A mu­sic critic’s scathing re­view once earned him a threat of a bro­ken nose — from a sit­ting pres­i­dent.

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - John Kelly's Wash­ing­ton The re­views are in: An­swer Man is a hit! Send your queries to an­swer­man@wash­post.com. Twit­ter: @johnkelly For pre­vi­ous col­umns, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/johnkelly.

Ev­ery­one knows that the third it­er­a­tion of a movie fran­chise is the weak­est one. “Alien 3” couldn’t hold a can­dle to “Aliens,” although why any­one would want to prof­fer a burn­ing ta­per to the 1986 James Cameron-di­rected se­quel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi mas­ter­piece is be­yond An­swer Man.

Hope­fully, “Wash­ing­ton Crit­ics: Part 3” will be dif­fer­ent.

Over the past two weeks, An­swer Man has ex­plored sto­ries of Wash­ing­ton news­pa­per film crit­ics sup­pos­edly fired from their jobs for writing neg­a­tive re­views. At least one of these sto­ries is straight-up apoc­ryphal. The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Gary Arnold was not fired for pan­ning “Star Wars” — he loved it — or for pan­ning “Ten­der Mer­cies,” though he hated it.

The other story may be less apoc­ryphal. The Evening Star’s Tom Dowl­ing was re­lieved of his movie-re­view­ing du­ties af­ter pan­ning “The Em­pire Strikes Back,” a move he later heard may have been re­lated to cor­po­rate un­ease with his re­view.

But to­day, An­swer Man is here to re­call the most fa­mous bit of out­rage di­rected at a Wash­ing­ton critic.

In the 1940s, a new singer popped up on the scene in Wash­ing­ton. Her name was Mar­garet Tru­man, and she hap­pened to be the daugh­ter of Pres­i­dent Harry S. Tru­man.

Paul Hume was The Post’s mu­sic critic, and he be­came fa­mil­iar with Miss Tru­man’s, um, style. In 1947, he sug­gested that the so­prano “should re­frain from pub­lic ap­pear­ances for at least two or three years,” dur­ing which time she should “learn to sing prop­erly.”

She did not take this ad­vice. Mar­garet had a rather busy per­form­ing sched­ule, and on Dec. 6, 1950, it took her to Con­sti­tu­tion Hall.

In the next day’s Post, Hume wrote: “She is flat a good deal of the time — more last night than at any time we have heard her in past years. There are few mo­ments dur­ing her recital when one can re­lax and feel con­fi­dent that she will make her goal, which is the end of the song . . . . Miss Tru­man has not im­proved in the years we have heard her.”

The fol­low­ing day, Hume re­ceived a note at The Post. Writ­ten on White House sta­tionery and signed “H.S.T.,” it be­gan: “I’ve just read your lousy re­view of Mar­garet’s con­cert . . . . It seems to me that you are a frus­trated old man who wishes he could have been suc­cess­ful.”

It con­tin­ued: “Some day I hope to meet you. When that hap­pens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beef­steak for black eyes, and per­haps a sup­porter be­low!” Strong words, in­deed. Hume showed the note around the of­fice, but its con­tents were first re­vealed not in The Post, but in the Wash­ing­ton Daily News. In its own fol­low-up story, The Post noted that when Mar­garet Tru­man was reached in Nashville, where she was per­form­ing, she told a United Press reporter that she didn’t think her fa­ther would send such a note. Some­one else must have.

“It is very easy to get a hold of White House sta­tionery,” Mar­garet said, adding, “Mr. Hume is a very fine critic. He has a right to write as he pleases.”

But The Post had con­firmed that the note was from the pres­i­dent. Some on Tru­man’s staff re­gret­ted Tru­man’s rash act. Oth­ers thought it helped his stand­ing with the pub­lic.

Sub­se­quent let­ters to the ed­i­tor in The Post were sim­i­larly split. One reader saw in Tru­man’s re­ac­tion — his “un­governed tem­per,” “over-quick trig­ger-tongue” and “gut­ter vo­cab­u­lary” — ev­i­dence of his “per­sonal hon­esty.” The writer added: “At best, tact is a mild form of in­sin­cer­ity which is hard to find con­sis­tent with com­plete in­tegrity.”

An­other reader wrote that Tru­man was “too much of a man” to stand for Hume’s re­view: “Mar­garet is a credit to our Na­tion and a model for young peo­ple.”

But many thought the pres­i­dent’s re­ac­tion was un­seemly, wor­ry­ing even, given that Tru­man, as one reader wrote, “has the sole power of un­leash­ing the atom bomb.”

An Amer­i­can in Aus­tralia felt that Tru­man’s act had been a na­tional em­bar­rass­ment and asked, “How long must Amer­i­cans liv­ing abroad be hu­mil­i­ated by such ill-cho­sen words and threats by the Pres­i­dent?”

An­other pointed out: “When one en­ters the field of mu­sic and art, and goes be­fore the pub­lic for their judg­ment, one of the ex­pected results is the com­ments of the crit­ics . . . . [Mar­garet’s] fa­ther must un­der­stand that if she is to re­main free of the taint of gain­ing her chances via the White House in­flu­ence, he must not re­sent the bricks and bats she will re­ceive, if any.”

One reader saw in Hume’s re­view noth­ing less than the Con­sti­tu­tion at work: “Thank you for re­as­sur­ing us that Amer­i­can free­dom of the press still ex­ists by publishing Hume’s ex­cel­lent crit­i­cism of Mar­garet Tru­man’s de­plorable per­for­mances.”

In Fe­bru­ary 1953, af­ter he’d left the White House, Tru­man sent an­other let­ter to Hume. In it, he thanked Hume for a story laud­ing Tru­man as the pres­i­dent who had done the most for mu­sic in Wash­ing­ton.

Wrote the ex-pres­i­dent: “My in­ter­est in mu­sic has been the in­ter­est of an am­a­teur who is really fond of good mu­sic. I hope I helped some mu­sic lovers to have a bet­ter ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the great com­posers.”

He cer­tainly raised one mu­sic critic’s pro­file — and bank bal­ance. In 1951, Hume sold the in­fa­mous note for $3,500. To­day it’s in the pri­vate li­brary of Texas bil­lion­aire Har­lan Crow.


Mar­garet Tru­man warms up be­fore per­form­ing in an an­nual Con­gres­sional Chil­dren’s Broad­cast in May 1939.

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