Bess Truman

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Bess Truman
Bess Truman cropped.jpg
First Lady of the United States
In role
April 12, 1945 – January 20, 1953
President Harry Truman
Preceded by Eleanor Roosevelt
Succeeded by Mamie Eisenhower
Second Lady of the United States
In role
January 20, 1945 – April 12, 1945
President Franklin Roosevelt
Preceded by Ilo Wallace
Succeeded by Jane Barkley (1949)
Personal details
Born Elizabeth Virginia Wallace
(1885-02-13)February 13, 1885
Independence, Missouri, U.S.
Died October 18, 1982(1982-10-18) (aged 97)
Independence, Missouri, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Harry Truman (m. 1919–1972; his death)
Children Margaret
Religion Episcopalianism

Elizabeth Virginia "Bess" Truman (née Wallace; February 13, 1885 – October 18, 1982) was the wife of U.S. President Harry S. Truman and First Lady of the United States from 1945 to 1953.

She had known her future husband since they were children attending the same school in Independence, Missouri. As First Lady, she did not enjoy the social and political scene in Washington, and at the end of her husband's term in 1953, she was relieved to return to Independence. She currently holds the record of longest-lived First Lady, at 97 years and 8 months.

Early life and education[edit]

Bess Truman was born Elizabeth Virginia Wallace on February 13, 1885, to David Willock Wallace (1860–1903) and his wife, the former Margaret Elizabeth Gates (1862–1952), in Independence, Missouri, and was known as Bessie during her childhood. She was the eldest of four; three brothers: Frank Gates Wallace, (4 March 1887 – 12 August 1960), George Porterfield Wallace, (1 May 1892 – 24 May 1963), David Frederick Wallace, (7 January 1900 – 30 September 1957). Bess had a reputation as a tomboy as a child.[1] As a young woman, Bess enjoyed to express herself through her fashion and hats; a friend was quoted "Bess always had more stylish hats than the rest of us did, or she wore them with more style."[2]

Harry Truman met Bess soon after his family moved to Independence, and the two attended school together until graduation.[3]

After graduating from William Chrisman High School (then known as Independence High School) she studied at Miss Barstow's Finishing School for Girls in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1903 her father got up very early one morning, climbed into the family bathtub and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. According to biographer David McCullough, the cause for his suicide is unknown, with speculation ranging from depression to mounting debts.[4][5][6]

Bess and Harry Truman married in 1919 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Independence.[7] Harry courted Bess before he went off to fight during World War I; he proposed in 1911, but she turned him down. Truman later said that he intended to propose again, but when he did he wanted to be earning more money than a farmer did.[8] Their only daughter, Margaret, was born in 1924.[1]

Childhood Portrait of Bess Truman at About Age 4 1/2 (Truman Library)

Life in Washington[edit]

When Truman was elected as a Senator from Missouri in 1934, the family moved to Washington, DC. Mrs. Truman became a member of the Congressional Club, the PEO Sisterhood, the H Street United Service Organization, and the Red Cross work of the Senate Wives Club. She joined her husband's staff as a clerk, answering personal mail and editing committee reports when he became Chairman of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program.[1]

First Lady of the United States[edit]

Bess found the White House's lack of privacy distasteful. As her husband put it later, she was "not especially interested" in the "formalities and pomp or the artificiality which, as we had learned..., inevitably surround the family of the President Harry Truman." Though she steadfastly fulfilled the social obligations of her position, she did only what she thought was necessary. When the White House was rebuilt during Truman's second term, the family lived in Blair House and kept their social life to a minimum. In most years of her husband's presidency Mrs. Truman was not regularly present in Washington other than during the social season when her presence was expected.[9] The contrast with Bess's activist predecessor Eleanor Roosevelt was considerable. Unlike her, Bess held only one press conference after many requests from the media.[10] The press conference consisted of written questions in advance and the written replies were mostly monosyllabic along with many no comments.[11] When asked why she didn't want to give press conferences she replied "I am not the one who is elected. I have nothing to say to the public."[2] Bess's response to whether she wanted her daughter Margaret to become President was "most definitely not." Her reply to what she wanted to do after her husband left office was "return to Independence".[12]

As First Lady, Bess served as Honorary President of the Girl Scouts, the Womens' National Democratic Club, and the Washington Animal Rescue League. She was Honorary Chairman of the American Red Cross.[1]

In 1953 the Trumans went back to Independence and the family home at 219 North Delaware Street, where the former president worked on building his library and writing his memoirs. Bess fully recovered following a 1959 mastectomy in which doctors removed a large, but benign, tumor.[13]

When President Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare into law in 1965, the Trumans were the first to be given its benefits.[14]

President Johnson handing President Truman a pen to sign the medicare bill as Bess, Lady Bird Johnson, and Vice President Humphrey look on.


