own family’s longtime loyalty to the Missouri Democratic Party through her husband’s presidency and post-presidency, Bess Truman proved to be highly partisan in her political views. Apart from the predictable camaraderie to be expected of a political spouse towards those of her husband’s political allies, anecdotal evidence gleaned from private letters, photographs, news stories and oral histories suggests that she maintained strong lines of communication with individuals who served as advisers to the President. These included, but were not limited to such high-profile figures such as Adlai Stevenson, U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Averell Harriman, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, and presidential adviser Clark Clifford.
Her personal views on political issues were aligned with the more conservative wing of the Democratic Party. Bess Truman strongly disliked the maverick nature of liberal Democrat and Commerce Secretary Henry Wallace, and found his making a foreign policy speech at odds with the State Department to be a sign of his insubordination to the President. Her support of the President’s consideration to fire Wallace is believed to have been the crucial factor in his finally doing so in 1946.
At her core as a person, Bess Truman had a subtle but striking feminist sensibility. Working with India Edwards, the National Democratic Committee women’s division executive director, the First Lady encouraged the effort to place qualified women in appointive executive positions within the network of federal commissions and departments in banking, defense, security, justice, foreign affairs. While Harry Truman was resistant to naming a woman to his Cabinet, he did support the Equal Rights Amendment, as did Bess Truman.
In raising a daughter as her only child, Bess Truman avidly encouraged her to obtain a college degree, and then pursue her talents in a series of professional careers as a singer, actress and writer. She took great pride in her daughter’s accomplishments and showed her solid support by attending her concerts and theatrical productions and reading her books. Mrs. Truman’s perspective on issues of women’s personal choices reflected both conservative and liberal views, suggesting to her daughter that she supported birth control yet maintaining her belief that divorce was too easily obtainable.
The 1952 Election:
The First Lady was visibly thrilled when, in March 1952, her husband publicly announced that he was retiring from politics and would not seek or accept his party’s nomination for what would have been only a second term of his own (having fulfilled FDR’s incomplete term from 1945 to 1949). She implored him against seeking another term, especially as Truman grew concerned during a brief period early in the election year that there was no credible Democratic candidate and wanted to reconsider his decision.
Bess Truman's last month as First Lady was overshadowed by the final illness and death of her mother in the White House. The press and the public were never permitted to have a genuine glimpse of the character and personality of Bess Truman as First Lady. She remained sedate in appearance and cryptic in her few remarks. Only later, as accounts from White House staff, friends and family began to appear in print did her generosity, sensitivity and wit emerge for the public.
Life After the White House:
Return to Private Life:
When her husband’s presidency ended on 20 January 1953, Bess Truman would begin nearly thirty years of life after the White House, twenty of them with her husband and the last ten without him. She would see parts of the world she never had, yet remain where she had always been happiest, in her home and community of Independence, Missouri. She was also relieved that her husband, who had a tendency to overwork to the point of physical exhaustion, was in good health.
Bess Truman was openly relieved to discover that she was able to resume the routine lifestyle she had enjoyed before the presidency. She finally had the freedom to move about, in stores, restaurants and other public arenas without being singled out. She returned to joining her weekly bridge club for card games, shopping for weekly groceries, attending Kansas City Royals baseball games or tuning in to watch the ball games and also wrestling matches on television, and relished being able to slip off to fish for local trout.
Later in 1953, she especially enjoyed exploring the Hawaiian Islands after a cruise there with her husband and daughter. She and the former president went to Europe for six weeks in 1956, their first trip there together. They returned again two years later. Following the marriage of their daughter and birth of four grandsons, Harry and Bess Truman made frequent trips to see them in New York and the three generations would vacation together at the former president’s favorite winter respite of Key West.
Especially relishing the fact that she could again drive her own car, Bess Truman was startled when the national news began reporting the fact that she and the former president were driving themselves from Missouri to the east coast while their adventure was still in progress.
