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
PresidentHarry S. Truman
Preceded byEleanor Roosevelt
Succeeded byMamie Eisenhower
Second Lady of the United States
In role
January 20, 1945 – April 12, 1945
Vice PresidentHarry S. Truman
Preceded byIlo Wallace
Succeeded byJane Barkley (1949)
Personal details
Elizabeth Virginia Wallace

(1885-02-13)February 13, 1885
Independence, Missouri, U.S.
DiedOctober 18, 1982(1982-10-18) (aged 97)
Independence, Missouri, U.S.
Resting placeHarry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum
Independence, Missouri, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
(m. 1919; died 1972)

Elizabeth Virginia Truman (née Wallace; February 13, 1885 – October 18, 1982) was the wife of President Harry S. Truman and the first lady of the United States from 1945 to 1953. She also served as the second lady of the United States in 1945.

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 and longest-lived Second Lady, at 97 years, 247 days. She died in Independence, Missouri.

Early life, education and career[edit]

Childhood Portrait of Bess Truman at About Age 4½ (Truman Library)

Bess Truman was born Elizabeth Virginia Wallace on February 13, 1885, to Margaret Elizabeth Gates (August 4, 1862 – December 5, 1952, daughter of George Porterfield Gates, co-founder of the Waggoner Gates Milling Company)[1] and David Willock Wallace (June 15, 1860 – June 17, 1903, a local politician, son of a former Independence mayor)[1] in Independence, Missouri, and was known as Bessie during her childhood. She was the eldest of four; three brothers: Frank Gates Wallace, (March 4, 1887 – August 12, 1960), George Porterfield Wallace, (May 1, 1892 – May 24, 1963), David Frederick Wallace, (January 7, 1900 – September 30, 1957). Bess had a reputation as a tomboy as a child.[2] As a young woman, Bess enjoyed expressing 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."[3]

Harry and Bess Truman, June 28, 1919.

Harry Truman met Bess soon after his family moved to Independence, and the two attended school together until graduation.[4]

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. Bess played on the women's basketball team when she was not studying literature or the French language.[5]

In 1903, her father rose very early one morning, climbed into the family bathtub, and died by 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.[6][7][8]

After graduation, Bess went on to fulfill many job positions. She was Manager, Accountant, at Truman- Jacobsen Haberdashery from 1919 to 1922. She went on to become an Advisor, Aide to County Judge, eastern district of Jackson County, Missouri from 1922-1924. Next, Bess took another Advisor, Aide position with the Presiding Judge of County Court, eastern district of Jackson County, Missouri from 1926 to 1934. She then worked as a Senator Advisor, Aide from 1935-1945, before becoming Second Lady.[5]

Bess and Harry Truman married on June 28, 1919, at Trinity Episcopal Church in Independence.[9] 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.[10] Their only child, Margaret, was born in 1924.[2]

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.[2]

When Truman accepted the role of Vice President to President Roosevelt, Bess was not entirely pleased. She wanted to return to their life in Missouri, but she also feared that Roosevelt would die, making her husband the President.[5]

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." 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.[11] When Bess was in Washington, she held a weekly Spanish language class for her and her local friends.[5] 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.[12] The press conference consisted of written questions in advance and the written replies were mostly monosyllabic along with many no comments.[13] When asked why she did not want to give press conferences she replied "I am not the one who is elected. I have nothing to say to the public."[3] 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".[14] The lack of interaction with the media was due to Bess's fear of public opinion. She feared that someone would bring up her father's suicide or judge her for this past.[5]

Privately, Bess was an unofficial advisor to her husband, President Truman. She never told him what to do as President, but she often offered her opinion on matters he was unsure of. Bess would also assist President Truman with his speeches, including his speech on the Truman Doctrine. In addition to speeches, Bess reviewed and commented on Truman's work at the end of every day, and played an influential role in his 1948 campaign.[5]

As First Lady, Bess served as Honorary President of the Girl Scouts, the Woman's National Democratic Club, and the Washington Animal Rescue League. She was Honorary Chairman of the American Red Cross.[2]

Bess worked with various organizations, but she never adopted a group or cause to focus on, as many First Ladies do.[5]

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.[15]

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

When President Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare into law in 1965, the Trumans were the first senior citizens to receive Medicare cards, presented to them by Johnson at the Truman Library.[16]


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 several days, Susskind asked Truman why he had not 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.[17]

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).[18]

Bess continued to live quietly in Independence for the last decade of her life, being visited by her daughter and grandchildren. She died on October 18, 1982, from congestive heart failure at the age of 97; a private funeral service was held on October 21. Afterwards, she was buried beside her husband in the courtyard of the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri.[19]

Bess Truman remains the longest-lived First Lady in United States history at 97, followed by Nancy Reagan, Lady Bird Johnson and Rosalynn Carter at 94 and Barbara Bush at 92. As of November 2021, Carter is still living. Truman is also the longest lived Second Lady in United States history. [18]



  1. ^ a b Daniel, Clifton Truman (2011). Dear Harry, Love Bess – Bess Truman's Letters to Harry Truman (1919–1943) (PDF). Truman State University Press. p. 1. ISBN 978-1-935503-26-2.
  2. ^ a b c d "Truman: Bess Truman's Biography". Retrieved October 22, 2016.
  3. ^ a b Geselbracht. "Young Bess in Hats" (PDF). Prologue. Spring 2013.
  4. ^ Klapthor, Margaret Brown (October 1, 2002). The First Ladies. Government Printing Office. p. 75. ISBN 978-0-912308-83-8.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g "Bess Truman Biography :: National First Ladies' Library". Retrieved March 2, 2021.
  6. ^ American Experience: Truman PBS. 1997. Episode 1 of 2.
  7. ^ "24,000 Pages of Bess Truman's Family Papers Are Released". The New York Times/The Associated Press. February 14, 2009.
  8. ^ "Bess Truman". Encyclopædia Britannica's Guide to American Presidents. Retrieved January 15, 2013.
  9. ^ Margolies, Daniel S. (July 30, 2012). A Companion to Harry S. Truman. John Wiley & Sons. p. 37. ISBN 978-1-118-30075-6.
  10. ^ McCullough, David (1992). Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 78–79. ISBN 978-0-671-86920-5.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ Watson, Robert P. (2000). The Presidents' Wives: Reassessing the Office of First Lady. Lynne Rienner Publishers. p. 89. ISBN 978-1-55587-948-8.
  13. ^ Burnes, Brian (November 1, 2003). Harry S. Truman: His Life and Times. Kansas City Star Books. p. 34. ISBN 978-0-9740009-3-0.
  14. ^ Wertheimer, Molly Meijer (January 1, 2004). Inventing a Voice: The Rhetoric of American First Ladies of the Twentieth Century. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 212. ISBN 978-0-7425-2971-7.
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ "President Johnson signs Medicare Bill on July 30, 1965". Politico. Retrieved December 15, 2013.
  17. ^ Beschloss, Michael (2007). Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789–1989. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 210. ISBN 978-0-684-85705-3.
  18. ^ a b Algeo, Matthew (May 1, 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.
  19. ^ "Bess Truman Buried – October 22, 1982". The Gettysburg Times. Retrieved August 1, 2013.


External links[edit]

Honorary titles
Preceded by Second Lady of the United States
Title next held by
Jane Barkley
Preceded by First Lady of the United States
Succeeded by