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First Lady Biography: Bess Truman

ELIZABETH VIRGINIA "BESS" TRUMAN

Birth:

13 February 1885
Independence, Missouri

Father:

David Willock Wallace, born 15 June 1860, Independence, Missouri, County Treasurer, Deputy Surveyor in U.S. Customs Bureau Kansas City division, died 17 June 1903, Independence, Missouri

Mother:
Margaret (Madge) Gates Wallace, born 4 August 1862, Port Byron, Illinois; married 13 June 1883, Independence, Missouri; died 5 December 1952, The White House, Washington, D.C.

"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 local standards. 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.

Birth Order and Siblings:
Eldest of four; three brothers: Frank Gates Wallace, (4 March 1887 - 12 August 1960), George Porterfield Wallace, (1 May 1892 - 24 May 1963), David Frederick Wallace, (7 January 1900 - 30 September 1957)

Ancestry:
Irish; English; Bess Truman's paternal Wallace ancestors came from Ireland to the U.S. in the 1700's.

Physical Appearance:
Medium height; dark blonde hair, blue eyes

Religious Affiliation:

Born into Presbyterian faith, became Episcopalian

Education:

Local Public School, Independence, Missouri, 1891-1897: Bess Wallace was a classmate of her future husband starting in the fifth grade; Independence High School, Independence, Missouri, 1898-1901: Bess Wallace was a noted athlete in high school, winning many tennis tournaments and also playing shot-put. She graduated in the same class as her future husband; Miss Barstow's School, Kansas City, 1901-1903: Bess Wallace attended the finishing school in nearby Kansas City and studied language and literature.

Occupation Before Marriage:

After the suicide of her father, Bess Wallace took charge of many household decisions for her mother. She maintained a lengthy acquaintance with Harry Truman, whom her mother did not approve of because of his more humble origins. They were engaged in 1917, but waited to marry until he had finished his service in World War I. She briefly considered becoming a school teacher but did not pursue it.

Marriage:

34 years old, on 28 June, 1919, Independence, Missouri, to Harry S. Truman, veteran, haberdasher, (born 8 May 1884, Lamar, Missouri, died 26 December 1972, Kansas City, Missouri)

Children:

1 daughter; Mary Margaret Truman, 17 February 1924, Independence, Missouri

Occupation After Marriage:

Manager, Accountant, Truman-Jacobsen Haberdashery, Kansas City, Missouri, (1919-1922)Unsalaried in all her capacities at the store, Bess Truman also worked as a saleslady in the endeavor, which he co-owned with Eddie Jacobsen.

As Harry Truman rose in local politics as a district county judge (1922-1933), Bess Truman remained at home in the traditional role of wife, mother, housekeeper and caretaker of her mother.

Bess Truman moved with her daughter and husband to Washington, D.C. in 1934, following his election to the U.S. Senate. They lived in a series of small apartments. Bess Truman preferred her life back home in Missouri and when Congressional sessions were over, returned with her daughter to Independence for lengthy stretches. 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.

When Senator Truman became the chairman of the Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, he hired Bess Truman to work as an office clerk, and she answered constituent mail and helped to edit his committee reports. She was federally salaried at $4,500 a year. 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 also provided a sound advisory role to her husband, reading the Congressional Record daily, serving as an unnamed pro-Truman source for newspaper reporters and running his Senate office when he was out of Washington. She mistrusted President Roosevelt on occasion, considered him a wily politician.

Campaign and Inauguration:

In attendance at the 1944 Democratic National Convention with her husband and daughter, Bess Truman was angry when she learned that her husband had accepted the offer of President Franklin Roosevelt to run as his vice-presidential running mate. "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. 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 down 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.

When Harry Truman ran for re-election in 1948, Bess Truman viewed his chances with pessimism. She accompanied him on his famous whistlestop tour, and he developed a routine of introducing her as "the Boss" at the conclusion of his speeches from the back platform. She was known to keep at least one governor from joining the train because of his earlier criticism of Truman. Bess Truman was also known to reprimand her husband when he made what she considered strong language, often spoken in a heated moment.

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 oppose Truman as a Dixiecrat candidate, Bess Truman cheered on her friend.

