By Anne Adams
They called themselves the Waldo Avenue Gang – an assortment of youngsters in an Independence, Missouri neighborhood in the late 1900s and two of their number would eventually become known far beyond Waldo Ave. One was a spectacled boy named Harry and the other was a tomboy named Bess. Harry’s father was not as financially successful as Bess’ family, but that didn’t matter to Harry for he had been enraptured with Bess’ golden curls and blue eyes ever since he first encountered her in Sunday School. However, Harry was especially impressed at something Bess could do. Actually, though it was a unique skill she never used much and especially not after she married Harry and he eventually became President of the United States. After all, as they carry out their many duties and responsibilities, most First Ladies don’t need to whistle through their teeth.
Elizabeth Virginia Wallace, who was always known as Bess, was born in February, 1885 and since her father could not always support the family and since her mother’s father was a successful businessman, it was often the resources of Grandfather Wallace that supported the family. The Wallaces arrived in Independence, a Kansas City suburb, about 1890 and there she soon proved herself the equal of any of the other girls – or boys – in climbing trees and playing baseball. Playmate Harry Truman had developed a crush on Bess since their first meeting and demonstrated his interest by frequently carrying her books to school. However, by the time they both graduated in the same 1901 high school class they had gone in separate directions with different interests. Bess enjoyed sports such as skating and tennis and Harry declined to be so active because of his thick glasses. Eventually they would lose contact with each other as Bess continued to a Kansas City “finishing school” and Harry moved away to manage the family farm in another town. Yet Bess was not far from his thoughts.
As she matured, Bess grew into a slender blonde surrounded by loving family and friends, which no doubt helped a great deal as she tried to cope with her father’s unexpected suicide. The tragedy meant her mother became more dependent on her but despite that she remained active, enjoying an active sports and social life. One acquisition that helped her in this area was a gift from her doting grandfather – the first Studebaker automobile in Independence.
In 1906 Harry Truman returned to Independence from the family farm to visit his aunt who lived across from Bess’ grandfather. Biographer Margaret Bassett described what happened next: “While he was there Aunt Ella said she would like to return the plate on which Madge Wallace had sent over a cake that morning. Harry sprang into action and hustled off on the errand. He was gone a long time, returning finally grinning happily. He had not only seen Bess they had had a fine visit together and he was going to see her again. From then on he came often to Bess’ house and carried on a correspondence with her for some ten years.” (Profiles and Portraits of American Presidents and their Wives, p. 363) He later bought a used car to make for easier travel to Independence.
During their courtship, Bess’ mother actively discouraged Harry’s interest in her daughter since she considered a farmer to be an undesirable suitor. Perhaps to better his chances in winning Bess, Harry tried various investment opportunities but their failure only put him further in debt. Then came World War I and everything changed. The romantic patriotism of the time inspired many young couples to marry quickly before the man was shipped overseas, but while Bess was willing to marry, Harry preferred to wait till he returned. When Major Truman returned in 1919 after serving with honor as commander of a field artillery battery he and Bess were married in June of that year.
The newlyweds began their married life living in the Wallace family home while Harry tried to operate a men’s clothing business. It failed and because Truman was so adamant about repaying the debt he and Bess spent their first years of marriage financially strapped. When Truman gained the support of a local political boss and was elected to a county judgeship they found the salary was small but welcome, particularly after the birth of their daughter Margaret in February, 1924. She would be an adored child and could have been spoiled because of excessive family attention but her parents’ sense of humor and values assured she would get the necessary attention but not too much indulgence. However, Harry’s choice of an ongoing political career meant Bess had to frequently entertain less than “gentlemanly” guests as well as attend political events and mix with crowds. She disliked such public exposure and experiences and while she cooperated as well as she could, her stoicism in such situations often made her appear apathetic and indifferent. With friends and family she was witty and a tease but the public saw a blander face. As his political career developed, Harry would be known to lose his temper at a critical report of a family member, but Bess consistently retained her composure. Her love and support for Harry continued as Harry was elected to the Senate in 1935.
The new senator, his wife, daughter, and mother-in-law moved into a Washington apartment and after a while Bess joined her husband’s office staff. Her salary was a welcome addition to the Truman family income even though Harry had to reassure his critics what a skilled and valuable employee she was.
The Trumans lived part of the year in Washington, usually residing in the same neighborhood, and the rest of the year in Independence. Margaret attended schools in both cities, as she and Bess learned to enjoy Washington particularly the social activities planned for Senatorial families.
