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Elizabeth Virginia “Bess” Truman was the wife of Harry S. Truman and First Lady of the United States from 1945 to 1953. She served as her husband’s secretary and was known for often voicing her opinions.
Whistle-stopping in 1948, President Harry Truman often ended his campaign talk by introducing his wife as “the Boss” and his daughter, Margaret, as “the Boss’s Boss,” and they smiled and waved as the train picked up steam. The sight of that close-knit family gallantly fighting against such long odds had much to do with his surprise victory at the polls that November.
Strong family ties in the southern tradition had always been important around Independence, Missouri, where a baby girl was born to Margaret (“Madge”) Gates and David Wallace on February 13, 1885. Christened Elizabeth Virginia, she grew up as “Bess.” Harry Truman, whose family moved to town in 1890, always kept his first impression of her — “golden curls” and “the most beautiful blue eyes.” A relative said, “there never was but one girl in the world” for him. They attended the same schools from fifth grade through high school.
In recent years their daughter has written a vivid sketch of Bess as a girl: “a marvelous athlete–the best third baseman in Independence, a superb tennis player, a tireless ice skater–and she was pretty besides.” She also had many “strong opinions….and no hesitation about stating them Missouri style–straight from the shoulder.”
For Bess and Harry, World War I altered a deliberate courtship. He proposed and they became engaged before Lieutenant Truman left for the battlefields of France in 1918. They were married in June 1919; they lived in Mrs. Wallace’s home, where Mary Margaret was born in 1924.
When Harry Truman became active in politics, Mrs. Truman traveled with him and shared his platform appearances as the public had come to expect a candidate’s wife to do. His election to the Senate in 1934 took the family to Washington. Reluctant to be a public figure herself, she always shared his thoughts and interests in private. When she joined his office staff as a secretary, he said, she earned “every cent I pay her.” His wartime role as chairman of a special committee on defense spending earned him national recognition–and a place on the Democratic ticket as President Roosevelt’s fourth-term running mate. Three months after their inauguration Roosevelt was dead. On April 12, 1945, Harry Truman took the President’s oath of office–and Bess, who managed to look on with composure, was the new First Lady.
In the White House, its lack of privacy was distasteful to her. 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 conscientiously fulfilled the social obligations of her position, she did only what was necessary. While the mansion was rebuilt during the second term, the Trumans lived in Blair House and kept social life to a minimum.
They returned to Independence in 1953. After her husband’s death in 1972, Mrs. Truman continued to live in the family home. There she enjoyed visits from Margaret and her husband, Clifton Daniel, and their four sons. She died in 1982 and was buried beside her husband in the courtyard of the Harry S. Truman Library.
You can learn more about Mrs. Truman at the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum.
Learn more about Elizabeth Virginia Wallace Truman’s spouse, Harry S. Truman.