Bess Truman: Longest Lived First Lady

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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.


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  1. Mrs. Truman shook off the Secret Service before her husband left office. The Trumans’ assets on their departure from Washington was her house, a pension he was due for his Army service, and unrealized revenue from his (as yet unwritten) memoirs. Former presidents were granted a pension in 1958 because it was known in Washington that the Trumans were cash poor; at the advent of Medicare in 1965, a ceremony was held in which the Trumans signed up for it – the very first beneficiaries. They didn’t take speaking fees or accept board memberships. The Eisenhowers were more affluent, but lived quietly in Adams County, Pa. and AFAIK did not engage in any buckraking. Fine examples, not emulated by their successors.

  2. After addressing a group of female newspaper reporters, one of them took Bess Truman aside and said, “Mrs. Truman, a number of the ladies in the press are concerned about the President’s language. Can’t you get him to stop using in public the word ‘manure.’? Bess Truman responded, “My dear, it took me twenty years to get him to use that word.”

    That being said, she was a big proponent of socialized medicine.


    The interview begins at 3:46. She says as little as possible of interest. It’s a reasonable inference she only agreed to it because her daughter was hired to do the interview. Margaret Truman made good coin for about 10 years as a general entertainer – record albums, concerts, game show appearances &c. Unlike her mothers, she was an exhibitionist.

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