Labor Day may have ended the ceremonial end of summer but its not official until September 21 and in certain parts of the country, the ninth month can be more beastly muggy than the eighth one. Few places seem more unbearably steamy than Washington, D.C., sometimes well into October. It’s no wonder how back in the day before air-conditioning that elected officials would adjourn for the entire summer and head to the cooler hills or ocean shore.
That is, unless you were the new President trying to oversee the end of World War II in the summer of 1945. And every summer for the next seven years…
Then, you would have headed to Missouri, where it got so hot, humid, sticky, and close you likely wished you had never left Washington.
Unless, of course, you were the new First Lady.
Bess Truman had her reasons for trying to get out of Washington as often as possible and remaining in Independence, Missouri as long as possible.
For a full twelve years, longer than any presidential spouse in history, Eleanor Roosevelt had just left the role of First Lady and altered it forever with her special brand of social activism.
Mrs. Roosevelt had been willing to investigate the neglect of entire demographics, from African-American domestic workers, to veterans of World War I, to European refugees, to young, women government workers, to coal miners.
And she’d gone there herself to investigate, whether it was the Pacific war theater, crowded urban slums, the wasteland of the Dustbowl or down deep in the coal mines of West Virginia.
“I’m not going down into any coal mines,” Bess Truman snapped when she realized the press expected her to continue on in Mrs. Roosevelt’s precedent-shattering path.
There was also her querulous invalid mother Madge Wallace to deal with.
All her married life, Madge had belittled Harry Truman, embarrassing Bess. That her son-in-law was now President made no difference to Madge. She kept insulting him and emotionally manipulating her daughter.
The situation was at its worst when Mrs. Wallace came to live at the White House, with her nurses and boxes of tissues and complaints about Harry firing General MacArthur.
Only once did Bess put the old bird in her place.
It was far easier to deal with her by going home to the gingerbread Victorian Gates Mansion in Independence, Missouri.
The house had been owned by her father, a thriving flour mill baron, but Mrs. Wallace inherited it and there Bess was raised. Although the press and the public called it “President Truman‘s house,” or “The Summer White House,” he knew better than suggest that it was owned by anyone other than Mrs. Wallace.
Bess Truman most of all hated the nosy Washington reporters, always poking around into her business.
She refused to hold press conferences with them or even to grant one good formal interview.
In response to one question submitted in writing, about her intended wardrobe for an even, the First Lady scribbled back that what she wore was “nobody’s d[amned] business.”
Her secretary thought better of offering that response. What Bess truly feared was that the press would somehow learn that her father had committed suicide by shooting himself in the Gates Mansion.
It was bad enough that photographers began to trail Bess Truman, who refused to give up driving her own car or doing her own shopping – until it became impossible.
The more she was in Washington, the greater the chance a reporter could randomly besiege her about a hat or some other “personal” issue.
She wasn’t especially interested in hearing about some worthy project from a group of socially prominent women who wanted their picture taken with the new First Lady.
She overtly detested large events of rooms packed with hundreds of overheated “committee women,” as she called them in hats and wearing gloves, all examining her clothes or trying to chat her up.
She derisively called all this “First Ladying.”
She would agree to appear at charitable events or pose for pictures with children for causes helping them, often preferring, however, that her daughter Margaret come along too, in case there were reporters to be dealt with.
Margaret was breezy, light-hearted and didn’t mind personal publicity. She could often be counted on to serve as interference with reporters.
Her very first public ceremonial event, however, proved to be especially embarrassing for a woman who once prided herself on athletic prowess.
It was the dedication of a hospital airplane in the waning days of World War, and she was expected to christen it with a bottle of champagne.
Here is the hysterical event as reported on a newsreel of the era:
It’s not like she didn’t see all this coming.
The summer before, when she learned that her husband, then the U.S. Senator from Missouri was being offered the place of Vice President on the Democratic Party ticket, to run with President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his unprecedented fourth term.
Just from looking at pictures of FDR she saw what was coming. “What if he should die?” she angrily asked her husband, “Then you’d be President!”
And he did, not even three months after FDR was into his fourth term. Just then, the Axis was about to fall to the Allied Forces. Bess Truman got through her First Ladying as best she could.
As the summer of ’45 approached, President Truman focused on winning the war in the Pacific.
And just when he felt he needed the emotional support and practical advice of his wife, Bess Truman left him, heading home to momma in Missouri.
It was the comfort of mundane tasks Bess Truman sought out back home. It was as if she dared the intrusion of First Ladying to get in the way of her stubborn refusal to accept the new reality of her husband’s new status – or her own.
Amazingly, even in wartime, she was able to prove herself right, no Secret Service agents limiting her movement. As she recalled proudly, she lost them “early in the game.”
She took great pride in her roses and tulips, trimming and spraying them herself, while eyeballing the work of a local who moved her vast green lawn.
She kept her regular Tuesday Bridge Club meetings, playing cards with old friends.
She headed with Vietta Garr, the housekeeper, to the local supermarket to do some shopping in the early morning, before the thermometer began to rise.
She strolled the neighborhood, nodding a how’do to folks she knew well.
As the Missouri mugginess set in, however, mostly Bess Truman just sat on her back porch.
