Bess Truman: The Family Secret

Few First Ladies hated the position more than Bess Truman.

Bess Truman becomes First Lady

Eleanor Roosevelt’s example was daunting enough for anyone, but for Bess Wallace Truman, all she wanted was to go in a completely different direction:  Back home to Missouri.

The First swear-in

When Harry Truman was sworn in as President immediately after FDR’s death, he said “it was like the moon, the stars and all the planets fell on me.” Bess felt the same way.

It was a stunning shock when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died suddenly only a month into his unprecedented fourth term.  Harry Truman, a surprisingly good Senator, had been Vice President for barely six weeks, and now he was President of the United States.   He would claim to feel like the sun, moon and all the planets had fallen on him.   His wife Bess was just as unprepared for her responsibilities as the new First Lady.

Bess Truman Meets the Press

It had been Mrs. Roosevelt’s custom to hold a weekly press conference for the women journalists in Washington.  After twelve years, it was expected.  Mrs. R. was a very political woman, with wide ranging activities.  She generously offered to guide Mrs. Truman through her first press conference.  It would be Bess Truman’s last press conference.

wedding photo

Wen the Washington reporters submitted written questions for the new First Lady, all she replied to was her wedding date. Everything else was “no comment.”

Sixty-year-old Bess was uncomfortable in the public eye.  Other than her domestic activities, she had no outside interests except playing bridge.  She insisted that all questions be submitted in writing.   The journalists obliged.  With the exception of filling her wedding date, all questions were returned as “no comment.”

Bess Truman’s Family Secret

For nearly a half century, Bess Truman had a secret she had been guarding, and she lived in fear that it would be rediscovered and cause her family distress, if not downright harm.

Bess Truman’s mother Madge Gates Wallace of Independence, Missouri, was a wealthy, headstrong and self-centered young woman who against her family’s better judgment had married David Wallace, the handsomest boy in town.  They would have four children.  Bess was the eldest.

David Wallace had a long history of alcoholism, and as such, could never hold a job for very long.  His wife consistently refused to acknowledge any problem, focusing only on herself and appearances, and was difficult to live with.

Finally, unable to overcome his situation, David Wallace stood in the upstairs bathtub and put a bullet in his head.  It was a huge scandal in turn-of-the-century Independence.  The family response was the ubiquitous “business reversals.”

Bess Truman Assumes Family Responsibility

FL Portrait

The formal portrait of Bess Truman, looking, as Harry Truman said, “exactly as a woman her age ought to look.”

President Truman

The 33rd President was deplored during his nearly eight years in office. He lived long enough to see his reputation soar.

Madge Wallace had always been demanding, and after her husband’s suicide, she became even more eccentric.  Psychologists today might call it a “personality disorder.”  As such, she was and always would be difficult to live with.  So at eighteen, any plans or hopes Bess had for further education or business school was ended.  She would stay home, protect her mother from anxiety, and get her younger brothers educated and out of that uncomfortable environment.  Bess alone seemed able to live with her mother, whose peculiarities were becoming more and more pronounced.

Harry Truman Enters the Picture

Harry S Truman had known Bess Wallace since they were five.  They were in the same class all through school but Harry was from the other side of the tracks, literally and figuratively.  The Wallaces were well-to-do.  The Trumans were farmers.

When they were in their mid-twenties, he re-met Miss Wallace (who he claimed to have loved since little tot Sunday School), and they courted for nearly a dozen years before they married.

Mrs. Wallace never liked or approved of “Farmer Truman,” who was never good enough for the daughter of Madge Wallace.  She would never call him anything other than “Mister” Truman – even when Harry was President of the United States.

Harry and Bess married late – well into their thirties.  It was decided from the start that they would live with Bess’ mother in the Gates mansion she had inherited when her parents died.  If Harry had any objections (and one might suppose there were a lot them), they were never made public.  He loved Bess very much.  He bought the whole package.

Needless to say, it was now the Wallace Mansion and Harry was a sort-of guest-in-residence.  Harry and Bess Truman never entertained in that house.  Nobody other than family was invited.  Their socializing was always “out.”  The old lady was an embarrassment.

Truman’s friends would always claim Harry had “the original mother-in-law from hell.”  He had no comment.

Bess Goes Back to Independence

By the time the Trumans were in the White House, “Old Lady Wallace” was truly an old lady, well into her eighties.  The last thing in the world that First Lady Bess wanted was for the intrusive press to dig up the old suicide scandal and cause her mother any more grief.  It could kill her.

The elderly woman could not live alone, nor could anyone other than Bess live with her, so Mrs. Wallace moved into the White House with them.   Bess would always be torn between seeing to her husband’s needs, or her mother’s self-absorbed demands.

Always a homebody both by nature and long years of adjustment, Bess and her mother went back to the now-Truman Mansion in Independence for weeks at a time.  The First Lady was annoyed by the White House aides and assistants and cabinet members and congressmen and just about everybody in Washington coming between the first couple.  They had no time together.  At least in Independence, she could play bridge with her old girlfriends.

As it turned out, the rather grumpy looking Bess Truman was poor copy for the newspaper journalists, and they quickly learned not to bother her.  Her secret was safe – and by the time the secret was out in the open, nobody really cared.

Sources:

·         Truman, Margaret – Bess W. Truman, 1986, MacMillan

·         http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=34

·         http://www.trumanlibrary.org/bwt-bio.htm

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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3 Responses to Bess Truman: The Family Secret

  1. energywriter says:

    Interesting. Hope you had a great Christmas. sd

  2. This is another good Love Story.

  3. Pingback: A Feast for Bess Truman – Zero Equals Two!

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