First Lady:

60 years old
12 April 1945 - 20 January 1953

Bess Truman had never wanted to be the Vice President's wife, let alone the President's wife. According to her daughter, Bess Truman's fear of public knowledge of her father's suicide was one reason she insisted on maintaining a low public profile. 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 an interview to a newspaper or magazine, although she did respond to written questions from the press and she would answer questions when she was approached in a spontaneous moment.

Bess Truman also differed from Eleanor Roosevelt in deciding not to address social issues of her era. When she accepted an invitation to an autumn 1945 Daughters of the American Revolution tea, African-American Congressman Adam Clayton Powell called her the "last lady of the land" in protest. Powell suggested that her attendance at the DAR event amounted to her tacit approval of their upholding the city's segregation rules which forbid non-white performers from taking the stage at their Constitution Hall. Bess Truman was appalled at the idea, and released a strong statement to the press that, "I deplore any action which denied artistic talent an opportunity to express itself because of prejudice against race or origin." The incident solidified her resolve to keep a low profile.

Throughout her eight years as First Lady, Bess Truman sponsored the more traditional charities and causes associated with First Ladies prior to Eleanor Roosevelt, although she continued the Roosevelt fundraising efforts for the March of Dimes, which sought to eradicate infantile paralysis. She would greet leaders of various causes in the White House and pose for a photograph that was released to the press, or she attended a charity luncheon as a headliner whose presence had helped to sell tickets.

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. 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. Despite the fact that she was a traditional woman, Bess Truman would later privately suggest her support of birth control to her daughter. She maintained her belief that divorce was too easily obtainable.

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 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.

With American entry into the Korean conflict in 1950, Bess Truman sponsored Red Cross and other voluntary aid efforts to benefit servicemen. She also hosted numerous garden parties at the Blair-Lee House for local servicemen. 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. 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 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."

Greatly preferring the relative peace of her own Missouri home, Bess Truman spent as much time as possible there, including the summer months and holiday season. 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. 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. To what degree she influenced policy or changed Truman's views is uncertain, since there was no documentation generated when they were meeting together. It is known that she disapproved of his initial choice for press secretary, and supported the naming of Charlie Ross, St. Louis Post-Dispatch Washington editor.

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. She also vigorously defended Truman's controversial decision to fire General Douglas MacArthur in 1951 for insubordination. According to their daughter, Bess Truman was also responsible for the approval and funding of a cultural exchange program with the Soviet Union and funding for cancer research at the newly created National Institute of Health.

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. She was visibly thrilled when he publicly announced that he was retiring from politics. Bess Truman's last month in the White House was overshadowed by the death of her aged and ill mother, who had lived with her throughout the Truman presidency.

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:

Bess Truman was eager to retire with her husband from the life of politics in Washington, D.C. and to return to the home she had known all her life, the Gates Mansion in Independence, Missouri. She returned to her weekly bridge club, and served as the editor of her husband's memoirs. She traveled to Hawaii in 1953, and then Europe for six weeks with the former President in 1956, and made a second trip to the Continent two years later. Bess Truman also made a rare television appearance ion 27 May 1955, on the CBS television show, "Person to Person." Both Trumans were interviewed 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. She also was a breast cancer survivor, having undergone a mastectomy in 1959.

While she remained on good terms with her successor Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman was excited with the return of the Democrats to the White House in 1960. She made a visit back to the mansion, staying there overnight with her husband, daughter and son-in-law during the Kennedy Administration. She was also on good terms with the Lyndon Johnsons, 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 that presidential couple 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. She lent her name in support of Thomas Eagleton's campaign for the U.S. Senate from Missouri. She remained an avid baseball fan and rooted for her home-team, the Kansas City Royals. In her last years, she enjoyed reading murder mysteries, and her daughter eventually became known for a of murder mystery book series under her name. Although she remained loyal to the Democratic Party, she welcomed President Gerald Ford and his wife Betty, and it was later suggested that she privately supported his candidacy in 1976, having become disenchanted with the direction of the Democratic Party that year. When her daughter lived in Washington, D.C. Bess Truman made a last visit to the city, and toured the White House again, without fanfare or any official notice. She welcomed President Jimmy Carter in her home when he campaigned for re-election in Independence, Missouri. Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter and then-incumbent First Lady Nancy Reagan all attended Bess Truman's funeral in 1982.

Death:

97 years old
18 October 1982
Independence, Missouri

Bess Truman was the longest-living of the First Ladies

Burial:

Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum
Independence, Missouri