February 2004 Feature
The Love Story of Harry and Bess Truman
The month of February encompasses holidays celebrating both Presidents and love.
Probably every President has fallen in love. Some have probably fallen more deeply in love than others, and a few have possibly fallen in love more times than was good for them. One President who fell very deeply, and also very exclusively, in love was Harry S. Truman.
Harry Truman first saw Bess Wallace in Sunday school in Independence, Missouri, in 1890. He was six years old and she was five. "I saw a beautiful curly haired girl there," Truman remembered years later. "I thought (and still think) she was the most beautiful girl I ever saw. She had tanned skin[,] blond hair, golden as sunshine, and the most beautiful blue eyes I've ever seen or ever will see."
All his life Truman said that he fell in love with Bess right there in Sunday school and never changed his mind. As improbable as this may sound, evidence suggests that it's true. Truman apparently never went on a date with or showed interest in any other woman, despite the matchmaking efforts of female relatives.
Truman seemed all his young life to be waiting for Bess, even though he was too shy to let her know how he felt. Harry's family moved close to Bess's in December 1895 or January 1896, and Harry started at Bess's school. They were both in fifth grade, and Bess apparently was seated right behind him, in alphabetical order. "I was too backward to even look at her very much," Harry later recalled, "and I didn't speak to her for five years." He spent his time daydreaming about her. "I could not keep my mind on lessons or anything else. Always she was the heroine and I the hero."
But Bess never noticed him. Even in high school, when he did make some effort to win her favor, she remained uninterested, and Truman later lamented, "If I succeeded in carrying her books to school or back home for her I had a big day."
After Harry and Bess graduated from high school in 1901, Harry had to go to work to support his struggling family. The family lost their house in Independence to creditors, and they moved to Kansas City and later to Grandview. Harry probably saw Bess seldom or not at all for about 10 years.
This portrait of young Harry was taken around 1908, when he would have been about 24.
Sometime in the summer or fall of 1910, he walked across the street from his cousins' house to Bess's house at 219 North Delaware Street. He had a cake plate to return to Bess's mother. He knocked on the door, and Bess opened it. Harry's courtship of her began at that moment.
He started writing her letters and making the long and difficult journey from Grandview to visit her on weekends. In June 1911 he proposed to her in a letter. She didn't answer him for almost three weeks, and when she finally did, she refused him. He kept writing and coming to see her, though, and just over two years later, in November 1913, he proposed again, in person this time, and she accepted.
When he got home, he wrote her a letter. "It doesn't seem real that you should care for me," the excited young man said. "I have always hoped you would but some way feared very much you wouldn't. You know, I've always thought that the best man in the world is hardly good enough for any woman. But when it comes to the best girl in all the universe caring for an ordinary gink like mewell, you'll have to let me get used to it . . . . I've always said I'd have you or no one and that's what I mean to do . . . . I'm all puffed up and hilarious and happy and anything else that happens to a fellow when he finds his lady love thinks more of him than the rest of the beasts."
Harry and Bess had five and a half years to wait before they could marry. Harry felt he had to make some money first. Then World War I came, and Harry was "stirred in heart and soul," as he said, by President Wilson's war messages. He told Bess he was going to France. "I'll never forget," he later wrote, "how my love cried on my shoulder when I told her I was going. That was worth a life time on this earth."
Bess gave Harry this photograph of herself when he went away to war. He carried it in his breast pocket the whole time he was in France. Years later, he kept it on his desk in his Truman Library office, and it remains there to this day.
Harry Truman and Bess Wallace were finally married on June 28, 1919. Their marriage lasted 53 years, five months, and 28 days. They were often apart during some of those years, and they exchanged hundreds of letters. On June 28, 1948, their 29th anniversary, Harry was in Washington and Bess was home in Independence. He sent her a letter. "You still are on the pedestal where I placed you that day in Sunday school 1890. What an old fool I am."
Raymond H. Geselbracht
Harry S. Truman Library
Harry and Bess Truman on the day of their weddingJune 28, 1919.