The Book of the Week is “Bess Truman” by Margaret Truman, published in 1986. The author described as much about the life of her father Harry Truman as about her mother Bess Wallace Truman.
Born in February 1885, in Independence, Missouri, Bess was athletic in her youth. She ice skated, went horseback riding, and played tennis, and sandlot baseball with her three younger brothers. After high school, she attended a finishing school where she was on the basketball and track teams.
Bess’ mother’s wealthy family owned a grain-milling company. However, her low-level-political-operative alcoholic father was continuously made to feel inadequate by his spendthrift wife, so in 1903, when he fell on hard times, he shot himself.
Bess met Harry in Sunday school but they drifted apart until reuniting at 25 and 26 years old respectively. He had had awful luck trying to save sufficient money for married life, as a farmer, and mining and oil investor. They finally wed in June 1919 after Harry came home from France, having fought in WWI. His haberdasher store, after its initial wild popularity, also failed with the postwar economic malaise of 1920-1921.
In 1922, Harry was elected as a judge for a term of two years in Jackson County, Missouri, even though he lacked a law degree. His daughter Margaret was born in February 1923. He then turned road-building consultant, salesman, then judge again.
Harry passed a bond issue of $6.5 million for road building in his county. He was such a highly respected politician that when the Great Depression hit, he raised almost $8 million for the building of new courthouses. Throughout his life, whenever he became overly stressed by the pressures of the political machine, instead of taking to drink, he went on a retreat.
Harry was coerced into giving patronage jobs to Bess’s brothers Fred and George. The former had trouble with alcohol throughout his life, adding additional drama to Harry’s already harrowing job. In 1934, Harry was pushed into running for the U.S. Senate. The opposing candidate engaged in evil mudslinging. Nevertheless, Harry won. In those days, though, the federal government was frugal. “It was the depths of the Depression and few people were getting paid enough to own a car. Everybody rode the trolleys and buses, even such personages as U.S. senators.”
During Harry’s freshman years as a senator, an ugly bribery scandal wrecked the reputations of various of his fellow Democratic party members in Missouri, including the power broker in his clique. Most of them went to prison.
In 1940, glutton for punishment that he was– but honest and revered among his supporters– Harry ran for reelection. He could boast that he conducted the investigations that revealed extensive corruption in the railroad industry. He “… won without the support of a single major newspaper or political organization.”
During his second term, Harry led additional investigations of other industries, so that he attracted a lot of haters. During his run for the vice-presidency via Roosevelt’s fourth term, Harry’s family name was again dragged through the mud. His opponents could have been neither meaner nor nastier. The saving grace was that he won the election.
Bess hadn’t wanted him to run, but the role of wife in her generation was to be her husband’s supporter– catering to his career and life goals, which were superior to her own. Nonetheless, they both agreed that the president’s actions were good for America, although they hated the manipulative way he used his subordinates to implement his policies.
Little did Harry and Bess have any idea of what they were getting into. A minor annoyance Bess encountered in the White House was “… the complete absence of closets which meant you could keep only a few dresses within reach…” She had that remedied by the time they left.
In spring 1945, FDR was tight-lipped with Harry, and even with the Senate about what he signed at Yalta. So upon his passing away, Harry suddenly and unexpectedly had a long learning curve ahead of him.
Read the book to learn the details of how Harry and Bess handled their high-pressure roles, and their adventures thereafter.