Bess Truman was 60 years old when her husband became president. Her values and life style were set; she knew who she was and had little inclination to change.
The product of a small-town aristocracy with 19th-century manners and morals, she was repelled by personal publicity, even after 10 years as a senator's wife and 83 days as wife of a vice president. A woman's place in public, observed Truman, who died yesterday at age 97, was to "sit beside her husband, be silent and be sure her hat is on straight."
The suddenness with which Harry Truman was plunged into the presidency by the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, was traumatic for him and for his wife.
Bess Truman's predecessor had been not only a dynamic force in American politics but also a renowned world figure. In her 12 years as first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt had traveled all over the country as her husband's eyes and ears. She had promoted controversial public projects and causes, written a syndicated column and given lectures, press conferences and interviews. She had become the most controversial woman of her time. That was not a position that Bess Truman was equipped for or aspired to. A very private person, she was repelled by the thought of giving interviews and not a little frightened at the idea of holding press conferences.
She confided her apprehensions to Frances Perkins, the secretary of labor, on the train returning from the Roosevelt funeral at Hyde Park, N.Y. In relating the incident for the Columbia University Oral History Project, Perkins said that Mrs. Truman was "very emotional." She was "all wrought up over the funeral and felt awfully about Roosevelt's death." She was also obviously worried about stepping into Mrs. Roosevelt's shoes.
"I don't know what I am going to do," Mrs. Truman told Perkins. "I'm not used to this awful public life . . ." Mrs. Roosevelt, she said, had suggested that she hold a press conference on the following Tuesday and had offered "to sit with me and sort of introduce the girls to me and get me familiar with the procedure."
"Do you think," she added plaintively, "I ought to see the press?"
Perkins replied, "No, Mrs. Truman, I don't think you ought to feel the slightest obligation to do it . . . I don't think any other first lady did it."
Enormously relieved, the new president's wife, with her husband's approval, decided she would not try to emulate her successor.
Women reporters, whose jobs had been made more secure by Eleanor Roosevelt's press conferences (which she limited to women), along with her interviews, trips, and projects, prodded and criticized the new first lady but Mrs. Truman could not be budged. One despairing reporter finally asked how she and her colleagues were ever going to know Mrs. Truman if they never had a chance to talk to her.
Mrs. Truman's matter-of-fact reply was that they did not need to know her -- she was "only the president's wife and the mother of his daughter."
The Trumans, Harry and Bess and their daughter Margaret, were a close family. They cared about each other's opinions. They also enjoyed each other's company and spent countless hours together in the White House. The household staff called them The Three Musketeers. Harry and Margaret played the piano together and Bess and Margaret played Ping-Pong and bridge with mutual friends. All three watched movies in the White House theater, or simply sat and read. There was a lot of teasing and joking among them, and they once astonished a White House butler who entered the dining room while they were pelting one another with watermelon seeds.
In public, however, Bess Truman not only was reticent, but also genuinely shy. She stayed in the background and out of the limelight so much that after she had been the first lady for eight months she could still do her Christmas shopping in Washington's department stores without being recognized.
The contrast between Mrs. Roosevelt and Mrs. Truman as first lady camouflaged the latter's knowledge of political affairs and her influence on her husband and his presidency. The historical pendulum has swung in recent years from considering her contribution insignificant to the other extreme of crediting her as the mastermind behind some of her husband's major policies. The evidence supports neither assumption.
Bess Truman was the last president's wife to escape the relentless coverage of television cameras, but she was at the mercy of still cameras, and she was not photogenic. She was a short, plump, matronly woman with gray hair, which, for a time, she wore in the short, curly "poodle cut" then popular. She was always meticulously groomed, usually in the boxy, tailored suits that were in vogue, with matching hat and gloves. She looked, as her husband said approvingly, "just the way a middle-aged woman ought to look." Nevertheless, she did not like to be photographed. When she was, the results usually confirmed her critics' image of her as "rigid" and "stony-faced."
Actually, although reserved, she was good-natured and had a very warm and winning manner and a sharp, dry sense of humor. There were other surprising facets to her personality.
She had grown up with three younger brothers who had to be beaten at mumbletypeg and baseball and whistling through one's teeth. She had excelled at most sports -- even in throwing the shot put -- and she remained an avid baseball fan all her life. She attended the games of the Washington Senators whenever she could and when she could not, listened to the radio broadcasts. For years after she returned to Independence, Mo., she rarely missed an opening game in nearby Kansas City. She said she could hardly forgive Margaret for picking the start of the season (April 21, 1956) to be married "when there were 364 other days in the year!"
