Bess Truman, a first lady who stood quietly but strongly behind her husband, President Harry S Truman, during his tumultuous, history-making years in the White House, died of congestive heart failure yeterday at the Research Medical Center in Kansas City, Mo. She was 97.
Since her husband's death on Dec. 26, 1972, Mrs. Truman, who never had enjoyed her place in the limelight in Washington, rarely left her big, white, Victorian home in Independence, Mo. There she had the privacy she treasured for most of her life.
In a statement issued at her death, President Reagan made reference to Mrs. Truman's modesty and her wariness of living in the public eye.
"Bess Truman lived a long, full life serving her husband, her family and her country with dignity," the president said. "She was a devoted wife, a loving mother and a gracious, unassuming first lady. Bess Truman embodies the basic decency of America. Nancy and I convey our deepest sympathy to her family and to all who will miss this fine lady's goodness."
It wasn't that Mrs. Truman disliked Washington. After her husband was elected vice president in 1944, the couple became a top attraction to hostesses seeking to gather major political figures around their tables. The Trumans, who liked dining out and enjoyed meeting people, accepted many of the invitations they received.
These occasions, however, were social affairs that were not open to the public. Moreover, Mrs. Truman knew many of her fellow guests. She was considered a friendly, warm-hearted person with a wonderful sense of humor.
When her husband became president on the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, Mrs. Truman had to assume a far more public role. Even more difficult was the fact that she had to step into the shoes of the peripatetic and popular Eleanor Roosevelt.
Mrs. Truman decided to do it her own way. First, she sent out word that she was not going to emulate her predecessor by holding weekly press conferences. In fact, she wasn't going to hold any press conferences at all.
The women of the press, who had been given the run of the White House while Mrs. Roosevelt was chatelaine there, were outraged. They raised their voices in protest.
Mrs. Truman was adamant. She arranged for her two secretaries to give the press a weekly briefing on the White House social calendar. She even agreed occasionally to answer questions that were submitted in writing to her secretaries.
Since most of the answers came back "no comment," the press was left with little to write about. Requests for interviews hit a blank wall.
This did not mean that Mrs. Truman confined herself to the executive mansion. She had a strong sense of duty and was well aware of the importance of her presence at numerous social and official affairs.
As a result, she was constantly on the go, dropping in at luncheons, teas and receptions, sometimes taking in two or three a day. Occasionally she turned up at sales held for charity to add her own small gifts to the merchandise for sale. She was considered thoughtful and generous.
Although Mrs. Truman chatted animatedly with hostesses and friends at these affairs, she would merely stand and bow without a word when she was introduced at public events. In 1943, at a luncheon of the American Newspaper Women's Club, she reportedly spoke into the microphone for the first time at a public gathering.
"I am somewhat embarrassed. More than somewhat . . . . " she said by way of greeting the audience.
As a result of her reticence, newspaper accounts of Mrs. Truman's activities usually came out sounding like stories of a fashion show.
"Mrs. Truman looked charming in a navy blue silk dress with jacket and a matching hat with jaunty red feather," one newspaper wrote. Or, "The first lady wore a dress of soft blue, a hat of tiny rosebuds capping her grey curls."
Mrs. Truman did not photograph well and usually looked somber. The photographs and stories failed to convey the effect of her strikingly blue eyes, the warmth of her smile, the firmness of her handshake.
It was reported that she had greeted so many persons while she was first lady "that her right hand actually became larger than her left. She could remain on a receiving line for hours without tiring because her feet are even stronger than her hands."
If Mrs. Truman failed to make public pronouncements on her own, she nevertheless was a shrewd analyst of people and politics and had a deep influence on her husband. He often referred to her as "The Boss."
They discussed all the major events of the day and she frequently was included in the closed-door sessions of advisory groups, particularly during campaigns.
Mr. Truman acknowledged that he had consulted his wife on every major decision of his life, including whether to use the atomic bomb on Japan to bring an end to World War II; whether to initiate the Marshall Plan to rebuild a shattered Europe after the war; and whether to fight in Korea during the crisis there in 1950. He stressed, however, that the final decisions always were his alone.
In 1963, in her book, "A Woman in the White House," about 12 notable first ladies, Marianne Means wrote that President Truman said of his wife:
"One of the biggest contributions she made was to see that the feminine part of the White House was run properly. She made sure that the snooty women were well treated. That's something I wouldn't do . . . . I wouldn't talk to them."
She was Mr. Truman's first and only girl in a romance that dated back to early childhood and continued until his death. Despite her difficulty with arthritis, she was at his bedside on the Christmas Eve and Christmas night before he died.
Mrs. Truman was born Elizabeth Virginia Wallace on Feb. 13, 1885, in the big white house in Independence that had been built by her grandfather. From early childhood she was known as "Bess."
She was the eldest of four children. The other three were boys. She was the tomboy.
