President Harry S. Truman: Personal Life

About the personal life of President of the United States Harry S. Truman, including his marriage to Bess and his family.

BEFORE THE PRESIDENCY

Personal Life: In his later years, Truman told the story of his courtship and marriage in the simplest possible terms. At Sunday school at age 6 he met Bess Wallace, "a beautiful little girl with golden curls. I was smitten at once and still am." Nevertheless, he waited 29 years before he married her. In contrast to the bespectacled and bookish Truman, Bess was a willowy, popular, and athletic girl who won a local shot-put and basketball championship and had a reputation as the only girl in Independence who could whistle through her teeth. She came from one of the town's leading families (her father had been mayor) and her relatives always looked down on Truman and continued to do so even after he entered the White House. During the long difficult years when Truman was attempting to make his way in the world, Bess had many suitors, but she waited for Harry. After they were finally married (Bess was 34; Harry 35) the new couple moved in with the bride's mother and grandmother in the big Victorian Wallace home on North Delaware Street. Conscious of his wife's superior social standing, Truman always referred to her as "the Boss"--even in public. He deferred to her in many personal and political decisions, and as senator, when the Trumans found it difficult to make ends meet on their $10,000-a-year salary, Harry put Bess on the payroll as his secretary. As First Lady, Bess tried to keep out of the limelight as much as possible and so projected a drab public image, especially in comparison with her superactive predecessor, Eleanor Roosevelt. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell even went so far as to call Bess Truman "the Last Lady of the Land." The Trumans' only child, Margaret, was even more controversial. She attempted to launch herself on a career as a concert singer while her father was President, but she generally received scathing reviews. One such notice so infuriated Truman that he personally wrote to the music critic of the Washington Post: "I have just read your lousy review....I have never met you, but if I do you'll need a new nose and plenty of beefsteak and perhaps a supporter below. Westbrook Pegler, a guttersnipe, is a gentleman compared to you." While some observers considered such words demeaning of presidential dignity, many Americans appreciated Truman's fierce devotion to his family, and this warm family feeling proved a definite asset in the campaign of 1948. In retirement, at the age of 75, Truman looked back on his career and observed: "Three things can ruin a man-money, power, and women. I never had any money, I never wanted power, and the only woman in my life is up at the house right now."

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