Advertisement

President Truman’s only child was successful writer

Special to The Times

Margaret Truman Daniel, who was the only child of President Truman and his wife, Bess, and who forged successive careers as a concert singer, an actress, a high-profile wife and mother, and a prolific biographer and mystery novelist, died Tuesday. She was 83.

Daniel, the widow of former New York Times managing editor Clifton Daniel, died in Chicago after a brief illness, according to the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Mo. A longtime resident of New York City, she recently moved to an assisted living facility in Chicago, where her eldest son, Clifton Truman Daniel, lives. A cause of death was not released.

Arguably the first first daughter to be subjected to the intrusive scrutiny of the burgeoning modern communications media, Daniel was a student at George Washington University when her father ascended to the presidency upon the death in 1945 of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lessons in the perils of unwanted political celebrity were instant.

She set off something of a public relations food fight when she quietly instructed a waiter, “No potatoes, please,” and later said she drank tomato juice while dieting. The Potato Growers Assn. quickly lodged an official complaint and peppered the White House with protest letters. The Tomato Growers Assn. countered with an onslaught of supportive letters. The groups waged a marketing war in the national media, touting the nutritional value of their products.

Advertisement

When Daniel was photographed wearing a scarf, Women’s Wear Daily editorialized that she had damaged the millinery industry -- a dispute quieted only after she wore a hat to another publicized event. Her hatted photo, in turn, set off protests from hairdressers.

Suddenly aware that what she said, what she did and how she looked would make her the most spotlighted White House offspring in history, she muted her comments and made sure her appearance in public was politically correct. As a young, single woman, she largely postponed dating to avoid false reports of pending engagements.

For seven years, she said later, her goal was to behave so that she wouldn’t “wind up with a bad headline.” In the process, she developed a longtime disdain for Washington and privately came to refer to the White House as “the great white jail.”

What Mary Margaret Truman, the girl born and bred in Independence, Mo., would not mute, mollify or abandon was her quest -- somewhat unusual for a well-to-do young woman of the mid-20th century -- for a career.

Advertisement

First came singing.

Although she majored in history, she had taken voice lessons from childhood and was determined to make it as a concert singer. From 1947 until 1954, she sang operatic and classical selections at sold-out concerts across the country, receiving a warm reception from affectionate (or politically toadying) audiences but frigid reaction from critics.

Washington Post critic Paul Hume was famously scolded by President Truman when he wrote of her 1949 concert at Washington’s Constitution Hall, “Miss Truman is still too much of a vocal beginner to appear in public.”

A 1947 concert in Pittsburgh had elicited similar criticism. “In one word, childish,” snapped the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette echoed: “It is a pleasant, sweet voice, but it lacks volume and maturity. She sings with clarity and . . . precision, but leaves a great deal to be desired in musicality.”

Advertisement

When she appeared the same year at the Hollywood Bowl along with legendary conductor Eugene Ormandy, 15,000 people applauded. But Albert Goldberg, then music critic of the Los Angeles Times, cautioned: “Interpretively, Miss Truman is not yet far beyond the student stage.” He added that her voice “possesses promise” but required training, and he praised her poise in front of a large audience. She later said that she “was so cold I didn’t think of being frightened.”

Long after her eight-year concert career ended, she told The Times, “I knew a lot of people came out of curiosity. But I always hoped they stayed because they liked it.”

Her friends thought the critics drove her from singing, but Daniel insisted she simply became more interested in acting.

She had appeared in high school and college stage productions and in a few radio programs for children. That limited experience, combined with encouragement from actress Helen Hayes, bankable name recognition and an able agent, won her a professional radio play debut opposite James Stewart in 1951.

Advertisement

She portrayed his wife in an NBC adaptation of the 1950 motion picture comedy “The Jackpot” that had starred Stewart and Barbara Hale.

Daniel was under contract to NBC and, from 1954 to 1961, was co-host of the five-minute radio spot “Authors in the News” and in 1955-56 was co-host with Mike Wallace of the radio program “Weekday.” Filling in for Edward R. Murrow on his TV show “Person to Person,” she interviewed her parents in 1955.

Her marriage at 32 to Clifton Daniel in 1956 and the birth of their four sons sharply curtailed her acting career. But she continued to appear in summer stock productions and in 1965 was host of the CBS television program “International Hour.”

