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Authors: Margaret Truman

Tags: #Biography/Women

Bess Truman

BOOK: Bess Truman
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This is the most difficult book I have ever written. It is about a woman I thought I knew better than any other person in my life, but I discovered as I wrote it that it was about a woman who kept her deepest feelings, her most profound sorrows, sealed from my view - from almost everyone’s view.

I suspect this is true of most mothers and daughters, perhaps equally true of most fathers and sons. Being a parent, a daughter, a son is a mysterious experience at best. Concealment, secrecy, are not produced by malice. On the contrary, they are invariably acts of love.

If there is one thing I know, it is the intensity of my mother’s love for me, of mine for her. That is another reason why this is a difficult book to write. I am trying to step out of that circle of love, that private spotlight in which I have lived my life, sometimes almost resenting the intensity. It is necessary in order to help others see my mother. It has been necessary in order for me to see her.

That is why, in this book, I am calling her by a name I never used once while she was alive: Bess.

That was the name my father used, along with a host of teasing alternatives: “The Boss,” “Mrs. T,” “Lizzie.” Bess is also the name that other people - the amazing number of other people who loved my mother and were loved by her - used. Much of this book will be about those loves. My father will remain at the center, of course, where he always was for sixty-nine years. But there were others who loved Bess Wallace Truman, and were loved by her. They are an important part of this story, which is about a woman who loved in spite of starting with the worst possible odds against this fundamental experience, a woman who might have become a creature with a heart of stone.


This book would never have been completed without the assistance of the staff of the Truman Library, who helped me organize Bess Wallace Truman’s voluminous papers. I would like to thank the library’s director, Benedict K. Zobrist, archivist Harry Clark and Elizabeth Safly, the research librarian, whose skill at discovering (or confirming) facts both large and small on all aspects of the Trumans is phenomenal. I would also like to thank various friends and relatives who shared with me their memories of Mother, especially Drucie Snyder Horton and her father, former Secretary of the Treasury John Snyder, Reathel Odum, and Mary Shaw Branton. At least as important was my aunt, May Southern Wallace, whose recollections reach back to the early years of the century, Rufus Burrus, whose memories are almost as extensive, and Sue Gentry, who covered the Trumans in Independence for the Independence
Teresa F. Matchette of the National Archives made some very important discoveries on my behalf. Also helpful were Peter Calhoun, son of Mother’s old friend Arry Calhoun, Michael S. Churchman, headmaster of the Barstow School, Richard S. Brownlee and Debra Duffen of the State Historical Society of Missouri, and Ron Cockrell, Research Historian of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Finally, I must thank Thomas Fleming, who assisted me in my biography of my father,
Harry S. Truman.
Mr. Fleming’s research skills and literary advice have again proven invaluable.


Elizabeth Virginia Wallace was born on February 13, 1885, in a comfortable house on Ruby Street in Independence, Missouri. She grew up in a world that seemed, at first glance, as stable and full of love as any child could wish. Her father, David Willock Wallace, was a tall, handsome man with a curling blond mustache and golden sideburns. Her mother, Margaret Gates Wallace, whom everyone called Madge, was a dark, petite beauty. She called the baby “Bessie” after her closest friend, New Yorker Bessie Madge Andrews, whom she had met while attending the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

In 1885, Independence was a peaceful country town of about 3,500 people. A St. Louis reporter visiting it in the 1870s called it “an orchard city,” because the trees were so numerous and leafy it was difficult to see the houses. Almost everyone was on a first-name basis, and a great many families had become intricately connected in the fifty-eight years that had passed since the first settlers arrived. Some wit remarked that if a Woodson married a McCoy, everyone in Independence would be related to everyone else.

When Bess was two years old, her father sold the house on Ruby Street and moved to a larger house at 608 North Delaware, one of the most fashionable addresses in Independence. There is not much doubt that Bess’ mother had a lot to say about their choice of a new home. She was now living only two blocks away from an imposing two-and-one-half-story mansion that Bess’ grandfather, George Porterfield Gates, had built on the corner of North Delaware and Blue Avenue (since renamed Van Horn Road) in the year of her birth.

That house became almost a second home for Bess. Her mother’s pretty sisters, Maud and Myra, fussed over her, and two younger uncles, Walter and Frank Gates, did their best to spoil her, an avuncular habit that I would rediscover to my delight in my own childhood. A frequent visitor was granduncle Edward P. Gates, a prominent attorney, soon to be a judge. But the central person in the house was tall (six feet four inches), bearded George Porterfield Gates, who bounced her on his knee and talked amusing nonsense to her. She was his first grandchild - a guarantee of special affection from him and his deeply religious wife, Elizabeth. Little Bess nicknamed them “Nana” and “Mama” - names she used when she was learning to talk.

