Harry and Bess Truman enjoyed a long life together following their departure from the White House in 1953. One of the highlights of their retirement years was a trip to Europe in 1956.
Their travels there included visits to Salzburg, Austria, the birthplace of Mozart, one of Harry Truman’s favorite composers; Rome, where they had an audience with the Pope; and Chartwell, the estate of Winston Churchill, in England.
The Trumans’ 1956 trip is well documented. Not as well-known is the Trumans’ return to Europe in 1958. In “Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman,” historian Alonzo Hamby described the latter trip as mainly a “quiet, private vacation” as opposed to their “triumphal version of the Grand Tour” of 1956. Interestingly, in neither of his post-presidential trips to Europe did Harry Truman revisit the battlefields of France, where he had served during World War I, in 1918.
Accompanying the Trumans in 1958 was Samuel Rosenman, a former speech writer for Franklin Roosevelt and Truman, and his wife, Dorothy. The Trumans and Rosenmans left New York on May 26, 1958, aboard an ocean liner, the Independence. They arrived in Naples, Italy, and also visited Venice; Cannes, France; and other places along the French Riviera. In Monte Carlo, Harry and Bess enjoyed a dinner commemorating their 39th anniversary. Truman, 74 years old, maintained his vigorous pace, and even made a written account of his two-mile walks each day, at his regular pace of 120 steps per minute, in the mountains of the Alps.
On June 11, the Trumans and Rosenmans paid a visit to Pablo Picasso at his home at Villa La Californie, in Cannes. In Samuel Rosenman’s papers at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum there is a letter of introduction from Alfred Barr, Jr., director of the Museum of Modern Art, to Picasso. Barr thought the artist would be “very pleased” to receive Truman and Rosenman, who were “eager” to pay him a visit. Barr was very solicitous of Picasso, telling him how rarely he wished to impose on him because he knew how “distracting visitors can be.”
Two color photos of Truman’s social call on Picasso are available to see on the Truman Library’s website at https://trumanlibrary.org/photographs/index.php?browse=Date&browsedate=1958-06-11. This author is unaware of any account of what the party discussed. Considering how Harry Truman referred to Picasso just four days after meeting him, it’s likely he did not come away from his meeting with the artist with a favorable impression of him. When a Roosevelt University professor requested that Truman ask Picasso to paint a mural on the campus, Truman replied, “It seems to me that a university named Roosevelt would try to obtain one of our able American painters for your purpose rather than a French Communist caricaturist.” Interestingly, Truman asserted that his meeting with Picasso had come at the artist’s, not at his, request, which was contrary to what Barr had told Picasso.
Part of Truman’s comment about Picasso probably reflected his dislike for modern art. Truman liked paintings such as Hans Holbein’s Merchant, J.M.W. Turner's landscapes, and Frederic Remington's Western scenes. But, he stated, “I dislike Picasso, and all the moderns – they are lousy. Any kid can take an egg and [smear it with] a piece of ham and make more understandable pictures.” Ironically, a few years later, Truman would commission a former painter of abstract art, Thomas Hart Benton, to create the mural at his presidential library.
Even while enjoying swimming, sightseeing, and shopping in Europe, Harry Truman could not – or chose not to – escape politics. He issued a press release concerning a corruption scandal involving Sherman Adams, chief of staff to President Dwight Eisenhower. Truman’s comments, which were widely published, included a swipe at Vice President Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” speech of 1952.
Upon return from his trip in July, Harry Truman wrote a note to the Rosenmans: “A lovely visit to France with charming and delightful people – the Rosenmans, all a joyously good time from start to finish.”
– Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.