Daughter Writes Personal Portrait of Former First Lady Bess Truman : Margaret’s Biography Reveals a Strong Yet Private Individual

Times Staff Writer

Nearly 10,000 people showed up to welcome Harry and Bess Truman back to town the day they moved back to Independence, Mo., from the White House.

“Well,” the former First Lady said, “you know that almost makes it all worthwhile.”

“And that--for her--was a speech,” her daughter said.

Indeed, it was in large part to clear Bess Wallace Truman’s reputation as a wallflower, a boring presidential sidekick who said very little and did even less, that Margaret Truman took on the task of writing “Bess W. Truman” (Macmillan, $19.95). By coincidence, the book is coming out at a time when parental biographies are appearing in mild droves. But, said the daughter of the 33rd President, “I didn’t do it for that reason. I did it because there had been several erroneous books written about her, about her role in my father’s life, and I wanted to set the record straight.”

Specifically, Truman was determined to document what she insists was her mother’s major involvement in Harry Truman’s political policies and decision-making. “The image was that she was shy and retiring--which she wasn’t, she really wasn’t. She was a great help to my father,” Truman said.

“Mother did it behind the scenes,” she said. On virtually any issue that confronted the President, their daughter said, his wife had an opinion. “And Dad listened to her.”

One Secret

With one conspicuous exception: The Bomb. “No, she didn’t know about that, and that made her rather angry,” Truman said. “Well, he didn’t tell anybody. The fewer people that knew it, the better.” Had he told his wife, Truman said, “Well, I think he thought then that she would feel somewhat responsible.”

Having already written about her father in the best-seller “Harry S. Truman,” as well as “Letters From Father: The Truman Family’s Personal Correspondence,” Truman was helped enormously in constructing her biography of her mother by the discovery of more than 1,000 letters her parents had written each other during their 53-year-marriage. Initiated during the Trumans’ nine-year courtship, the correspondence chronicles not merely the evolution of Harry Truman’s political career--from county judge to President--but also the firm and steady love that bonded their domestic partnership. Every June 28, for example, he would write his wife a special “anniversary letter” commemorating their marriage in 1919. In 1957, he wrote her what Bess Truman considered “the best anniversary letter of them all.”

“Only 37 to go for the diamond jubilee!” he wrote her in a missive highlighting each of their years together. It was signed, “H.S.T. Your no-account partner, who loves you more than ever!”

Truman said she knew of the existence of such letters, but never in her mother’s lifetime was she permitted access to them. After her mother’s death four years ago, she directed Truman Library researchers to seek out what she knew would be a cache of information about her parents.

A Very Private Woman

“I knew they were there somewhere,” she said. “But I could never get her to tell me where.”

The secrecy was typical of Bess Truman, her daughter said. “She was a very private woman. She burned a lot of the letters, you know. My father caught her throwing his letters from World War I into the fireplace. He said, ‘Do you realize that you are destroying history?’ She said, ‘I do indeed. That’s exactly what I had in mind.’

“This was after they went back from the White House, and she didn’t want their personal letters to be part of anybody’s research.”

The 1,000-plus letters found in the house on North Delaware Street are personal, Truman said, “but I imagine she burned the most personal ones.”

In large part, her daughter contends, Bess Truman’s intense demand for privacy was part of what contributed to her taciturn reputation. If Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman’s predecessor, held her own weekly press conferences, reporters covering the Truman White House were hard-pressed to learn so much as what the First Lady planned to wear to a particular event. Prodded on one such occasion by the East Wing press corps to inquire about the First Lady’s wardrobe plans, an aide was greeted with a typical Bess Truman response: “They can damned well find out when I put it on.”

What she didn’t want to do, “she damned well wasn’t going to do,” her daughter said. In this case, “she wouldn’t talk to the press, and she wouldn’t have press conferences.

“It just wasn’t her style.”

Truman shook her head sympathetically. “The poor women’s press corps! They were so frustrated.”

Some Special Joys

Small, personal sadnesses were among the discoveries Truman made in reading her parents’ correspondence. “But don’t ask me what they were,” she said, chuckling a bit to herself. “You see, once I have written something down I can never remember it.”

But there were also special joys. Bess Truman was 39 and had had two pregnancies end in miscarriage before Mary Margaret Truman was born. As a first-time mother, Bess Truman was so superstitious that she forbade anyone to buy a single piece of clothing or furniture until after the baby was born. “My first bed was in the bottom drawer of a bureau on pillows!” her daughter said.

Though she and her mother remained close, “I think she always regretted the fact that I wasn’t a boy. Because, of course, I was really closer to Dad than I was to my mother.”

Some things Truman learned about her mother while researching the book came as a surprise. “I was quite startled at her strength of character. I knew she had strength of character because she had used it on me, but I didn’t realize with her own family that she had been the strong one they all depended on, including my grandmother.” Bess Truman was 17 when her father killed himself, “and my grandmother literally never got over it,” Truman said.

Given her preference, Bess Truman would have stayed in Washington. “Once she got to Washington, she liked it--which is beyond me, because Dad and I didn’t care for it,” Truman said.

Didn’t Want to Go Back

“She was happiest there. She was happiest as a senator’s wife. She made a lot of friends. She really didn’t want to go back to Independence.” But Harry Truman would hear none of staying in the shadow of the White House. “He said ‘I’m not going to be an ex-President in Washington,’ ” Truman said. “So she went along with it.”

Truman lives in New York with her husband, Clifton Daniel, but in some literary ways, she remains in Washington, as well. Having already set homicides in the White House, the Supreme Court and on Capitol Hill, Truman’s next mystery book will explore the subject of “Murder in Georgetown.” It is due out in June.

And maybe there will be more books about her family, maybe not. Certainly there will be more books. “I mean,” Truman said, “if people are willing to buy them, I’m willing to write them.”