Her younger uncle, Frank Gates, was so fond of Bess that he corresponded regularly with her when he went off to college in 1889. Three of his letters to “my dear little Bessie” have survived the years. He wrote in the third person, cheerfully describing how “Uncle Frank” was the laughingstock of his boardinghouse because his eyes were swollen “about the size of a watermelon,” telling her that “Uncle Frank” was going to stay in Chicago for his spring vacation and expected to have a good time “but not as good as he would if he could come home and see you.”

It was virtually impossible for anyone not to love little Bess. She had her father’s golden hair and the brightest blue eyes the family had ever seen. She was amazingly good-humored and outgoing, traits she inherited from her father.

The Wallaces were not entirely absent from Bess’ life. Her middle name, Virginia, came from her Wallace grandmother. As Bess grew past the toddling stage, Virginia Willock Wallace gave her a stream of beautiful silk dresses. She was a gifted, amateur seamstress. There were numerous Wallace cousins living in Independence. The Wallaces were among the first settlers of the town, arriving from Kentucky in 1833. But her father’s immediate family were far outnumbered by the Gates tribe. Her Wallace grandfather had died eight years before she was born, and “Dommie,” as Bess called Virginia Willock Wallace, lived a considerable distance from North Delaware Street.

At her own home, there were new arrivals that competed for the attention of Bess’ grandparents and uncles and aunts. Frank Gates Wallace was born on March 4, 1887, and George Porterfield Wallace arrived on May 1, 1892. The reader will notice the prevalence of the Gates family in the names. By the time her brother George was born, seven-year-old Bess undoubtedly was aware that the Gates side of her family tree was more important than the Wallace side. Dominating the town’s skyline was the twelve-story grain elevator of the Waggoner-Gates Milling Company, where Queen of the Pantry flour was manufactured by the millions of pounds for homemakers throughout the Midwest. It was pointed out to Bess as “Nana’s mill.” At Christmas and on her birthdays, except for a silk dress from Dommie, all the best presents came from Nana and Mama. Gradually, the growing Bess perceived that her handsome, genial father did not have much money.

When Madge Gates, at age twenty-one, fell in love with David Wallace, age twenty-three, George Gates had taken a dim view of the match. Like most American fathers, he could not quite bring himself to forbid it. But he made ominous noises and did everything in his power to delay it until the young couple threatened to elope. George Gates capitulated, and the wedding took place in the First Presbyterian Church on June 13, 1883. It was front-page news in the local paper.

George Gates did not think that David Wallace could support his oldest daughter in the style to which she was accustomed. The young husband had no training or interest in business. He was going to rely for an income on the perilous path of politics. David’s father, Benjamin Wallace, had been elected mayor of Independence in 1869. Thereafter, he had represented a Jackson County district in the state legislature. With his political pull, he had David appointed to a clerkship in the state senate when he was fourteen. At the age of eighteen, the year after his father died, David was appointed deputy recorder of marriage licenses in Independence.

I doubt that David ever did a day’s work at either job. The newspapers regularly inveighed against the political bosses for their habit of appointing assistants and deputies whose only task was to get out the vote on Election Day. But these youthful appointments probably gave David Wallace the illusion that politics was an easy way to make a living. That might have been true if he had remained a bachelor. But few political jobs paid enough to support a wife with the expensive tastes of Madge Gates.

In the first year of their marriage, there was an ominous sign of financial strain. The bridegroom had to mortgage their Ruby Street house to secure a $700 loan. Two years later, David Willock Wallace wrote to President Grover Cleveland, the first Democrat to get into the White House in twenty-five years. Addressing him as “Dear Sir and Friend,” he reminded the president that he had supported him at the Democratic Convention and had once met him in Buffalo. Whereupon he asked him for a job in the customs house in Kansas City. Although David Wallace said the appointment was of “vast importance” to him (another sign of financial strain), Cleveland turned him down in a brief note from his secretary, who claimed the president “declined all requests of this character.”

Fortunately, in 1887, David Wallace was able to sell the house on Ruby Street for much more than he had paid for it and move to North Delaware Street. Independence was enjoying a real-estate boom. The year of Bess Wallace’s birth, 1885, was the last year of Independence’s long career as a sleepy little country town.

In the first half of the 1880s, the twelve miles that separated Kansas City and Independence might as well have been 1,200 for most people. The only connecting link was a dirt road full of ruts and impossible grades. In 1885, the big city came closer when the road was smoothed into a boulevard, and in 1887, the march of progress brought it practically next door when the Independence, Kansas City, and Park Railway opened for business. You suddenly could live in Independence and shop or work in Kansas City. Independence became a suburb of Kansas City.

