Discover the love, strength and perseverance of three great romances in American history: Bess and Harry Truman, Elizabeth and Robert Browning and Jackie and Rachel Robinson.
He first saw her in Sunday school when he was six years old and she was just five. “She had golden curls and beautiful blue eyes,” he recalled. They graduated from high school together in 1901, but went their separate ways — he moved to Kansas City and she to Colorado for a year — until becoming reacquainted nine years later. It was then that Truman, who once wrote of Bess, “I thought she was the most beautiful and the sweetest person on earth,” began his first and longest campaign — to win the heart of Bess Wallace.
Bess lived in her family home in Independence, Missouri. Harry was a hard-working farmer from Grandview, twenty miles away. So he courted her, in part, by mail. Their correspondence would continue for nearly fifty years — an exciting ride through nine years of courtship, fifty-three years of marriage, family, career changes, and political fortunes that thrust them to the very center of the world stage. More than 1,300 letters from Harry to Bess Truman survive in the Truman Library collections.
Sadly, most of her letters to him have been lost to history. After showering Bess with attention and letters for more than a year, Harry proposed to her in 1911, but she turned him down. He persisted, and eventually she fell in love with him. He had a standing invitation to dinner at the Wallace home on Sundays, often sleeping across the street, afterwards, on the floor of his cousins’ house because travel between Grandview and Independence was arduous. To win her favor — she was from a wealthy family — and better his prospects, he entered into a series of business ventures — mining, drilling for oil, and other speculations — most ending in disappointment. Although he also served as Grandview postmaster and as a county road overseer, his future remained uncertain.
When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Harry Truman joined a Missouri National Guard field artillery regiment. Federalized as the 129th Field Artillery Regiment of the 35th Division, the unit trained for combat in Oklahoma. Arriving in France in April 1918, he had additional training before taking command of Battery D, a unit known for rowdiness and intransigence. He won respect for his leadership and courage under fire, seeing action in the Vosges Forest, the Meuse-Argonne offensive, and near Verdun. Throughout his military service, Truman carried Bess Wallace’s picture in his breast pocket. Writing to her frequently, his spirits were buoyed by her promise to marry him upon his safe return.
Harry Truman returned from World War I determined to make changes in his life. He and Bess Wallace married in June 1919 and moved into the Wallace family home. In 1922, Truman entered politics with his election as a Jackson County judge, serving all but two years until 1934. The birth of their daughter Mary Margaret in 1924 brought joy and fulfillment to the Trumans, and her childhood coincided with the growth of Harry Truman’s reputation and political career.
Harry Truman jumped at the chance to run for the U.S. Senate when it was offered to him in 1934. Elected, he served for what he called “the happiest ten years of my life.”
He soon built a reputation for hard work and dedication, concentrating on transportation and interstate commerce during his first term and investigating the national defense program in his second term. Loyal to the New Deal, but also accepted by more conservative party members, Truman became Franklin Roosevelt’s vice-presidential running mate in 1944. During these years, Bess Truman often returned to Independence for extended periods, leaving the Senator lonely in Washington, but giving them both an incentive to correspond in lengthy and endearing letters.
On April 12, 1945, with the death of FDR, Truman was thrust unexpectedly into the presidency, but soon adjusted to the awesome responsibility that had been placed on his shoulders. The end of World War II, the use of the atomic bomb, the establishment of the United Nations and the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall plan, and the beginning of the Korean War are just some of the momentous events he would preside over during his eight years in office. Living in the White House, and in the Blair House during the White House renovation from 1948 to 1952, the Trumans were a close-knit family that preferred not to entertain extensively or to hold grand state dinners. When he traveled or when she was away in Independence, Harry and Bess Truman continued to correspond on an almost daily basis in letters containing warmth, gossip, humor, and insight on world events. As they had both grown up around the turn of the century, they preferred writing letters to making phone calls, and used notes to keep abreast of each other’s lives as well as to remind each other of their affection.
Typical of their relationship, they wrote to each other whenever circumstances kept them apart on June 28th, the anniversary of their marriage. Often they even wrote these anniversary notes when they were together, hand-delivering the letters to each other. These anniversary letters changed little over time, showing the same devotion after decades of marriage that they had shown from the beginning of their union.
