First lady Melania’s reclusive counterpart
Bess Truman also chose family over the Washington social scene
First Lady Melania Trump isn’t alone in recent history to walk to a different social and activist beat in the nation’s capital — with her young son as her first priority. For a similar reason, Elizabeth Virginia Wallace Truman, better known as first lady Bess Truman, spent most of her White House years at home in Independence, Mo. To be sure, Bess never was content with the capital’s attendant social activities, a feeling generated by her husband’s first Washington service as a senator beginning in 1935.
Moreover, although Harry and Bess were married in 1919, both in their mid-30s, she suffered a series of miscarriages before their only child, Margaret, was born in 1924. Bess resolved to be a mother first, and Sen. Truman saw his wife and daughter only for part of the year because Bess insisted that Margaret’s autumn schooling be spent in Independence and her enrollment in D.C. be in the spring, a time when the capital social season was over.
Bess’ entire family was also important to her being. The Wallaces were one of the wealthiest in Independence. Unlike future husband Harry, who had no college education, Bess, the eldest of four children, not only completed high school but a girl’s finishing school in Kansas City. Tragedy struck when Bess was 18. Her father woke early one morning, got into the bathtub and shot himself in the head. It thus fell on Bess to ensure the care of her mother and siblings.
Even in Harry’s rise from vice president to the White House in April 1945 on the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bess remained true to her reclusive ways. Unlike her predecessor, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess held only one news conference in the eight years of her husband’s tenure. Asked why she didn’t have more, she retorted: “I am not the one who is elected. I have nothing to say to the public.”
Although Bess set a record for being absent in the White House, she was active when in Washington in working behalf of the March of Dimes, American Red Cross, the Girl Scouts and Animal Rescue League, to name but a few groups. She kept social interactions to an absolute minimum.
When in 1945 African-American Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., called Bess “the last lady of the land” for attending a tea sponsored by the Daughters of the American Revolution, thus suggesting she supported the organization’s ban on nonwhite performers at its Constitution Hall, Bess put the matter to rest with a one-sentence press release: “I deplore any action which denied artistic talent an opportunity to express itself because of prejudice against race or origin.”
The most amazing aspect of the Bess-Harry relationship during his presidency is that they communicated by letters during her lengthy stays in Independence. The missives were eagerly anticipated, cherished and many saved for posterity. “Your letters of June 10 and 11 arrived on time,” Harry wrote on June 13, 1946. “You can address them as you like — but none of my family letters are opened by anyone but me.”
The letters sometimes bordered on downright silliness. “Well I just returned from my morning walk,” Harry wrote on June 10, 1946. “Looked to see if you were up. You were apparently because the bed was all made up. Well I miss you terribly — no one here to see whether my tie’s straight or whether my hair needs cutting.”
There were family matters to take care of in the letters. Bess asked Harry in late September 1946 whether she should sell her car. He advised that she should, but only if she should get a good price. They even joked about the eerie sounds in the White House that Harry heard late at night. “You and Margie better come back and protect me before some of these ghosts carry me off.”
Bess was thrilled when her husband’s term of office came to an end in 1953 and when their home in Independence became their only abode. Life for Bess was paradise. However, she still fussed at Harry for driving too fast, walking too carelessly on icy streets and resuming activities too quickly after a gall bladder operation.
And she set another record: the longest-living first lady in history when she passed at 97 years, eight months.