Six years after leaving the White House, Bess Truman became the first known of three women who had served as First Lady to learn she had breast cancer and survive; undergoing a mastectomy; the 1959 surgery being conducted discreetly and not being reported to the general public.
Only Television Interview:
Bess Truman granted her only television interview on 27 May 1955, on the CBS television show, "Person to Person." Along with the former president, she was asked personal questions by their daughter Margaret who was substituting for the regular host, Edward R. Murrow; the show is the only lengthy audio-visual recording of Bess Truman.
During the broadcast, her banter with Margaret Truman finally revealed for the public the trademark dry wit that only those close to the former First Lady had known about. Asked if she would not like to make any political comments, generally or specifically, Mrs. Truman quipped, "No, not in either category thank you." Her daughter did reveal during the interview that her mother was acting as the editor of the former president’s memoirs. Here are excepts from the only known television interview granted by Bess Truman:
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Truman Library & Museum:
At the time, he was also overseeing the conception and execution of his presidential library and museum; it was a process that Bess Truman left to him. Once it was dedicated, the former president would appear daily to work in his office there, but she worked from a desk in their home, where she would personally respond to each incoming letter from the public.
While Bess Truman would appear at her husband’s office whenever he was granting a television interview she adamantly refused to speak or even appear on camera with him, preferring to sit quietly in the room watching and listening to him.
Claim of Anti-Semitism:
In the winter of 1961, producer David Susskind was producing a series of televised interviews with the former President and appeared each morning at his home, the door answered by the former First Lady who opened the front door but let him wait in the cold vestibule (not the front porch as has been reported) until she could alert her husband of his presence. Asking why he was never invited to wait inside the rooms of the house, Susskind claimed that Truman responded, "You're a Jew, David, and no Jew has ever been in the house. David, this is not the White House – it's the Wallace house. Bess runs it, and there's never been a Jew inside the house in her or her mother's lifetime."
Several facts mitigate the Susskind charge that Bess Truman was anti-Semitic. For six weeks in 1958, when Bess Truman and the former President sailed the Atlantic and travelled extensively through Europe, it was in the close companionship of their friends, Samuel Irving Rosenman and his wife, Dorothy Ruben Rosenman. They shared accommodations and meals during the voyage and visited tourist sites and government officials together. A Jewish, liberal Democrat, Rosenman had served as President Truman’s Special Counsel, adviser and speechwriter, penning his 1948 acceptance speech. In his oral history for the Truman Library, Rosenman makes no suggestion of anti-Semitism.
Among the very few events Bess Truman agreed to attend where she would be honored along with her husband, was an October 6, 1955 United Jewish Appeal fundraising luncheon in Boston. Given her strong disinclination to be the focus of attention or leave her Missouri home, her motivation to attend this event would have had to be considerable. While private letters written by her husband as late as 1958 include disparaging remarks about the Jewish people, no such remarks have been even anecdotally associated with her.
In a book published in 1976, Bluma Jacobsen, wife of Truman’s former haberdashery partner, did state for the record that neither she nor her husband were ever invited inside the house because of Madge Wallace’s anti-Semitism but never suggested it was a view shared by her daughter. It may be that Mrs. Truman adhering to household rules instigated by her mother (who remained the owner of the property until her death), led observers to conclude she was in accord with them. Although Susskind’s visit took place in 1961, a decade after Madge Wallace’s death, the story did not come to light until decades after his own 1987 death. There were no others present to corroborate what happened or what was said.
Finally, following her husband’s death, among the very few people who were not family members or close friends that Bess Truman entertained in the house was Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was Jewish. The May 14, 1975 Kissinger visit was not one made to simply serve politically partisan purposes, since he was a Republican. He remembered it as a "warm and friendly meeting" in her living room and that Mrs. Truman, rather than a servant, served him and his wife refreshments.