Real-estate values soared, and over the next ten years the population doubled to about 6,000. To some old families in Independence, this new reality was disconcerting, even a little threatening. Independence had been a thriving town - “the Queen City of the Trails” - when Kansas City was a gaggle of riverboat men and outlaws huddled along the Missouri’s banks. For almost three decades before the Civil War, Independence had been the point of departure for the wagon trains that trekked west.

After the war, the Missouri Pacific and half a dozen other railroads made Kansas City their headquarters. Its population had leaped tenfold, leaving Independence far behind in size, wealth, and political power. But Independence continued to look down its genteel nose at raucous Kansas City, with its gambling parlors and corrupt politics. The metropolis retained a fascination, nevertheless, particularly at its Board of Trade, where men bet fortunes on the future price of wheat.

Independence saw itself as more interested in books, ideas, and culture. In the 1890s, the girlhood years of Bess Wallace, the town abounded in study clubs, where women reported on the latest novels by their fellow Missourian, Mark Twain, or the notions of that wild man from Minnesota, Ignatius Donnelly, who attacked the American tendency to think too highly of money.

For women, life in Independence revolved around culture, the family, and the church. By and large, the churches reflected the social scale. The so-called best people were Presbyterians. Next in quality were the Campbellites, now known as the Christian Church. Further down the scale were the Baptists, the Mormons, and the Catholics. The Episcopalians were so few in number they were scarcely noticed.

Outside Independence was the countryside - a very different place. There, mostly Baptist farmers tilled some of the most fertile soil in America. Many of them were far wealthier than the genteel citizens of Independence, but they were regarded as largely uneducated, uncultured bumpkins. To be from town was a mark of distinction, from the country an invitation to mild disdain.

The people at the top of Independence’s social ladder built houses that no farmer ever dreamt of inhabiting. In 1881, Colonel E. T. Vaile, who had made a fortune operating western mail routes for the federal government, put up a red-brick, Second-Empire mansion, with a four-story tower and yards of gingerbread. Still standing on North Liberty Street, the Vaile mansion is the equal of any built by the money barons of Chicago and San Francisco. The Swopes, who made their fortune in Kansas City real estate, built an equally imposing house with a full ballroom on the third floor. As other wealthy newcomers from Kansas City imitated these examples, Independence became known as “the Royal Suburb.”

Social life in Independence was as elegant, if not as grand, as it was in Chicago and other large cities where wealth had accumulated. No one tried to equal Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt’s 1883 ball in her New York mansion, where women showed up wearing skirts quilted with diamonds. But dancing schools did a brisk business, and the newspapers constantly reported balls and receptions and dinners. Independence ladies kept dressmakers busy turning out the latest styles, which in 1885 featured a return to the bustle in its final, most outrageous form. For everything from fine furniture to furs, there was Bullene’s in Kansas City, the largest department store west of Chicago.

Independence men were interested in politics - national, state, and local. That was another reason to look askance at Kansas City. The people there tended to vote Republican – the party of Abraham Lincoln - while old Independence, the city that David Willock Wallace knew as a boy, was unswervingly, wholeheartedly, passionately Democratic. As Democratic as Mississippi and South Carolina and Virginia. On some streets in Independence - North Delaware was one of them - a visitor without a map would find it hard to tell that he was not in the Deep South.

The Civil War still was a bitter memory in old Independence. One of the most savage battles for control of Missouri, a border state that never seceded, was fought in and around the town. To snuff out the guerrilla war that raged after the rebels lost that battle, a Union general issued the infamous Order No. II, which required everyone to abandon farms and crops in a three-county tier - thirty miles deep and 100 miles long, on the Kansas border. Everything within that zone was forthwith burned, leaving 20,000 people homeless and destitute. It broke the back of Confederate resistance in Missouri, but it left a legacy of political bitterness that old Independence never forgot.

It also spawned a legacy of lawlessness in Jackson County. Former Confederate guerrillas – including Jesse and Frank James and the Younger brothers - could not adjust to peace. As late as 1879, only six years before Bess Wallace was born, they were still robbing Yankee banks and trains - to the embarrassment of many people in Independence who were related to them.

In new Independence, the royal suburb, with its steady influx of newcomers from Kansas City, this heritage of violence and hatred became more and more irrelevant. So did the wing of the Democratic Party to which David Willock Wallace belonged. The passions of the Civil War, the endless waving of “the bloody shirt” by the Republicans, the invoking of Order No. 11 by the Democrats, were fading fast.

David Wallace ran for Jackson County treasurer in 1888 and 1890, winning both times. But when his second term expired in 1892, the feuding, factionalized Democrats of Jackson County did not offer him another office. For almost a full year, he was unemployed. Late in 1893, after Grover Cleveland became president for a second time - the only man the Democrats were able to get into the White House between 1856 and 1912 - David Wallace finally wangled an appointment as deputy United States surveyor of customs for the port of Kansas City and abandoned elective politics.

BOOK: Bess Truman
3.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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