Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Bess Truman

It is probably not surprising that the First Lady with whom Bess Truman most identified was Elizabeth Monroe. Like her nineteenth-century predecessor, Bess followed a very visible, ebullient, and beloved figure, had a reserved and detached nature, and was committed to pursuing her own course as presidential spouse. Unlike Elizabeth Monroe, however, Elizabeth Wallace Truman came to earn the American public's acceptance and respect, steering her own course as the nation's First Lady.

Born in Independence, Missouri, in 1885 to David and Margaret “Madge” Wallace -- members of the small town’s upper social echelon -- Bess grew into a bright, athletic, emotionally strong, and pretty young women. After her father committed suicide in 1903, she assumed leadership of the Wallace family and provided her mother much-needed emotional comfort. In 1910, she became reacquainted with her childhood friend, Harry S. Truman. She and Harry undertook a long courtship which led eventually to their marriage in 1919. In 1924, Bess and Harry had their first and only child, Margaret.

By the time of Margaret’s birth, Harry Truman had entered politics, a decision that Bess reluctantly supported; she apparently found politics unseemly and, reflecting upon her father’s own political involvement, questioned whether such a career could provide the family with financial stability. Over time, Bess grew to resent the long hours her husband worked, as well as having to move the family away from her beloved mother to Washington, D.C. Bess was neither comfortable as a public figure nor did she believe that as the wife of a politician she should be the subject of public interest. This tension -- between supporting Harry’s career and her sometime overt antipathy towards politics and public life -- marked Bess Truman’s life until she and her husband left the White House in 1953. Never, though, did she fail to support her husband in public and she did much in their private lives to help him become a political success.

In 1934, Truman won election to the U.S. Senate from Missouri. For the next eighteen years, the Trumans’ life was centered around the nation’s capital, although Bess and Margaret still traveled back to Independence on a regular basis. Bess made a set of friends in Washington, which in the 1930s was still a relatively small southern city; these relationships helped to ease her transition. As a senator's wife, she believed that "a woman's place in public is to sit beside her husband, be silent, and be sure her hat is on straight." But behind the scenes, Bess provided her husband with much help. Harry placed Bess on his Senate office’s payroll, arguing that her hard work justified the appointment, though she rarely went to the office itself. Bess read the Congressional Record, edited Harry's speeches, and served as a confidante and political adviser.

In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt selected Senator Truman as his vice-presidential running mate. Bess greeted the possibility of four years as the wife of the vice president with apprehension. At the Democratic National Convention in 1944, as Harry, Bess, and Margaret waded through a phalanx of supporters and well-wishers, Bess reportedly asked her husband, “Are we going to have to go through this for the rest of our lives?” When Vice President Harry Truman gently urged his "second lady" to be more visible, Bess responded, "I am not the one elected. I have nothing to say to the public."

When Truman succeeded FDR as President, following the latter’s death on April 12, 1945, the spotlight on Bess Truman shown even more brightly. To make matters worse, Bess became First Lady in the shadow of Eleanor Roosevelt, who, during her twelve years in that role, had emerged as a public and political force. Bess did her best to take herself out of the public eye. There would be no touring of coal mines -- which Eleanor Roosevelt once did -- for Bess Truman. In addition, Bess ended her predecessor’s customary weekly meetings with female reporters. As First Lady, she told them, "You don't need to know me. I'm only the president's wife and the mother of his daughter."

Bess, of course, did have a public role as First Lady. She welcomed numerous women's groups to the White House, took a special interest in returning Korean veterans, and was active in exporting American theater abroad and raising funds for cancer research. She was also instrumental in preserving the historical integrity of the White House. By the late 1940s, the walls of the presidential mansion were crumbling. Many congressmen, reporters, and American citizens sought simply to demolish the old building and begin anew. Bess disagreed -- as did the President -- and fought to maintain the original walls inside a new steel structure, the more expensive option of the two. She openly lobbied congressional leaders and made a rare public statement urging the preservation of the original building. Bess prevailed and Congress appropriated funds to renovate the White House.

Away from the public eye, Bess was a significant presence in her husband's administration, just as she had been while he was in the Senate. While there is some question as to how much Harry consulted Bess about crucial decisions as President, it seems clear from his extensive correspondence to her that she wielded a sizable influence over his executive decision-making. Indeed, Harry referred to Bess as his "chief advisor" and "full partner in all transactions -- politically and otherwise."

Bess did have her detractors. Clare Booth Luce -- a Republican congresswoman, a member of the Washington social elite, and no fan of the President -- found Bess unsophisticated. Bess also endured unfavorable comparisons with Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1939, Eleanor had resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) because the organization did not allow blacks to perform at its concert hall in the nation’s capital. After First Lady Bess Truman accepted an invitation from the D.A.R. to a tea in her honor, black congressman Adam Clayton Powell labeled her the "last lady"; husband and President Harry Truman never again allowed Powell to come to the White House. Bess herself responded to Powell, writing an open letter to the New York Times in which she declared her opposition to racial prejudice but refused to cut her ties with the D.A.R.

In the main, though, the American people gradually came to respect and admire Bess Truman. For although Bess departed from the role of First Lady laid down by her illustrious predecessor, she portrayed herself as a typical American woman of the late 1940s and early 1950s. She regarded herself as a wife and mother, loved playing bridge --occasionally importing her Independence, Missouri, bridge cronies for a few card games at the White House -- held membership in a number of women's clubs, and was a big fan of Bob Hope. The nation could relate to Bess. At the same time, she performed her duties as presidential hostess and worked doggedly on causes like the renovation of the White House, even though she had long-held and deep-seated reservations about assuming a public role. Out of the public eye, she served as her husband’s political confidante and adviser. While Bess Truman was no Eleanor Roosevelt, she did not try to be. She served as First Lady on her own terms and to the best of her abilities and wishes -- a testimony in itself to her strong will and determination.