BESS W. TRUMAN by Margaret Truman


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Bess (Elizabeth) Wallace Truman was mad as hops at Harry when he dared to approve the use of the atomic bomb without consulting her. Never mind that the bomb was dropped when he was at sea--in his wife's mind, the nation's Chief Executive had ""made her a spectator rather than a partner in Harry Truman's presidency."" This is one of the many insights supplied by daughter Margaret into the formidable character of the small-town girl who became First Lady to the 33rd president. Mrs. Truman's mother, Madge Gates Wallace, had been the reigning queen of the social set of Independence, Mo; and Bess never let Harry forget that she ruled the roost in the Truman family. She was also a stern and often insensitive mother, who used the hairbrush on Margaret for minor infractions, humiliated her with loud laughter at her childish malapropisms and excoriated her with a sarcastic tongue. A certain bitterness thus tinges the pages of her daughter's otherwise admiring, almost idolizing biography. In fact, Truman delineates a woman who comes across as considerably more interesting than the dowdy, seldom-seen first lady remembered from news photos. As a young girl, Bess was outgoing and athletic: she could sit a mean horse, wield a powerful bat in otherwise all-male baseball games and shoot true on the basketball court. She was scarred but not broken by her alcoholic father's suicide when she was 18: a tragedy that, to Madge Wallace's mind, meant the end of her reign as Independence's social arbiter and turned her into a neurotic recluse. Margaret contends that her mother was opposed to Harry's acceptance of the vice-presidency because she was terrified that the press would, somehow, dig up the old scandal and further destroy her mother's fragile psyche. Truman also tries hard to present Bess as a dedicated political wife and first lady; but she fails short of making a convincing case. During Harry's senatorial days, Bess spent almost as much time with her mother in Independence as at her husband's side. As first lady, she forswore the weekly press conference established by Eleanor Roosevelt, and only saw the ladies of the Washington press at occasional teas. She comes across, however, as partisanly political and a true American chauvinist. Epithets lace her letters and conversations concerning Republicans and foreigners. She was a product of her own times and of a small border-state town who was propelled by history into the eye of the whirlwind. She did the best she could in her own dogged way. Through it all she remained loyal to old friends, somewhat contemptuous (but still supportive) of her husband, and secure in her own self-worth. In sum: the subject is hardly the stuff of gripping biography but, through her daughter's eyes, Bess Truman emerges as a person in her own right: with more facets than heretofore suspected.

Pub Date: April 18th, 1986
Publisher: Macmillan