President Truman once sent aides to make sure his daughter’s manager wasn’t skimming funds.
On July 15, 1969, Charles S. Murphy, a former administrative assistant and special counsel to President Harry S. Truman, sat down to give an oral history of his time in Truman’s White House. Various matters of policy and politics were discussed, but the interviewer, Jerry N. Hess, couldn’t resist asking about the famously irate note Truman sent in 1950 to Washington Post critic Paul Hume after Hume panned a concert by the president’s daughter, Margaret.
Truman was known for his sharp letters, but usually his White House staff intercepted them before they could be sent, Murphy said. In this case, however, Truman mailed the note himself before he could be talked out of it.
Last week in this space, Answer Man explored this famous episode. There’s plenty more to explore. To Answer Man, the most interesting part of Murphy’s oral history is when he mentions that Truman was concerned that Margaret’s manager was skimming money from her nationwide singing tour.
Truman gave Murphy and another assistant, Donald Dawson, a special assignment. It was, Murphy said, “to see that the receipts of the concert at DAR Constitution Hall were properly accounted for and Margaret got what she was supposed to get from it.”
The president’s men decided to impound the ticket stubs that were collected at the door. “Now, we never counted them, but nobody ever found out whether we counted them or not,” Murphy said.
This strikes Answer Man as a bit unseemly. White House staff being inserted into a president’s daughter’s business dealings? Said Murphy: “And later, we assured the President that, in our best judgment, that the matter was properly handled and that the receipts were all properly accounted for.”
Sounds like Margaret’s manager got the message.
There must have been some Americans who wondered whether Margaret’s high-profile singing career was boosted by her father’s job. The Post’s Hume never said that, though after her appearance at a DAR Constitution Hall performance in 1949 with the NSO, he noted: “At the rate of over $100 per minute, Miss Truman is one of the country’s highest paid singers. She has a long way to go if she is to merit her reward.”
Several readers pointed out that Truman had a lot on his mind in December 1950, when he penned the letter threatening to punch Hume. The Chinese had entered the Korean War in late November. The very day of Margaret’s concert, Truman’s press secretary, Charlie Ross, had dropped dead at his desk.
“Truman was already under considerable strain when he saw Hume’s review,” wrote reader J.S. Sonies of Herndon, Va.
The District’s Tom Bower said when he visited Key West, Fla., he toured the Truman Little White House, where the president sometimes vacationed.
“In the living room there is a period radio that has been provided with a copy of the performance by Ms. Truman which is switched on by the docent as part of the discussion of the event,” Tom wrote. “It is a fine bit of living history for each attendee to determine the status of her voice.”
Of course, a recorded voice is different from a live, unamplified voice, a point Hume made in his review of Margaret’s 1951 release “American Songs.” Backed by the Victor Orchestra and the Robert Shaw Chorale, Margaret sang the works of six early American composers.
In his review of the album, Hume opined, “The music has a freshness and originality that makes the record a treat.”
A treat! Ah, but notice he wrote “the music,” not “the singing.” Hume said that the microphone had given Margaret’s voice “a resonant tone” that it did not actually possess. He lamented that “Miss Truman has, even on records, her usual troublesome habits.” Though her voice was richer, there was still an “insecurity of pitch,” especially when compared with the supporting chorus of sopranos, “none of whose names will probably ever be known to American audiences.”
Well, you can’t say that Hume wasn’t consistent in his writing about Margaret Truman.
Hume did seem able to dissociate his role as a critic from his role as a citizen, and to dissociate Truman’s role as a president from Truman’s role a protective father. In April 1951, the Associated Press transmitted a story headlined, “Now Paul Hume Writes a Letter to the President.”
The letter was in support of Truman’s firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Hume declined to quote from the missive and told the Associated Press: “Honestly, there’s no news in it. I just sat down and wrote the President a letter like hundreds of other folks do.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly
In 1955, Washington Post music critic Paul Hume holds a record for which he chose all the selections. His taste was questioned — and lightly threatened — by President Harry S. Truman.
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