In recent years, the Harry S. Truman Library has opened a number of interesting documents concerning Bess W. Truman. These papers shed new light on Mrs. Truman’s life in Independence, her marriage and her service as first lady. They reveal Bess Truman’s personality in more depth, and demonstrate that she was more complex than is generally understood.
Bess famously refused to give press conferences, and she disliked being in the public eye. At times, she was compared unfavorably to her predecessor, Eleanor Roosevelt. But a poem that the Truman Library recently obtained shows Bess in a different light. The author was Vera Bloom, a songwriter and Washington hostess. The poem was entitled, “The American Newspaper Women’s Club,” and is dated Oct. 16, 1952, just a few months prior to the end of the Truman Administration.
Bloom, expressing the sentiments of the press corps covering Mrs. Truman, wrote: “We will think of you … as a friend, whose kindnesses never seemed to end...” She described Bess’ kind gestures: “the appreciative little longhand note for something nice that somebody wrote, or the flowers when someone was sad or ill, with a card that is surely treasured still.” Furthermore, Bloom observed the “wonderful way” that Bess had with nervous White House guests, and the “sudden smile” that she offered to visitors.
There was a personal reason why Bloom had such a strong regard for Bess. When Bloom’s father, Congressman Sol Bloom, died in 1949, Mrs. Truman sent a bouquet of lilies to his funeral. Ms. Bloom noted that flowers were not normally displayed on caskets at Jewish funerals, but an exception was made because the flowers had come from the Trumans.
Bess began a lifelong habit of sending cards and notes when she was young. In the Bess Truman Papers at the Truman Library there is a letter, dated January 1899, that Mary Paxton sent to her friend “Bessie,” then 13 years old, thanking her for sending her a card. Paxton’s correspondence with Bess reveals the latter’s puckish sense of humor. In a letter that she wrote to Bess in 1902, Paxton asked Bess, “But did you mean anything personal by sending me a picture of Satan?”
Among the people that Bess wrote thank-you notes to was Victoria Geaney, who was hostess-manager at Blair House, where the Trumans lived during the White House renovation. In the Geaney Papers at the Truman Library there are numerous notes from Bess thanking Geaney for gardenias, orchids, mums and roses, and for other niceties, such as perfume, fruit and cakes.
Bess’ papers also reveal her anxieties and the stressful times in her life. One such time was during 1917, when Harry volunteered to serve in the Army during World War I. In August, Bess’ good friend Arry Mayer sent her a letter containing this advice: “Don’t for heaven’s sake get `nerves.’ They are the meanest things on earth and the only cure is a complete rest. … Do take care of yourself for you know this war isn’t going to last forever, and you want to be ready for the glorious time when Harry comes home.”
In her biography of her mother, Margaret Truman Daniel claimed that Harry’s departure for France caused Bess to be “afraid that she might have a nervous breakdown in 1918.” Harry safely returned from his overseas service in 1919, and the couple were married in June of that year. The Truman Library houses about 1,300 letters from Harry to Bess, and almost 200 letters from Bess to Harry, dating from 1910 to 1959.
Mrs. Truman’s papers reveal little-known aspects of her years following her life in the White House. For example, President Lyndon Johnson offered her an appointment to a commission composed of laymen and physicians to recommend steps to “reduce the disability and death rate from heart disease.” Bess accepted the appointment, but she didn’t publicize it. As with so many other aspects of her life, Bess preferred to take a low-key, behind-the-scenes approach to her public and community service.
– Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.