Bess Wallace Truman: Harry's White House 'Boss.'.

Author:Blomstedt, Larry W.
Position:Book review

Bess Wallace Truman: Harry's White House "Boss." By Sara L. Sale. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010. 166 pp.

Sara L. Sale's biography of Bess Truman is the latest in the Modern First Ladies series edited by Lewis L. Gould. Surprisingly, this is the first biography from a historian dedicated solely to Bess Truman, and only the second overall, after daughter Margaret Truman's Bess W. Truman (Macmillan, 1986). Using a wide array of secondary sources along with correspondence and oral histories from Truman's staffers and friends, Sale argues that historians have overlooked the importance of this First Lady until recently. Despite Bess's "passion for anonymity," she was "one of the most influential" presidential spouses (p. 103). Sale supports her argument effectively in this concise work that will appeal primarily to the general public but will also interest scholars of Harry Truman's presidency.

Bess Wallace Truman is organized into six chapters. The book opens with a summary of Bess's early life, her courtship with Harry, and their life together from the start of his political career in county politics through his election as vice president in 1944. Here, we learn that Bess edited virtually all of her husband's speeches, a striking example of her involvement in his political life that continued through his presidency. The next four chapters discuss Bess Truman as First Lady, beginning with her initiation to her new responsibilities upon the passing of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry's ascension to the White House. She got off to a rocky start, suffering through a champagne bottle malfunction that soaked her dress during an aircraft christening ceremony. Bess then created a stir by attending a Daughters of the American Revolution function shortly after they had snubbed the wife of Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., for apparently racial reasons. Nevertheless, Truman grew into the role and blossomed during her husband's 1948 whistle-stop campaign, the subject of the third chapter. Sale characterizes this period as a turning point in which the First Lady began to open up to the press and presents compelling evidence that it was Bess's idea to plan the train trip that produced the greatest upset in presidential election history. With her husband now elected in his own right, Ms. Truman went to work persuading him to appoint...

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