Mrs. Harry S. Truman, wife of the 33rd President of the United States, was born on February 13, 1885, at 117 West Ruby Street in Independence, Missouri. The oldest child of David Willock Wallace and Madge Gates Wallace, she was christened Elizabeth Virginia, but throughout her life was called Bess. Her father held several public offices, including County Treasurer, and was Deputy Surveyor in the Kansas City office of the United States Bureau of Customs at the time of his death in 1903.
After her father died, Bess, her mother and three brothers moved into the house of her maternal grandfather, George Porterfield Gates, a co-founder of the successful Independence flour mill, the Waggoner-Gates Milling Company. The Gates' house, located at 219 North Delaware Street, continued to be Bess Wallace's home for the remainder of her life.
An only daughter, Bess Wallace acquired a reputation as a tomboy. "The first girl I ever knew who could whistle through her teeth and bat a ball as far as any boy in the neighborhood," said a classmate. She graduated from Independence High School in 1901 in the same class as Harry S. Truman and later studied language and literature at Barstow, a girl's finishing school in Kansas City, Missouri. After completing school Bessie Wallace, as she was often referred to in the social columns of the Independence paper, stayed at home with her widowed mother and helped run the household.
In 1917, Miss Wallace became engaged to Harry S. Truman whom she had known since childhood. President Truman in his Memoirs recalls that when his family moved to Independence in 1890 his mother took him to Sunday school at the First Presbyterian Church. "We made a number of new acquaintances," he said, "and I became interested in one in particular. She had golden curls and has, to this day , the most beautiful blue eyes. We went to Sunday school, public school from the fifth grade through high school, graduated in the same class, and marched down life's road together. For me she still has the blue eyes and golden hair of yesteryear."
The Trumans were married in Independence, on June 28, 1919, in Mrs. Truman's church, the Trinity Episcopal. The previous month Mr. Truman had received his discharge from the Army after serving overseas in World War I. Their only child, Mary Margaret, was born on February 17, 1924.
In 1934, the family moved to Washington, DC when after serving his political apprenticeship in local politics, Mr. Truman was elected United States Senator from Missouri. During the next ten years while Truman served as Senator, Mrs. Truman and Margaret stayed in Washington from January through June, while Congress was in session, and in Independence during the remainder of the year.
In Washington they lived in a succession of small apartments. Mrs. Truman became a member of the Congressional Club and the PEO Sisterhood. With the outbreak of World War II, she also became active in the H Street United Service Organization and in the Red Cross work of the Senate Wives Club. After her husband gained national prominence as Chairman of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program (the Truman Committee), Mrs. Truman joined his office staff as a clerk, answering his personal mail and editing committee reports.
When Mr. Truman became President on April 12, 1945, after serving only eighty-two days as Vice President, Mrs. Truman became the country's First Lady. She was considered one of the hardest-working of all the White House hostesses. She reinstituted the formal White House social season, which had been interrupted by the war, and personally directed the detailed planning of all social events from formal state receptions to teas and musicales. She was interested in the history of the White House and insisted on observing the protocol and precedents established by her predecessors. When asked about her favorite period of White House history, she replied that it was during the Monroe Administration. Perhaps she was taken with this period because she identified with the quiet and charming Elizabeth Monroe.
As First Lady she attended numerous teas and luncheons given in her honor, sometimes having two or three engagements a day. While she abolished Mrs. Roosevelt's custom of holding press conferences, she was meticulous in answering the large volume of mail she received as the wife of the President. Many have described her as a "down-to-earth" First Lady who rode to her old beauty shop in her chauffeured limousine and continued to pay only $3.00 for her weekly manicure, shampoo and set because she "saw no reason to change."
While she was in the White House, Mrs. Truman served as Honorary President of the Girl Scouts, the Womens' National Democratic Club, and the Washington Animal Rescue League. She was Honorary Chairman of the American Red Cross. She was chosen for honorary membership by many other organizations. Among them were the American Newspaper Women's Club, the Daughters of Colonial Wars, and the Women's National Farm and Garden Association.
Mrs. Truman was once asked by a reporter what she wanted to do when her husband was no longer President, and she replied "Return to Independence." For her, Independence was first and foremost home. At the end of President Truman's second term, the couple gladly returned to their family home in Independence.
In 1953, Mrs. Truman accompanied her husband on a visit to Hawaii and in 1956 and 1958 on trips to Europe. The Trumans' also made trips to New York to visit their daughter, her husband Clifton Daniel, to whom she was married in 1956, and their four sons. Several times during these years Mrs. Truman's name appeared on the Gallup Poll's list of American women admired the most.
Possibly one of the more revealing statements written about Bess Wallace Truman was published in McCall's magazine (April 1949). The magazine quoted Jonathan Daniels, former Press Secretary to President Roosevelt, as saying "Bess Truman is a lady unchanged by the White House and determined to remain always what she is." Perhaps because of her reluctance to grant interviews or hold press conferences it has been difficult for most people to determine just what Bess Truman "is." Margaret Truman Daniel in her book Souvenir noted that writers have wanted to tell the public more about her mother--more than the fact that her favorite color is blue, that she loves roses, and the her favorite dessert is Ozark Pudding. "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."
After President Truman's death on December 26, 1972, Mrs. Truman continued to live in her home on Delaware Street where she received visits from close friends and relatives as well as distinguished visitors from all over the world who came to pay their respects. During the years when she was meeting hundreds of people every week, Mrs. Truman often amazed those to whom she had been introduced only once by remembering their names. "Friends and acquaintances agree that loyalty and sincerity were the mainsprings of Mrs. Truman's character," one writer has observed. "She seldom thinks of the effect she is creating. She exists principally in her relationships with family and friends. To her, duty is a pleasant, everyday word."*
Mrs. Truman died at her home on October 18, 1982 at the age of ninety-seven. Funeral services were held on October 21st at the Trinity Episcopal Church to which she had belonged many years. The invited guests included the President's wife, Nancy Reagan, and former First Ladies Rosalynn Carter and Betty Ford. Mrs. Truman is buried beside her husband in the courtyard of the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence.
*Essary Helen. "The President's Boss--Bess Truman." Look, Vol 13, March 1, 1949, p. 59.
Suggested additional readings:
- Robert H. Ferrell, editor. Dear Bess: The Letters from Harry to Bess Truman, 1910-1959 New York: W.W. Norton, 1983
- Truman, Harry S. Memoirs. 2 volumes. New York: Doubleday, 1955-1956.
- Truman, Margaret. Bess W. Truman. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1986.
- Truman, Margaret. Souvenir: Margaret Truman's Own Story. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1956.
- Truman, Margaret. Harry S. Truman. New York: William Morrow, 1973.