Few First Ladies were more reluctant to be in the public eye than Bess Truman.
Mrs. Truman becomes FLOTUS
Late in the afternoon of April 12, 1945, Bess Truman (1885-1982) received a phone call from her husband. There was a strange edge to his voice when he told her to get their 20-year-old daughter Margaret, call a taxi, and come at once to the White House – the back entrance. “And wear something dark,” he added. Bess Truman knew.
Within the hour the two women arrived and it was confirmed. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, Georgia earlier that afternoon. Harry S Truman, Vice President for only three months, was now President of the United States.
Quickly and quietly, the new President took the oath office administered by Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone. He felt, as he put it later, “like the moon, the stars and all the planets just fell on him.” Judging from a photograph of the event, Mrs. Truman looks as if the fallout had smothered her as well.
Eleanor Roosevelt had been urgently summoned from a speaking engagement in Washington, and was present at the private and mournful ceremony. For twelve years she had served as First Lady – but a First Lady who had made a radical departure from her predecessors.
Mrs. Roosevelt: Ex-FLOTUS
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) had been active in sociopolitical issues since she was nineteen years old, and a Junior League volunteer in one of New York City’s settlement houses on the Lower East Side. For her, social activism was her true calling.
During World War I, the young matron volunteered at a makeshift canteen at one of Washington DC’s train stations. She poured coffee and made sandwiches for departing and returning soldiers. After the War, when women’s suffrage became law of the land, Eleanor joined the League of Women Voters, and became politically active. And well known. With clout.
As the wife of the NY Governor in the late 1920s, and later as First Lady in the 1930s-40s, Eleanor Roosevelt charted a far different course than any previous political wife. The routine tea parties and receptions could be (and were) handled by others. Eleanor would be out and about, speaking in public about any number of subjects and issues that piqued her interest – or needed her political support, which she had in abundance. She served on committees. She chaired committees. She wrote a daily newspaper column. She logged thousands of air miles traveling all over the country – and even overseas. Wherever she could be of help and service, she was quick to participate.
And she gave weekly press conferences for Washington’s women journalists.
Mrs. Truman Takes Over
Becoming First Lady so suddenly and tragically was a huge blow to Bess Truman.
She had known Eleanor Roosevelt, of course, during her dozen years as Senate wife, but the acquaintance had been superficial. She sincerely admired the activist Eleanor, but she had little interest in following in her enormous footsteps. Bess was a traditionalist to the core.
Mrs. Roosevelt knew first hand what responsibilities would fall to BOTH the President and the new First Lady. In a gesture of courtesy, co-operation and sincere kindness, she offered to guide Mrs. Truman through her first press conference, and introduce her to the women of the Washington press corps. This way, she could help the midwestern Mrs. T. navigate her way through the question and answers.
If speaking in public was not Mrs. Truman’s forte, answering intrusive questions about her “personal” life was positively unsettling. Bess had an old secret in her life: when she was eighteen, her alcoholic father committed suicide. Suicide, in the early twentieth century, was a scandal. (That both Eleanor Roosevelt and Bess Truman had similar secrets was likely not shared by the two women.)
Bess’ mother, Madge Wallace, was past eighty and still living. Mrs. Wallace had always been a difficult woman. After her husband’s suicide, she became even more difficult. Bess had taken charge of the household from that time on. Even after she married Harry Truman, when both of them were in their mid-thirties, they made their home with Madge Wallace. Never approving of “Farmer Truman” from the wrong side of the tracks, Mrs. Wallace still insisted on sitting at the head of their dining room table, with her youngest son at the foot.
The Trumans had accommodated. The older woman could not live alone – and no one else could live with her. Now that “Farmer Truman” was living in the White House, Bess’ elderly mother lived with them. And the last thing that the First Lady wanted to do, was open her past and very private life to the intrusions of public scrutiny – and have her mother scandalized and upset all over again.
The Press Conference
The uncomfortable new First Lady asked if it were possible for the women journalists to submit their questions in writing. Understanding her inexperience and anxieties, they were happy to comply, and submitted several pages of questions,.
True to her word, Mrs. Roosevelt, who knew the press corps very well, introduced the new mistress of the White House to the female reporters and columnists.
Mrs. Truman had read and returned the questionnaire that was submitted, but only one question had been answered: June 28, 1919: the date the Trumans were married. Every other question was answered “no comment.”
Mrs. Truman was polite, but remote. The reporters could get no information from her. They had been spoiled by Mrs. Roosevelt’s active courtship of the press – and as a daily columnist, Eleanor Roosevelt was also “their colleague.”
Mrs. Truman was poor copy as well as uncommunicative. Her first press conference would also be her last.
The women journalists learned quickly enough, and never bothered her very much.
Caroli, Betty Boyd – First Ladies: An Intimate Look at How 38 Women Handled what may be the most Demanding, Unpaid, Unelected Job in America – Oxford University Press, 1995
T Truman, Margaret – Bess W. Truman, 1986, MacMillan