Paul Hume, 85; Washington Post Music Critic Drew President Truman’s Wrath

From the Washington Post

Paul Hume, the longtime music critic for the Washington Post who drew a famous and furious rebuke from President Harry S. Truman when he panned a singing recital given by his daughter, died of pneumonia Monday in a Baltimore nursing home. He was 85.

A man of vast learning, Hume had a notable ability for making his subject interesting to audiences of widely varying degrees of knowledge. He enjoyed the esteem of some of the greatest figures in the world of classical music. Leonard Bernstein, Vladimir Horowitz and Eugene Ormandy all remarked at different times that he was far more than a music critic.

Hume, however, will always be remembered for what happened after he reviewed a recital by Margaret Truman at Constitution Hall on Dec. 5, 1950. The audience of 3,500 included President Truman, his wife, Bess, and British Prime Minister Clement Attlee. The program was made up of songs by Mozart, Schumann and Shubert.


“Miss Truman is a unique American phenomenon with a pleasant voice of little size and fair quality. She is extremely attractive on stage,” Hume wrote in the Post the next morning. “Yet Miss Truman cannot sing very well. She is flat a good deal of the time--more so last night than at any time we have heard her in past years.”

Hume continued: “It is an extremely unpleasant duty to record such unhappy facts about so honestly appealing a person. But as long as Miss Truman sings as she has for three years, and does today, we seem to have no recourse unless it is to omit comment on her programs altogether.”

Truman discovered this assessment when he opened his paper at 5:30 a.m. at Blair House, where he was staying during renovation of the White House. He promptly took pen in hand and wrote a note to the reviewer.

Hume was astonished to receive it. Having verified its authenticity, Post editors planned to put it in the paper, but publisher Philip Graham vetoed the idea. He told colleagues that he had received a number of angry letters from Truman and that he would not publish any of them.

The matter might have ended there had not Hume mentioned it to Milton Berliner, the music critic for the Washington News. Berliner told his editors, who promptly ordered up a story. The wire services picked it up and it was printed across the country. Although the Post had been badly scooped, Graham would let his reporters do no more than quote the News.

The reaction was quick and overwhelmingly critical of the president. The White House received 10,000 letters, and by a margin of almost 2 to 1 they deplored what Truman had done. At the time, the Korean War was going badly. The Chinese Communists had just entered the conflict, and United Nations forces were reeling under their attacks. A letter that was typical said that in these circumstances, it was “completely ridiculous” for the president to be concerned about a music review.

Margaret Truman’s reaction was that “Mr. Hume is a very fine critic. He has a right to write as he pleases.”

As often happens, there was more to the story than the public knew at the time. The president was dealing not only with a war but also with the loss of a lifelong friend who was one of his closest aides.

A few hours before the concert was to begin, Charles Ross, the White House press secretary, died of a heart attack in his office. Fearing that it might upset her, the president gave orders that Margaret not be told of Ross’ death until after her recital.

For his part, Hume regretted that the letter had been made public, and issued this statement: “I can only say that a man suffering the loss of a friend and carrying the burden of the present world crisis ought to be indulged in an occasional outburst of temper.”

Eight years later, when he was in St. Louis to cover a concert by soprano Maria Callas, Hume called on Truman, whom he had never met, in his office in Independence, Mo. The president played both of the pianos he had in his office, and the two became friends. They had seats across the aisle from each other for the concert that night, and Truman introduced Hume to his wife, who admired his work.

Paul Chandler Hume was born in Chicago. He studied the piano for seven years and the organ for four years. He had seven years of voice training.

He graduated from the University of Chicago, where he majored in English, but he also studied music history and theory. During World War II, Hume was a conscientious objector. He was assigned to a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, and then, in 1942, to the headquarters of the National Service Board in Washington.

In 1946, he joined the staff of radio station WINX, which was the “good music” station of its day. In 1947, he became the Post’s music critic. He retired in 1982.

In addition to his career at the Post, Hume taught the history of music at Georgetown University from 1950 to 1977 and was a visiting professor in the same subject at Yale University from 1975 to 1983. A cheerful and self-effacing man, he was highly accessible to the public and colleagues at the newspaper.

His books included a 1977 biography of Giuseppe Verdi, a 1956 study of Catholic Church music and, with his late wife, Ruth Fox, two volumes titled “The Lion of Poland” (1962) and “The King of Song” (1963), on the life of Polish pianist and statesman Jan Paderewski.

Hume was a musician in his own right. In the early 1950s, he was the baritone soloist at Washington National Cathedral, where he also gave organ recitals. For 25 years, he was director of the Georgetown University Glee Club.

Hume’s wife died in 1980. Survivors include four children, a brother and four grandchildren.