She settled happily into the role of wife, mother and New York society matron -- a happiness only slightly dimmed when she moved back to Washington in the mid-1970s after her husband became Washington bureau chief for the New York Times.

Advertisement

But another career she had never planned or prepared for was gestating, and that was writing. Critics were kinder about the efforts of Daniel the untrained writer than they had been about her carefully tutored efforts as a singer.

Writing, she once told an interviewer, was “the hardest and most exacting career I’ve ever had.”

She wrote her first book in self-defense. Knowing that an unauthorized biography of her life was planned, she wanted to head it off by relating her own life in her own way. “Souvenir: Margaret Truman’s Own Story” was written with the help of Margaret Cousins and published in 1956.

That account of her Missouri childhood, life in the White House and concert singing career was greeted by the New York Herald Tribune book review as “a gracefully written tale of an average American girl drawn by chance into the White House.”

Advertisement

In 1972, she published the bestselling biography of her father, “Harry S. Truman.” Critics praised its homey personal insights into Truman as a family man and its candor in relating such incidents as Winston Churchill telling Truman in 1952 that he had considered him an inept successor to Roosevelt. The British statesman added, she wrote: “I misjudged you badly. Since that time, you, more than any other man, have saved Western civilization.”

She wrote “Women of Courage” in 1976 about 12 admirable women she had selected from Revolutionary to modern times and dedicated it to her mother, who died in 1982. Four years later, she wrote a rare biography of her mother, “Bess W. Truman,” a woman so private she burned most of her personal correspondence, leaving little information for historians to explore.

In nonfiction, Daniel also edited two volumes of her father’s letters and wrote the 1995 group biography “First Ladies.”

Her affinity for mystery-novel writing perhaps afforded Daniel her greatest fame, second only to her stint as first daughter. She wrote at least 20 mysteries and came to the genre almost by accident. While working on a history of children who had lived in the White House, she lost interest. An avid reader of mystery novels, Daniel mentioned to her agent that she had an idea for a murder set in the White House.

Advertisement

The concept of a former resident concocting a murder story in that setting was irresistible. “Murder in the White House” was published in 1980.

Her son Clifton had his own wry explanation for his mother’s mystery-writing career, noting in his memoir: “My mother seems to have a strong opinion, often bad, of almost everyone in Washington. That’s why she writes those murder mysteries; so she can kill them all off, one at a time.”

Critical reaction to the first novel was lukewarm at best. “Margaret Truman is not a terrible writer,” commented The Times’ reviewer. “ ‘Murder in the White House’ exhibits a reasonable though hardly overwhelming command of the language, a fair-to-middling eye for character and an above-average notion of how to plot a mystery. Tolstoy is safe -- so is Agatha Christie -- but Truman has constructed a decent summer amusement.”

Readers embraced the book, making it a bestseller, and eagerly anticipated the “Capitol Crimes” series she began churning out.

Advertisement

Utilizing her familiarity with the lofty settings of government power and of the diplomats, politicians and pundits who peopled Washington, she offered entertaining lessons about the federal government.

Reviewing her 1992 “Murder at the Pentagon,” critic Charles Champlin wrote in The Times that “the plotting indeed is satisfyingly convoluted and the large-scale resolution worthy of [Robert] Ludlum.”

A Washington Post reviewer said that Daniel “writes a lively Washington scene with the sure hand of one who knows her way around the streets, institutions . . . people and politics.”

Born Feb. 17, 1924, Mary Margaret Truman was the doting and doted upon daughter of haberdasher Harry Truman and Elizabeth Virginia Wallace Truman. At 4, she began accompanying her father on campaign trips around the state, shaking hands and saying, “How do you do?” When at 8 she asked for an electric train for Christmas, she received a baby grand piano.

Advertisement

She was only 10 when she first moved to Washington, D.C., after her father was elected senator. Uncertain of reelection, the Trumans rented apartments for the six-month annual Senate session, buying a house only after he had won a second term in 1940. She attended the private girls’ school Gunston Hall and graduated in 1946 from George Washington University.

Her father died in 1972. Her husband died in 2000, the same year their second son, William, was fatally struck by a car while crossing New York’s Park Avenue. Besides son Clifton, she is survived by sons Harrison and Thomas and five grandchildren.

A memorial service is being planned at the Truman Library in Independence.


Advertisement