Mrs. Truman and the Housekeeper

Formal Bess Truman

First Lady Bess Truman.

Bess Wallace Truman would not tolerate any disregard to her authority.

Bess Wallace: Homebody

Bess Wallace (1885-1982) was the granddaughter of a well-to-do flour mill owner from Independence, MO. Her mother, Madge Gates, was a spoiled and self-centered woman, who had insisted on marrying David Wallace over her parents’ objections. Wallace was handsome and affable, but not up to the Gates’ “snuff.” His drinking and lack of financial success did not help. Living with the difficult Madge did not help either.

Bess was eighteen when her father committed suicide. Her mother’s personality became more eccentric, and Bess felt obliged to give up any desire for education or “career” in order to manage the household, help raise her three younger brothers and get them out of the strained situation as soon as possible.

Bess and Harry Truman on their wedding day. Both were in their mid-thirties and had been “courting” for more than a decade.

While they were certainly far from wealthy, they were still considered at the top of the social pecking order, and household servants were a part of life. Bess did not make beds, do laundry or cook – unless she personally chose to do so.

She was content to stay home, socialize pleasantly with a handful of friends she would keep for life, play bridge, and, by her early twenties, keep company with a young man she had known since childhood, Harry Truman. But “Farmer Truman” as her mother called him, was literally and figuratively from the wrong side of the tracks. Their eventual marriage found them living with Mrs. Wallace at the head of the table.

Henrietta Nesbitt: Housekeeper

Henrietta Nesbitt (1874-1963) was a housewife and proprietor of a local bakery in Dutchess County, New York, and attended the same village church as her wealthier neighbors, the Franklin D. Roosevelt family, about to move to the White House. She developed a pleasant acquaintance with Mrs. Roosevelt.

housekeeper nesbitt

Henrietta Nesbitt, the White House housekeeper for the Roosevelts, and later, briefly, for the Trumans.

Eleanor Roosevelt had little interest in house management, cooking or domestic activities. Henrietta Nesbitt seemed to be an ideal choice to relieve her of distasteful chores: neighbor, competent at household management, and someone who would be intensely loyal to the Roosevelt family. She was hired as the White House Housekeeper.

Mrs. Roosevelt & Mrs. Nesbitt

Eleanor Roosevelt ceded nearly all day-to-day responsibility for the White House management, which included providing the meals. But it was the Depression, and the politically savvy Mrs. R. insisted that the White House take the lead in conserving food, thrifty purchasing, and related virtues that the President was urging citizens to practice.

famous portrait

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had her own active agenda. Household management was not high on the list.

Mrs. Nesbitt was instructed to purchase wisely and prepare nutritious, but plain meals. According to those who frequented the Roosevelt White House, they were perhaps nutritious, but they were also Spartan and tasteless, featuring salted cod, beef tongue, liver and canned string beans. Eleanor Roosevelt never seemed to care what she ate. Her husband complained, but to no avail. Most guests considered their “repasts” as the worst meals of their lives, but the bottom line was that Mrs. Nesbitt was in charge, and she ruled with an iron hand. If turnips or rutabagas were on special that week, they would be on the menu. It did not matter whether the President liked it or not. Those who knew of the Roosevelt’s strained marriage would comment that “Mrs. Nesbitt was Eleanor’s revenge.” FDR once joked that the only reason he had consented to a fourth term was so he could fire Mrs. Nesbitt.

Mrs. Truman Inherits Mrs. Nesbitt

The First swear-in

Vice President Harry Truman was sworn in as President at a simple and private ceremony following Franklin D Roosevelt’s death.

Harry Truman became President very suddenly and at a momentous time in history. It did not matter whether he wanted the job, or whether Mrs. Truman wanted to be First Lady. They were it, plain and simple.

Henrietta Nesbitt had been Chief Housekeeper of the White House for twelve years. Never popular with the staff, she did her job efficiently and expected to continue exactly as before. The menu and the recipes did not change. Nor did they suit the new First Lady.

Shortly after the Trumans became Chief Occupants, First Lady Bess Truman insisted that all biscuits be baked fresh, not “store-bought.”   Mrs. N. assured her that they were. Mrs. T. said she knew the difference, and they were definitely “store-bought.” A rift was growing.

Harry Truman

President Truman did not like Brussels sprouts.

Shortly thereafter, Brussels sprouts were on the luncheon menu, and remained untouched  on the President’s plate. Mrs. Truman advised the housekeeper that the President did not care for Brussels sprouts, and requested they not be served again. (After all, she reasoned, one must be told the new President’s preferences.) They showed up again on the menu the following day and Mrs. Truman was displeased.  Mrs. Nesbitt insisted there was a lot left over, and they needed to be thrifty, and besides, it was how Mrs. Roosevelt did things.

Mrs. Truman was definitely not pleased. She was the First Lady now, and she would have things her way. Mrs. Nesbitt was obviously accustomed to having her way with the day-to-day household management, perhaps expecting Mrs. Truman to be as indifferent as her predecessor. She was wrong. Mrs. Truman was accustomed to running a house, albeit a small one. She was also accustomed to having her own way.

The Final Straw, or “Stick.”

Bess Truman belonged to a Washington woman’s club whose members were learning to speak Spanish. As part of their “educational” efforts, they decided to prepare some Spanish-style cuisine. Each club member was asked to bring an “ingredient” item. Bess Truman was assigned a stick of butter.

She duly requested a stick of butter from the White House kitchen, and was refused. Mrs. Nesbitt said that war rationing was still in effect, and she could not oblige.

That was the wrong thing to say to Bess Truman. Unlike her mother, Bess was not difficult to get on with, but she was very particular about her role as First Lady. She would not tolerate insolence.

Mrs. Nesbitt was summarily dismissed, probably to the relief and the delight of the rest of the White House staff.

Sources:

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

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

http://www.history.com/news/hungry-history/cooking-for-the-commander-in-chief-20th-century-white-house-chefs

 

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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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4 Responses to Mrs. Truman and the Housekeeper

  1. Susan Ozmore says:

    Imagine the First Lady being denied a stick of butter! I read this book a while back, but had forgotten about Mrs. Nesbitt. Fun post, thanks!

  2. energywriter says:

    Interesting story. I had assumed that the Roosevelts ate sumptuously since they were privately wealthy. sd

  3. I don’t like brussel sprouts either. Kudos to Harry! Imagine finding this tidbit out in a history book. I wonder if cook books include vignettes about world history.

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