In 1961, David Susskind conducted a series of interviews with former President Truman in Independence. After picking Truman up at his home to take him to the Truman Presidential Library for the interviews over a number of days, Susskind asked Truman why he hadn't been invited into the home. According to presidential historian Michael Beschloss, Truman flatly told Susskind, "This is Bess's house" and that there had never been nor would there ever be a Jewish guest in there.[15]

Widowhood, death and longevity record[edit]

At the time of her husband's death in 1972 at age 88, she was 87, making them the oldest couple having occupied the White House at that time. Bess agreed to be the honorary chairman for the reelection campaign of Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D-Missouri).[16]

Bess continued to live quietly in Independence for the last decade of her life, being visited by her daughter and grandchildren. She died October 18, 1982, from congestive heart failure at the age of 97; a private funeral service was held October 21, afterwards she was buried beside her husband in the courtyard of the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri.[17]

Bess Truman remains the longest-lived First Lady in United States history.[16]


  1. ^ a b c d "Truman: Bess Truman's Biography". Retrieved 2016-10-22. 
  2. ^ a b Geselbracht. "Young Bess in Hats" (PDF). Prologue. Spring 2013. 
  3. ^ Klapthor, Margaret Brown (1 October 2002). The First Ladies. Government Printing Office. p. 75. ISBN 978-0-912308-83-8. 
  4. ^ American Experience: Truman PBS. 1997. Episode 1 of 2.
  5. ^ "24,000 Pages of Bess Truman’s Family Papers Are Released". The New York Times/The Associated Press. February 14, 2009.
  6. ^ "Bess Truman". Encyclopædia Britannica's Guide to American Presidents. Retrieved January 15, 2013.
  7. ^ Margolies, Daniel S. (30 July 2012). A Companion to Harry S. Truman. John Wiley & Sons. p. 37. ISBN 978-1-118-30075-6. 
  8. ^ McCullough, David (1992). Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 78–79. ISBN 978-0-671-86920-5. 
  9. ^ Christensen, Lawrence O.; Foley, William E.; Kremer, Gary (October 1999). Dictionary of Missouri Biography. University of Missouri Press. p. 752. ISBN 978-0-8262-6016-1. 
  10. ^ Watson, Robert P. (2000). The Presidents' Wives: Reassessing the Office of First Lady. Lynne Rienner Publishers. p. 89. ISBN 978-1-55587-948-8. 
  11. ^ Burnes, Brian (1 November 2003). Harry S. Truman: His Life and Times. Kansas City Star Books. p. 34. ISBN 978-0-9740009-3-0. 
  12. ^ Wertheimer, Molly Meijer (1 January 2004). Inventing a Voice: The Rhetoric of American First Ladies of the Twentieth Century. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 212. ISBN 978-0-7425-2971-7. 
  13. ^ Neal, Steve (2004). Eleanor and Harry: The Correspondence of Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. Kensington Publishing Corporation. p. 259. ISBN 978-0-8065-2561-7. 
  14. ^ "President Johnson signs Medicare Bill on July 30, 1965". Politico. Retrieved December 15, 2013. 
  15. ^ Beschloss, Michael (2007). Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789–1989 (PDF). New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 210. ISBN 0-684-85705-7. Retrieved June 26, 2015. 
  16. ^ a b Algeo, Matthew (1 May 2009). Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip. Chicago Review Press. p. 226. ISBN 978-1-56976-251-6. 
  17. ^ "Bess Truman Buried - October 22, 1982". The Gettysburg Times. Retrieved August 1, 2013. 


External links[edit]

Honorary titles
Preceded by
Ilo Wallace
Second Lady of the United States
Title next held by
Jane Barkley
Preceded by
Eleanor Roosevelt
First Lady of the United States
Succeeded by
Mamie Eisenhower