Reprinted with permission from The Truman Library, Independence, Missouri.
On January 10, 1845, Robert Browning wrote to Elizabeth Barrett for the first time, after reading her volume of poetry, Poems. He was a little-known thirty-two-year-old poet and playwright, she was an internationally renowned poet, an invalid, and a thirty-nine-year-old spinster. “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett — I do, as I say, love these verses with all my heart,” the letter said. Over the course of the next twenty months, they would write each other close to six hundred letters — one of the greatest literary correspondences of all time.
The pair’s last letter was exchanged on September 18, 1846, the night before the two left for a trip to Italy, and two weeks after their secret marriage. Their romance, which she would eventually credit with saving her life, lasted for fifteen years and spawned some of the world’s most beautiful poetry. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was the daughter of Mary Moulton Barrett and Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett, an extremely wealthy landowner who owned sugar plantations in Jamaica. Her mother died when Elizabeth was just twenty-one, after having given birth to twelve children. Although Elizabeth, the eldest, was probably her father’s favorite child, she struggled along with her siblings under his tyrannical parenting. Incredibly controlling, Mr. Barrett insisted that none of his children marry, baffling even the family’s closest friends.
To add to her difficulties, from the time she was a teenager, Elizabeth suffered from a mysterious illness that caused her uncontrollable spasms of pain, breathing difficulties, and a general malaise that made her unable to leave her house. In fact, she rarely left her room, and believed that she was destined to forever remain a sickly shut-in and spinster. When Robert Browning first began to court Barrett — through their correspondence — she seemed to enjoy the relationship, but dismissed any romantic aspect of his attention, unwilling to believe that he could really be interested in her. Browning, the son of Robert and Sarah Anna Browning, a bank clerk and pianist, was a direct and ardent suitor. But despite his obvious affection and the mutual admiration that is prominently displayed in their letters, Elizabeth refused to see him until the spring — months after their first contact — as the cold weather of the winter made her health poor. The couple’s first meeting occurred in May 1845, after five months of regular correspondence. It is believed that Browning wrote to Barrett immediately afterward to declare his affection — flouting Victorian convention — but this letter has not survived. Elizabeth, sickly and so long in isolation, found it difficult to trust his intentions and was already skeptical of the institution of marriage and its treatment of women. Despite the obstacles, Browning’s visits continued, though always when Elizabeth’s father was not at home.
In the summer of 1845, Barrett’s physician recommended that she travel to Pisa, in Italy, for the winter because he felt sure she would not survive another harsh season in London. Her father, for seemingly unknown reasons, refused to allow the trip. After writing to Browning about her predicament, he wrote back, saying, “I would marry you now.” Instead of dismissing him as she had done before, she embraced his sentiments. They continued to see each other regularly, and, thanks in part to an unseasonably warm winter, Barrett’s health began to improve. In January 1846, Elizabeth, inspired by Browning, took a major step toward recovery by leaving the room where she had spent the last six years of her life.
By May 1846, Barrett began to walk outside and, in her letters, credited Browning for having a large part in her recovery. Also, she had begun to decrease her use of the morphine and opium prescribed for her condition. By summer, she was living a much more active life. On September 12, Barrett and Browning were married, before another London winter could again weaken her health. Sadly, the wedding was held in secret, with only her maid and Browning’s cousin attending as witnesses. Although she was then forty years old, Barrett lived in fear of her controlling father’s wrath if he found out that she was disobeying his direct order not to marry. When her deception was revealed, she was disinherited by her father, as were the two other Barrett children who dared to defy him.
Just a week after their marriage, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning left London for Italy, where they would spend the next fifteen years of their lives. Barrett Browning’s Sonnets From the Portuguese (1850), of which the line “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” has since become one of poetry’s best-known, was written during their courtship and early marriage and is about her dramatic romance with Browning, and how he helped her save herself from a life of sickness and isolation. In Italy, both poets would enjoy many productive years of writing, as well as the birth of their son, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, in 1849. She completed a second edition of Poems, as well as Casa Guidi Windows (1851), Poems before Congress (1860), and her well known verse-novel, Aurora Leigh (1857). She also became active in the fight for Italian nationalism, the abolition of American slavery, and the advancement of the condition of women. He published Men and Women, which was dedicated to his wife and is considered to contain his best poetry. They remained in Italy for fifteen years, until Elizabeth died in her husband’s arms on June 29, 1861. Casa Guidi, the Brownings’ home in Florence, Italy, has been preserved and is open to visitors.