Daughter Margaret later wrote explicitly about this period of estranged separation between a President and First Lady. Bess Truman’s simmering resentment was not just a result of what had been thrust upon her, but also what was taken away.
Accustomed to serving as Truman’s primary political adviser, she was now being left out of the loop on matters such as the details of his negotiations with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill at Potsdam. Truman returned home briefly. To the reporters and photographers who came with hm from Washington to Independence, there seemed nothing amiss.
The President ritualistically made his morning “constitutional” around the neighborhood, Bess once joining him.
They even sat a spell together in the heat and enjoyed their midday supper of sorghum biscuits, mustard ham and greens, and fresh peach ice cream.
According the their daughter, however, the President found his wife even more contentious and unwilling to compromise.He went back to Washington without her.
And dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
Whether at her own volition or the President’s pleading, Mrs. Truman returned to the White House shortly thereafter.
One night they closed themselves away in the study (now the Yellow Oval Room) with some of the famously strong old-fashioneds that Bess used to order up. The next day, Truman ordered the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki, forcing the Japanese surrender. In 1962, he told reporter Marianne Means that Bess Truman had weighed in on his decision.
If Bess Truman felt a renewed sense of purpose in her husband’s work, she still refused to compromise on FIrst Ladying.
She made appearances. But her grim expressions made clear her unhappiness.
That first Christmas of his presidency, Truman would find himself at odds with Bess again, this time for her complaining that he hadn’t spent enough time in Missouri.
In a sense, Bess Truman never did yield to her stubborn refusal to embrace her public role. After completing the four year term of Roosevelt, Truman ran for his own full term in 1948.
Bess Truman was not encouraging, never convinced he would win – which would mean going home to Missouri for good. She lost.
Sometimes, too much is made of a photograph, snapped in a second of human reaction. Still, overlooking the Inaugural Gala in 1949, she hardly looked pleased.
If she couldn’t have her back home porch to rock on, however, Bess Truman made good by bringing Missouri to Washington.
Her happiest moment as First Lady was the week when her entire Tuesday Independence Bridge Club came to visit her.
They even went up to Camp David (then called Shanghri-La), where the highlight was dangling their legs in the pool and then sitting a spell on the flagstone terrace, gabbing.
When winter got too cold in Washington, Bess Truman and Margaret joined the President down at his favorite sun spot, Key West in what became known as “the Little White House.”
In the face of Missouri-like humidity there, she enjoyed a little bit of fishing, but mostly just sitting a spell.
In 1948, it was determined that the White House was unsafe to continue living in, a major renovation on the old house was undertaken, the interior gutted, steel beams placed inside to shore up the four original walls, a preservation move which Bess Truman had publicly supported.
Bess Truman didn’t mind moving out of the White House, even if it wasn’t back to Missouri but rather just across the street where she and Harry and Margaret would relocate.
Servants, friends and family all suggest that the First Lady far preferred living at the smaller and cozier Blair House for nearly four years.
There was no official back porch for her to rock, but the building did afford a cozy enclosed garden.
When it was impossible for her to get back to Missouri for months on end, Bess made do with whiling away in the back of Blair House, just…sitting a spell.
Bess Truman managed to endure the First Ladying until that blessed day of January 20, 1953 when she was able to turn the tasks over to her successor and old friend Mamie Eisenhower.
While her husband was Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, Mamie lived in Washington and she’d joined Bess Truman’s weekly Spanish language classes in the White House through 1945.
Rarely had anyone seen Bess Truman smile so broadly and unabashedly as the day she was able to show Mamie Eisenhower around the White House and hand the keys over to the place.
With that, Bess got back to Missouri for good.
Just why she so loved her home and so loved being in Missouri is something Mrs. Truman never felt the need to explain.
In fact, she never felt the need to explain much to anyone. In a radical shift from Eleanor Roosevelt, who delivered speeches and granted interviews on hundreds, perhaps thousands of radio and television broadcasts, Bess Truman did not even want there to be a recording made of her voice.
Once safe and sound back in Missouri, however, she relented on just one occasion, giving a huge scoop to the television interviewer who happened to be her daughter Margaret.
Even Margaret was curious about her mother’s homebody nature in her questioning.
Here is that recorded television interview of Bess Truman, conducted in their home.
Bess Truman is delightfully relaxed,and a bit sarcastic in the exchanged quips with her earnest daughter. To many Americans watching at the time, she likely seemed like the lady who passed eggs over the back fence to neighbors.
And it must have startled more than just the Independence Tuesday Bridge Club to learn that Bess Truman, who never received without her white gloves, was a big wrestling match fan.
Former President Truman was, of course, also interviewed.
While it can only be a matter of speculation, one does wonder if, in an effort to lure away his beloved Bess from the long hot summers in Missouri and back to live with him during the long, hot summers in Washington, Harry Truman defied the critics to put in the biggest and best back porch in the country.
Like all Presidents, Harry Truman made policy decisions which some of his successors sought to rescind. As will be seen in a forthcoming article, however, no President or First Lady ever regretted the presence of the Truman Balcony.
Not even Bess.
- 11 Things You Might Not Know About Missouri (mentalfloss.com)
- How America Once Nearly DOUBLED The Minimum Wage (huffingtonpost.com)