Bess Wallace was just 5 when she met 6-year-old Harry Truman at the First Presbyterian Church’s Sunday school in Independence, Missouri. Having just moved to town with his family, Truman was smitten with his new acquaintance, later writing of her golden curls and beautiful blue eyes. They became classmates in the fifth grade and graduated from Independence High School together in 1901, though they weren’t close. They began dating several years later after Truman visited relatives who lived near Bess’s home, the two hitting it off when Truman dropped by to return a cake dish that belonged to his future mother-in-law.
Bess was 18 years old when her father, David, shot himself in the family bathtub in June 1903. Although he left no explanation, it was believed his suicide was the result of mounting debts and a depression heightened by heavy drinking. The family settled its financial problems after moving to the estate of Bess’s affluent grandfather, but she remained light-lipped on the subject, never discussing it with her only daughter, Margaret. When Truman was under consideration for the 1944 Democratic ticket as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president, Bess became worried that increased scrutiny of her family would dredge up old news about her father’s death.
Truman briefly co-owned a haberdashery business in Kansas City after World War I, with Bess assisting in various unpaid roles as manager, accountant and saleslady. After her husband became a U.S. senator, Bess again worked for him, this time as a paid office clerk, by answering mail and helping to edit reports and speeches. Truman feared that the revelation of her position would cause a stir when he was nominated for vice president, and she was dubbed “Payroll Bess” by one political opponent, but the negative fallout over the working arrangement soon dissipated.
After moving to the White House, Bess ended the weekly press conferences held by Eleanor Roosevelt and declined all interview requests. When reporters attempted to draw out information via a series of written questions in 1947, most were answered with a “no” or “no comment.” Despite revealing very little publicly, Bess developed a reputation as a steadying influence behind the scenes; she was a “relatable” first lady, especially when contrasted with her influential predecessor. More details about her character emerged in later years, with former aides describing her as warm and down to earth.
After making her last public appearance at Truman’s funeral in December 1972, Bess continued to receive visitors at her old family home for another decade. When she died from congestive heart failure at age 97 in October 1982, she held the distinction of being the oldest former first lady in U.S. history. After her funeral services, in which successors Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter and Nancy Reagan paid their respects, Bess was buried next to her husband at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence.
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