Relationship with Other First Ladies:
Among her five predecessors alive when Bess Truman became First Lady, however, she best knew Eleanor Roosevelt and Edith Wilson. The trio had all shared the same Social Secretary, Edith Helm, and appeared together at a book party held in her honor, as well as other large national Democratic Party gatherings. Mrs. Roosevelt attended the dedication of the Truman Library and Mrs. Truman attended her 1962 funeral, joined by incumbent First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and future First Lady Lady Bird Johnson.
By coincidence, two First Ladies best known as avid baseball fans, Bess Truman and Grace Coolidge attended the same game, seated just several rows apart from each other. On one occasion during her tenure as First Lady, Mrs. Truman met Frances Cleveland Preston.
Despite the overt hostility that existed between Harry Truman and his immediate successor Dwight D. Eisenhower, their wives continued to maintain their friendly relationship. By 1974, after both women were widowed, Mamie Eisenhower made an annual drive from her Pennsylvania home to the presidential library and burial place of her late husband in Abilene, Kansas; passing near Independence, she always called on Bess Truman.
Excited by the return of Democrats to the White House in 1960, Bess Truman issued a statement in support of young Jacqueline Kennedy, confident that she would succeed as First Lady. Mrs. Kennedy also declared her emulation of Bess Truman for not permitting media exposure to alter the values with which she raised her young adult child.
Mrs. Truman joined her husband in accepting an invitation from the Kennedys to stay overnight at the White House where they were also honored with a private dinner. Following the Kennedy assassination, Bess Truman wrote a personal sympathy note to Mrs. Kennedy, but did not attend the Kennedy funeral. Here is a newsreel of the Truman visit:
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She was also on good terms with the Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, and joined in a 30 July 1965 ceremony with them and her husband, when the President came to present the Trumans with the first two membership cards entitling them to Medicare coverage. Like her husband, she remained supportive of the LBJ Vietnam War policy. She was also present to greet Richard and Pat Nixon, when they came to see the Trumans in 1969. Bess Truman strongly supported the Nixon Administration's mining of Haiphong Harbor.
Bess Truman's last appearance at a public event was the funeral of her husband in December of 1972. Despite her determination to remain out of the public spotlight, the widow maintained an active life in her beloved hometown. Even as health setbacks limited her mobility, she frequented local restaurants and entertained many friends and relatives at dinners and parties in her home. While unable to attend Kansas City Royals baseball games, she rooted for them and never missed watching them play on television. In her last years, she spent many hours a day devouring murder mysteries, and her daughter eventually became known for a murder mystery book series under her name.
Bess Truman did extend herself into the political realm by reaching out to local and state candidates she supported and offering to lend her name in support of their campaigns, including those for the U.S. Senate of Thomas Eagleton and Stuart Symington, Jr.
Although she remained loyal to the Democratic Party, she welcomed President Gerald Ford and his wife Betty when they briefly visited the Kansas City region in 1976 during his presidential candidacy. It was later suggested that she privately supported his candidacy in 1976, having become disenchanted with the direction of the Democratic Party that year. Betty Ford, long recalling the warmth she received as a new congressional spouse from First Lady Bess Truman, often made reference to her admiration for her predecessor.
Rosalynn Carter made several calls to Bess Truman when the latter’s health began to falter, but her daughter later claimed that she was hurt when she received no birthday wishes from the White House. When her daughter lived in Washington, D.C. in the late 1970s, Bess Truman made a last visit to the city, and toured the White House again by arrangement with a staff member there; the Carters were both away at the time and not given any notice that the former resident would be visiting.
In 1980, she welcomed President Jimmy Carter in her home when he campaigned for re-election in Independence, Missouri but would not issue a statement endorsing his candidacy. To what degree Margaret Truman’s own view of the Carter presidency influenced her quite elderly mother is uncertain. She expressed umbrage when Rosalynn Carter joined Betty Ford and then-incumbent First Lady Nancy Reagan in showing respect for their predecessor by attending her 1982 funeral, claiming she was not invited.
97 years old
18 October 1982
Bess Truman lived longer than any other First Lady.
Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum