Bess Truman: Longest Lived First Lady

The recent death of Barbara Bush made me curious as to who was the longest lived First Lady.  That title goes to Bess Truman.  Born in 1885 less than 20 years from the end of the Civil War, she died on October 18, 1982, at the age of 97.  Very much a homebody, Bess Truman detested Washington and being First Lady.  Her goal was simple as First Lady: to cease being First Lady and to return to Independence.  In contrast to her immediate predecessor who talked to the press constantly, Truman held one press conference in which she gave written answers to pre-submitted questions.  When asked if she would like to see her daughter as President she bluntly said no.


During the 1948 whistle stop campaign in which Harry Truman referred to her as “The Boss” when introducing her to crowds, Bess purportedly told him that if he introduced her one more time as “The Boss” she would leave the train and she would not care how fast it was traveling.

A woman who knew her own mind, she turned down Harry the first time he proposed in 1911 and they would not wed until 1919, Bess Truman strikes me as a refreshingly normal human being who held a position she disliked  with grace out of love for her husband and her nation.  Harry Truman idolized her, and, as usual, Harry Truman demonstrated his usual good common sense.



July 20, 1945: Dear Bess


Harry Truman was a very happily married man and whenever he was separated from his wife, he would write her chatty letters which are a first rate source of what he was thinking on a particular day.  He wrote this letter after the start of the Potsdam Conference with Stalin and Churchill:


Berlin July 20, 1945

Dear Bess:

It was an experience to talk to you from my desk here in Berlin night before last. It sure made me homesick. This is a hell of a place–ruined, dirty, smelly, forlorn people, bedraggled, hangdog look about them. You never saw as completely ruined a city. But they did it. I am most comfortably fixed and the palace where we meet is one of two intact palaces left standing.

Jim Blair came to see me yesterday and had breakfast with me this morning. He is a Lt. Col. and is in charge of food and clean up for American forces here. Said it was the filthiest place he ever saw when he arrived–but it’s clean now.

We had a tough meeting yesterday. I reared up on my hind legs and told ’em where to get off and they got off. I have to make it perfectly plain to them at least once a day that so far as this President is concerned Santa Claus is dead and that my first interest is U.S.A., then I want the Jap War won and I want ’em both in it. Then I want peace–world peace and will do what can be done by us to get it. But certainly am not going to set up another foil here in Europe, pay reparations, feed the world, and get nothing for it but a nose thumbing. They are beginning to awake to the fact that I mean business.

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