While Bess may have been a tomboy in her youth there was never any doubt that she grew up to be a lady. Her mother, Madge Gates Wallace, with whom she lived all her life until Mrs. Wallace's death in the White House in December 1952 at the age of 90, had seen to that. Mrs. Wallace was once described -- not altogether flatteringly -- as "the queenliest woman Independence ever produced." Her daughter inherited her personal dignity, though not her imperiousness.
Bess' deeply rooted sense of what was fitting and proper set her on a not-too-successful campaign to curb her husband's salty language. It seemed to the household staff at the White House that her most commonly used expression was, "You didn't need to say that." Truman himself liked to tell the story (probably apocryphal) of speaking at a Grange meeting and repeatedly using the word "manure." A friend sitting in the audience with Bess leaned over to her and said, "I wish you could get Harry to use a more genteel word." Bess replied, "Good Lord, Helen, it's taken me years to get him to say 'manure.' "
It was not that Bess was shocked by cuss words. As one of her brothers once pointed out, she had heard them all her life and "even knew how to use them," but she thought they had no place in presidential discourse. She not only thought her husband should uphold the dignity of the presidency but she also knew he would be hurt if he did not.
Presidents throughout history have paid tribute to their wives' influence -- in the abstract -- while stopping short of crediting their advice in any specific way. Harry Truman was no exception. He went as far, however, as was generally acceptable when he said that his wife was "a full partner in all my transactions -- politically and otherwise," and that he discussed every decision with her.
Truman scholars are inclined to believe it unlikely that the president sought his wife's advice on major foreign policy decisions. On the other hand, there is no doubt that she was privy to the workings of her husband's presidency and was knowledgeable about issues.
Robert F. Kennedy once commented that Jacqueline Kennedy was not the kind of wife who would greet her husband on his return from the Oval Office with "What's new in Laos?"
That is just the kind of question Bess Truman was apt to ask her husband. She took a keen interest in his daily problems and Truman respected her judgment. She had worked with him during his Senate years and was a paid member of his staff when he was chairman of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the Defense Program. When Truman was running for vice president he came under fire for having his wife on his payroll. His reply was: "She earns every cent of it. I never make a speech without going over it with her, and I never make any decision unless she is in on it . . . not one of these [committee] reports has been issued without going through her hands."
In the White House he invariably brought work back with him from the Oval Office, and after dinner Bess would join him in his study.
Charles S. Murphy, special counsel to the president, perhaps put the matter of Bess Truman's influence in perspective when he recalled recently: "The president did not hold up a decision to consult his wife. On the other hand, she had a lot to do with the shape of his attitude about things and people."
Bess Truman's opposition was an important factor in President Truman's decision not to run for reelection in 1952. She had been with him through particularly rough times in his second term, which had included the rise of McCarthyism and the outbreak of the Korean War, and which had been filled with political bitterness and unrelenting partisan attacks upon the president.
She had seen President Roosevelt die in office and she worried about the effect another term would have on her husband's health. Adding greatly to her apprehension had been the attempted assassination, when two Puerto Rican nationalists tried to shoot their way into Blair House, where the Trumans were living during the renovation of the White House. When Truman finally announced at a Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Washington that he would not run again, his wife, sitting at the head table, tried not to show her feelings, but was not completely successful.
"When you made your announcement," Maj. Gen. Harry H. Vaughan, one of the president's poker-playing companions, reported back, "Mrs. Truman looked the way you do when you draw four aces."
Bess Truman returned to Independence little changed from the woman who had gone to Washington as a Senate wife 17 years before. She still saw to it that her house was spotlessly clean, she scrupulously looked after the household budget, did her own shopping, had her Tuesday bridge club in, answered all of her own mail, including sending thank-you notes for Christmas cards she received, listened to baseball games on the radio, read innumerable mystery stories and looked after her husband.
Probably because she had objected to his running for a third term as president, Bess and Harry had another 20 years together before his death in December 1972, when he was 88 and she was 87 years old. Bess buried her husband in the garden of the Truman Library.
"I would like to be buried out there," he once told her, "so that I can get up and walk to my office if I want to. And when the time comes, you'll be there beside me, probably saying, 'Harry, you oughtn't!' "