Bess Truman excelled at tennis and riding. She could bat a baseball as far as any boy in the neighborhood and she beat all of them at mumbletypeg. In addition to all that, she could whistle through her teeth. It was an accomplishment she used in later years to amuse people at family gatherings.
Harry Truman was opposite. Because of weak eyes that required him to wear eyeglasses from childhood, he was not at all athletic. Books and the piano were his forte. He was not quite a year older than she.
The story is told that he first spotted her when they were 6 years old at the First Presbyterian Church in Independence. Later, in school, he managed to carry her books, a practice that continued through high school.
She was the only girl he courted. She saw him frequently but had many other beaux. It was not until 1917 that they became engaged as he was leaving for Army service in World War I that took him overseas.
On June 28, 1919, after he had returned from the war, they were married in a simple ceremony in Trinity Episcopal Church in Independence. Mrs. Truman was an Episcopalian, her husband a Baptist.
Mr. Truman's mother, asked later why her son had not married until he was 35 years old, replied simply: "Maybe she Bess wouldn't have him before then."
The newlyweds made their home with Mrs. Truman's widowed mother, Mrs. David W. Wallace, in the Wallace house that later became the summer White House. After her father's death in 1903, Mrs. Truman was a constant and devoted companion to her mother.
The Trumans' daughter, Margaret, was born in 1924. It was a closely knit family, run by Mrs. Truman, who was a firm and conscientious wife and mother, a born manager of her household. Later, Margaret, who became Mrs. E. Clifton Daniel Jr., wrote in her book, "Souvenir," in 1956:
"Mother was and always will be a lady, reared in the traditions of the old school, and bent on passing them along to me, come hell or high water. I was presumed to be learning to be a young lady, and my mother, the dearest woman in the world, and also the most forceful, was going to see to it."
As her husband became politically active in Missouri, Mrs. Truman stayed in the background, although she took Margaret to hear his political speeches.
The family came to Washington in 1935, after Mr. Truman won a seat in the Senate. He was reelected to the Senate in 1940 and was elected vice president in 1944.
During her husband's last two years in the Senate, Mrs. Truman worked in his office as a clerk and secretary. He described her then as his "chief adviser" who was in on all of his decisions.
Mostly, however, she was a homemaker. In the big house in Independence, she had help. In their five-room apartment in Washington, she did all of the work, including the cooking. She also managed the family finances.
Friends liked to tell the story of the day when the new president and his family were to move from their $125-a-month apartment to Blair House before taking over the White House.
"You mean we're moving out of here?" Mrs. Truman was quoted as saying. "That would be wasteful. Our rent's paid up to the first of the month, and here it's only the 15th."
After the move, Mrs. Truman took her efficiency into the executive mansion, where she oversaw management of the White House and its gardens, planned all the meals, including her husband's stag dinners, and arranged for all the parties.
With World War II ended, there were teas and receptions for the wives of government officials, women of the press, Democratic Party workers, and those whom she considered very important veterans and patients from Walter Reed Hospital and the Bethesda Naval Medical Center.
In 1948, Mrs. Truman saw her husband elected to the presidency against great odds. She had not wanted him to run for the office, had begged him not to. But, finally, she relented and accompanied him on the campaign trail, once explaining to a friend:
"Harry is so sure he is right, so sure that the people will know he is right, that I hope he wins." She said later that she found the crowds immensely thrilling and stimulating during the campaign.
Four years later, when the president announced he would not run for reelection, Mrs. Truman beamed to everyone everywhere she went. They would now go back permanently to Independence and the quiet life she loved, she explained.
The first lady's motherly ways often provided chuckles among her friends in the Secret Service. Said one agent:
"I don't dare tell Mrs. Truman that my missus is sick. She'll rush right over to my house and take full charge -- even change the baby's diapers. She's not happy when she isn't doing something for others."
Another agent told the story of how she once showed up unexpectedly at the home of a Secret Service man whose wife was ill and cooked the Thanksgiving turkey.
Mrs. Truman never had time for hobbies as such, although she kept up with sports, particularly baseball, and enjoyed bridge.
She also kept up with the bridge club she had helped found in earlier years in Independence, and invited club members as guests at the White House. She belonged to a Spanish class, and its members also visited at the White House.
After they retired to Independence, where Mr. Truman wrote his books and helped establish the Truman Library, the couple rarely traveled away from home.
They came to Washington occasionally and visited their daughter and her family in New York. In 1956, they attended the Democratic convention in Chicago, where Mrs. Truman allowed she had a fine time because her husband wasn't running for anything.
In 1969, the Trumans celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary as expected -- quietly at home in Independence with an exchange of gifts and visits from a few friends and relatives.
Birthday celebrations were just as quiet for the former first lady, although there were greeting cards, telephone calls and flowers, usually including red roses from the artillery company that Mr. Truman commanded in World War I.
Mrs. Truman never wanted anything special. She "never was over-fond of big celebrations anyway," a friend once explained.
In addition to her daughter, of New York City, survivors include four grandchildren.