Few First Ladies were as reluctant as Bess Truman.
Bess: The Reluctant Everything
Bess Wallace (1885-1982) was considered outgoing and personable all the way through high school. She was a good student, an excellent athlete (a rarity at the turn of the 20th century) and popular with her classmates.
That changed when she was eighteen. Her alcoholic father who had difficulty holding a job, and who perhaps could not tolerate his difficult wife any longer, stepped into the bathtub and put a bullet in his head.
It was a scandal!
Madge Wallace packed up the children and took them to Colorado for a year to let the talk die down. When they returned to Independence, MO, they moved in with her parents, and where Bess lived for the rest of her long life.
Her wealthy grandparents, George and Elizabeth Gates, were getting on in years, and her “difficult” mother was dispositionally unsuited for managing a household. Those responsibilities fell to Bess, who gave up thoughts for higher education of any kind.
The Truman Part
Bess’ life evolved into a comfortable routine. Managing the house, getting her younger brothers educated and out of the house as soon as possible, and shielding her mother from any distress. Her own social life was active enough, with regular bridge games with several of her old school chums, all of whom had known Mrs. Wallace for years, and understood her “peculiarities.”
Then, when she was in her early twenties, Bess re-met up with another old school chum, Harry Truman. They had been classmates all through school, but the acquaintance was superficial. Harry was literally a farm boy from the other side of the tracks, and a far cry from the somewhat snobbish Gates-Wallace’s.
Harry Truman always claimed he loved Bess since they were five years old, nevertheless he did not begin to court her until they were in their mid-twenties. And even then, it was sporadic. Harry didn’t have any money for courting; he was needed at home, too.
But the courting continued, punctuated by World War I, until they finally married – when they were in their mid-30s. And then, they lived in the “Gates-Wallace” house.
BT: The Reluctant Senate Wife
Harry Truman’s political rise was neither meteoric or even expected. He jumped at the unlikely opportunity to run for the US Senate after a half-dozen other potential candidates turned it down: 1934 was a losing year. But Harry campaigned relentlessly, and in a total upset, he won.
He went to Washington alone. In January, 1935. Bess would not leave her mother, and besides, their daughter Margaret was still in school. But once Harry got settled in a small apartment, he invited his reluctant wife for a visit. Surprisingly, she enjoyed Washington. The following year, he took a larger apartment – big enough for all of them, including Mrs. Wallace.
Bess Truman slipped nicely into the role of senate wife. Her bridge-playing skills won her easy access to some of the groups that proliferated. And as Margaret got older and Bess had more time on her hands, Harry recruited her to help out in his office – handling his personal mail, and occasionally serving as tour-guide to visiting Missourians.
She was happy. Very little was demanded of her.
BT: Reluctant FLOTUS
All that changed in 1944, when Harry Truman was suggested to be the Vice Presidential candidate for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s unprecedented 4th term. The relationship between the popular President and the Missouri Senator had been superficial, and perhaps even cool. But when pressed, Truman agreed. They won.
Even though it was obvious to most close observers that FDR was in failing health, and might not survive his term, few expected that the Grim Reaper would show up as soon as he did, only weeks after the Inaugural.
When Truman took the private oath of office on April 12, 1945, Bess Truman knew her life had changed profoundly. World War II was coming to an exhausted end, and the problems of putting the country, and the world together again were daunting, and in many ways unpredictable.
Realizing she would/could never take on the socio-political activities of her predecessor, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess kept to a simmering background. She would do whatever Harry asked of her – but nothing more.
By mid-20th Century, even without the Eleanor influence, the role of First Lady was generally filled with ceremonial functions. The near-constant supervising and hostess duties of White House events. Ribbon-cutting. Bouquet accepting. Teas and receptions. As long as she didn’t have to make any speeches, Bess would go.
About six weeks into the Truman Presidency. Bess and Margaret were dispatched to christen a pair of ambulance planes for the Army and Navy. Whacking a new structure with a ceremonial bottle of champagne has been a long-time tradition. The athletic Mrs. T. took the bottle and whacked. And whacked again. Actually eleven solid whacks! The bottle refused to break. It had not been “scored” (deliberately weakened) in advance.
Meanwhile, the place was packed. All the military brass showed up and the newsreel cameras were rolling. Bess Truman was mortified and angry.
According to Margaret, the furious FLOTUS returned to the White House, marched into the President’s office and told him of her humiliation. HST immediately demanded a copy of the newsreel film. His wife, the First Lady of the Land, would not be subject to ridicule!
The three Trumans, Harry, Bess and Margaret then watched the film clip privately. Margaret went on to write that all three of them had tears running down their cheeks – from laughter at the bottle that wouldn’t break!
Movie houses across the country aired the clip. No one laughed at the First Lady. They laughed at a very very funny situation. They still do.
Foster, Feather Schwartz – The First Ladies from Martha Washington to Mamie Eisenhower – Sourcebooks, 2011
Truman, Margaret – Bess W. Truman, 1986, MacMillan