The Courtship of Bess and Harry Truman

President and Mrs. Truman. Nobody would have thought they’d make it so far!

Bess Wallace and Harry Truman courted (sort of) for nearly thirty years.

Little Boy Harry and Little Girl Bess:

Writing of his courtship many years after his marriage, Harry Truman said he first fell in love with Bess Wallace when they were five – in little-kid dancing school.

Young Harry Truman from the wrong side of the tracks.

Farm boy Harry S Truman (1884-1972) was born and raised in Lamar, MO,  just outside Independence, not far from Kansas City. While his family were far from poverty-stricken, they were farmers, on the poorer side of the economic scale. Harry was the eldest of three, and from the start, was expected to do farm chores as well as keep up with his school work.

Not so Elizabeth Virginia Wallace (1885-1982). She was the oldest of four born to David and Madge Wallace, but the pedigree of privilege came from her maternal grandparents. Grandpa Gates was the owner of a prosperous flour mill. Considered wealthy, they lived in a fine house on the finest street in Independence, MO. Madge Gates had married David Wallace over her parents’ objections.

Little Bess Wallace – from the better side of the tracks.

Lamar and Independence are not far in distance, and many schooling and related activities were combined. Bess and Harry were the same age, and in the same public school class through high school, but that acquaintanceship was generally superficial, partly because of their youth, and mostly because of the huge gap in their social status. Harry was farmer; Bess was city-swell.

Bess and Harry: Reacquainted

When Bess was eighteen, any hopes she may have had for college or business school were dashed when her father committed suicide. The Wallace marriage had been unhappy for many years; David Wallace was an alcoholic who could never maintain a job for long. Madge Wallace was a difficult woman who could never quite face the truth.

In the early 20th century, suicide was a scandalous stigma. The Wallaces claimed the ubiquitous “business reversals” and moved away for a year to let things die down. When they moved back, they lived with the elderly Gateses. Perhaps realizing that she needed to take charge, Bess stayed home to manage the household and get her three younger brothers educated and out of a toxic environment as soon as possible – for their own good.

Meanwhile, Harry having lost his father, had a farm to run, a mother to support, and two younger siblings to help raise. College was out of the question for young Mr. Truman.

Several years passed before he met up with Miss Wallace again.

The story goes that Harry was in Independence visiting relatives, and one of them mentioned a pie plate that needed to be returned to Mrs. Wallace. Harry volunteered to be the messenger-of-return.

Madge Wallace, Bess’ “difficult” mother – even when she lived in the White House.

Showing up at Bess’ door, pie-plate in hand, was the start of their mature relationship. By that time, both were in their twenties. He was still poor. Bess was still considered well-to-do, thanks to the large house and the Gates’ inheritance.

Their early courtship was sporadic, since Harry had responsibilities at home and very little money. Nevertheless, whenever he came to call, Bess was happy to see him.  Alas, Mrs. Wallace was not thrilled by the attentions of “Farmer Truman,” believing he was well beneath the Wallace social level. Bess did not care. She liked Harry.

For the next decade, they kept company, and talked about marriage – when he could afford it. Problem was, he couldn’t afford it.

Bess, Harry and World War I

Captain Harry Truman, the unlikely soldier.

When World War I finally came to US shores, Harry Truman was 33 years old and extremely nearsighted. He was obviously deferrable. But he wanted very much to serve, and volunteered. Bess may have agreed with her mother on that issue: he had to be nuts! But she made no objection, and even suggested that they marry prior to his going “over there.”

Harry said absolutely not! He might be killed and she would be a widow. Or worse: he might be seriously injured and she would be saddled with an invalid. She agreed to wait.

So he took her photograph, became Captain Harry, served commendably, wasn’t killed or wounded and came home.

By this time, they were both well into their thirties, and if they were going to get married and have a family, they had better get cracking!

Bess, Harry, and Mrs. Wallace

The new Mr. and Mrs. Harry Truman on their wedding day.

Madge Wallace never changed her opinion about Harry Truman – even when he was in the White House. To her, he was always Farmer Truman, not nearly good enough for her daughter.

According to the Trumans’ daughter, when her parents were ready to set the date, they had their first and only big row. Margaret Truman never knew the details, and her parents never discussed them, but their daughter surmised that it was likely because Harry wanted a place of their own. Bess insisted they live with her mother. Madge Wallace could not live alone – and no one other than Bess could live with her.

Margaret concluded that Harry must have loved Bess very deeply. He bought the package.

They were married on June 28, 1919. Mrs. Wallace moved into a smaller room, and the newlyweds took over the large bedroom. Nevertheless, it would always be Mrs. Wallace’s house. Bess had her childhood girlfriends who came to play bridge periodically. Harry went to one of the local hotels one night a week for a poker game with the guys. The Trumans never invited friends to the house. If they socialized, it was “out.”

According to his friends, Truman had “the original mother-in-law from hell.” But the Truman marriage was solid.

Sources:

Foster, Feather Schwartz – The First Ladies from Martha Washington to Mamie Eisenhower – Sourcebooks, 2011

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

Truman, Margaret – Harry S Truman – 1972, William Morrow

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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4 Responses to The Courtship of Bess and Harry Truman

  1. energywriter says:

    Wonderful story. My parents liked the Trumans immensely and were disappointed when they weren’t reelected.

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