Jackie Robinson is one of the most admired people in sports. But unlike most sports heroes, his battles did not take place only on the athletic field. His most important battles were against the pervasive national racism that not only excluded blacks from participation in major league baseball, but from economic opportunities in fields of all kinds. Robinson led the Dodgers to four National League pennants and one World Series championship in 1955. And, in the process, he led his nation in a struggle for civil rights that continues today — but he didn’t do it alone.
When the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Branch Rickey began his search for a talented and educated black baseball player to be the first to integrate the sport, twenty-six-year-old Jackie Robinson seemed the perfect man for the job. A graduate of UCLA, he was a superb four-sport athlete with strong religious roots and a strict work ethic. But, Rickey realized the hard road that lay ahead of Robinson, and during their first meeting, on August 28, 1945, he harshly questioned him about whether or not he could handle the hatred, threats of violence, and baiting he would have to endure as he crossed the color line. In his autobiography, Robinson recalled Rickey asking, “You got a girl? There are going to be times when you’re going to need a woman by your side.”
Rachel Isum was Robinson’s fiancee. They had met in 1940 when she was a first-year nursing student at UCLA and he was already an accomplished athlete. They were married on February 10, 1946. Two weeks after the wedding, they left for Robinson’s first spring training, for the minor league Montreal Royals, in Daytona Beach, Florida — the deep south, a bastion of hard-core racism. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Rachel Robinson later recalled, “That first spring training was like a nightmare. There was so much degradation. There was bigotry like we had never encountered.” But Jackie, with Rachel at his side, endured the indignities of the training trip and a season filled with countless insults, threats, and bean balls on his way to leading the league in batting, runs scored, and fielding. The next spring, despite a threatened boycott by the club’s players, the Brooklyn Dodgers promoted Robinson to the major league — seven years before the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling integrated the country’s schools.
In the majors, the Robinsons again suffered through death threats, constant verbal harassment from managers, players, and fans, and physical abuse, including more pitches to his head and body. But Robinson succeeded in winning the respect of players and fans and was named Rookie of the Year in 1947, after batting .297 with 125 runs scored and twenty-nine stolen bases and leading his team to a National League title. By 1949, with the signing of more blacks to major league baseball, integration had arrived in major league baseball.
Throughout his life, Jackie credited his wife Rachel for providing the support that allowed him to work through the difficulties of his baseball career. “Strong, loving, gentle and brave, never afraid to either criticize or comfort,” he once wrote of his wife. Later, according to People magazine, he said, “When they try to destroy me, it’s Rachel who keeps me sane.” People also reported that Norma King, wife of Dodger pitcher Clyde King, once said of Rachel, “I recall the look of pride on her face watching him play while the rest of us were worrying about whether our husbands would do something foolish.”
After Jackie’s retirement from baseball in 1956, the Robinsons continued to play a visible role in politics and the civil rights movement. They were staunch supporters of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the fight against segregation, and spoke out against black separatists like Stokely Carmichael. The Robinsons were especially proud of their three children, Jackie Jr., Sharon, and David. Sadly, Jackie Jr. died in a car accident in 1971. In an interview with the Boston Globe, daughter Sharon said of her parents, “The house revolved around my father, but my mother was always the center of the family. She was in a real partnership with my father. We felt that. We knew that. He appreciated it and we did too.”
Even after a heart attack cut short Jackie’s life on October 23, 1972, Rachel, who has also worked as a nurse and teacher, has continued to work hard to advance the legacy that she and her husband began as newlyweds. In 1973, she founded the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which she still chairs. To date, the foundation has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships to help send more than 500 minority and underprivileged students to college. Rachel Robinson continues her husband’s work of leading by example. Many who knew the couple are not surprised. Major league first baseman Mo Vaughn, who wears number 42 in honor of his hero, Jackie Robinson, once told the Boston Globe, “Jackie Robinson couldn’t have been Jackie Robinson if it wasn’t for Rachel Robinson. It’s another case of the fact that behind every good man is a good woman. Study your history. He wanted to quit. She wouldn’t let him.”