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