First lady Me­la­nia’s reclu­sive coun­ter­part

Bess Tru­man also chose fam­ily over the Wash­ing­ton so­cial scene

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Thomas V. DiBacco Thomas V. DiBacco is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Amer­i­can Univer­sity.

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.

FROM A STU­DIO POR­TRAIT OF BESS TRU­MAN

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