When Harry was under consideration for the Vice Presidential nomination in 1944, Bess found the Democratic Convention disturbing because of her uneasiness at the noisy enthusiastic crowds. Since Harry’s running mate President Franklin D. Roosevelt could not campaign because of his disability Harry became the main advocate for the party on the campaign trail. However, while Bess accompanied him she did so only with the agreement that she would be allowed to stand in the background and be silent. Harry’s election and inauguration in January 1945 was the beginning of an entirely new life for Bess.
On April 12, 1945 Margaret was dressing for an evening event when Harry called from the White House relating the news of the President’s death. Bess was misty-eyed as she cancelled her evening plans and she and Margaret were escorted by their newly acquired Secret Service agents out a back door for the ride to the White House for the swearing in. They’d decided to leave out the back door to avoid newsmen and photographers, but the press was ready and as the new First Lady and her daughter stepped out they faced the glare of flashbulbs before they entered the car. It was something that would not cease for many years.
Within a few days the Trumans were in residence in temporary quarters at the historic Blair House across from the White House until Mrs. Roosevelt moved out. Once they moved into the Executive Mansion, Mrs. Truman set about creating her public image by trying not to have one. She endeavored to remain as much as possible out of the public eye and her first move in this direction was to cease holding the regular press conferences Mrs. Roosevelt had conducted. She retained a press secretary to handle press releases and questions about the First Lady’s appearances, receptions and other events. White House Chief Usher J.B. West in his book Upstairs at the White House described her approach. “In public, Mrs. Truman never said a word…Bess Truman guarded her privacy like a precious jewel. And in that privacy was hidden a great secret involving the role she played in public life. …A keenly intelligent, well-educated, politically experienced person, Mrs. Truman knew her politics – and her husband respected her opinion.” (pp.71-72).
Once she had graduated from college, Margaret decided to pursue a singing career, which her parents encouraged. There was one well-remembered time when the President became incensed at a critic’s review of Margaret’s performance. The letter he wrote to the critic was just another example of Truman’s total devotion and loyalty to his family.
Bess accompanied the President as he campaigned in 1948, appearing on the rear platform of the campaign train with Margaret at innumerable steps throughout the country. Truman would smile broadly as he introduced Bess and Margaret as “The Boss and my baby.” Despite Bess’ inner uncertainty about his victory he was re-elected.
Bess continued with her usual routine into her husband’s second term though much of it was not spent in the White House. In the summer of 1948 it became evident that the Executive Mansion would need massive repairs since over 150 years of remodeling and reconstruction the building had deteriorated. In fact, some floors were even in danger of collapsing. After considerable research, it was decided that the best course was to completely gut the building and rebuild the interior. The reconstruction meant the President and his family would have to find other quarters both to live and to entertain.
Again the Trumans moved into Blair House which was combined with the Lee House next door to be a presidential residence for the next few years. Construction on the White House was completed in early 1952 but the Trumans were soon to leave the White House in 1953.
When asked by a reporter what she wanted to do when her husband left office, Bess answered, ”Return to Independence” and that was exactly what she did. The Trumans settled again in their family home there but continued to travel in the next few years. Many of the visits were to New York City where Margaret and her husband Clifton Daniel, married in 1955, lived with their four sons.
President Truman died in December, 1972 and Mrs. Truman continued to reside at the family home until her death ten years later in October of 1982 at age 97. She was buried beside her husband at the Truman Library.
Margaret Truman Daniel later wrote about Mrs. Truman: “My mother, whose public facade has been unvaryingly sedate and whose public utterances have been unfailingly courteous but cryptic, is perhaps the least understood member of our family. She is a woman of tremendous character, which the public may sense, but in addition she is a warmhearted, kind lady, with a robust sense of humor, a merry, twinkling wit, and a tremendous capacity for enjoying life.”
A native of Kansas City , Missouri , Anne grew up in northwestern Ohio , and holds degrees in history: a BA from Wilmington College , Wilmington , Ohio (1967), and a MA from Central Missouri State University , Warrensburg , Missouri (1968). A freelance writer since the early 1970s, she has published in Christian and secular publications, has taught history on the junior college level, and has spoken at national and local writers’ conferences. Her book “Brittany, Child of Joy”, an account of her severely retarded daughter, was issued by Broadman Press in 1987. She also publishes an encouragement newsletter “Rainbows Along the Way.”