Bess Truman – special photo taken just before Harry went to war in 1917
I like Harry Truman. I might not agree with all the decisions he made as President, but I like the person he was. One thing I like about Harry is that once he set his mind to something, he did it, if at all possible. He never let discouragement derail him. He failed frequently, but didn’t let that keep him from trying something different. One thing that seemed impossible from the beginning was winning the heart and hand of Bess Wallace.
Elizabeth Virginia Wallace (Bessie to the family) was born in Independence, Missouri on February 13, 1885. Her parents, David Willock Wallace and Margaret Elizabeth Gates Wallace (Madge), were both well liked in the community, but were certainly not equal in social standing. Bessie’s maternal grandfather, George Porterfield Gates, owned a milling company that distributed flour throughout the Midwest. Her paternal grandfather, Benjamin Wallace, had been a politician serving as mayor of Independence and in the Missouri state legislature. Benjamin Wallace died eight years before Bess was born, and although the Wallace’s were a part of her life, their influence would fade in comparison to that of the Gate’s clan. George Porterfield Gates was against Madge marrying David, but gave in when they threatened to elope. He was afraid that David Wallace wouldn’t be able to support his daughter in the manner to which she was accustomed. He was right.
Bessie at age 5
When Bess was two years old, the family moved to a house on North Delaware St, a very fashionable address two blocks from the Gate’s family home. As the first grandchild, she was petted and spoiled by her Gates grandparents and aunts and uncles. Bess was easy to love and dote upon. She was a bright, pretty, and outgoing child with golden hair and blue eyes. Three brothers followed to compete for this attention: Frank Gates Wallace (1887), George Porterfield Wallace (1892), and David Frederick Wallace (1900).
Bess was a happy, active girl. She excelled in sports as the best tennis player in Independence, an ice skater, horsewoman, and the champion slugger on her brother’s baseball team. Madge Wallace tolerated her daughter’s athletic activities as long as Bess maintained the appropriate activities for a proper young lady, which she did. Bess attended dance classes and the entire round of social functions in Independence. She did well in school, but when it came time to go to college, as many of her friends made plans to go away, it became clear that Bess’ father couldn’t afford to send her.
Bess at age 13
Financial difficulties weren’t the only strains in the home. In the mid 1890s, another girl was born, but died within a few years. Madge had always been considered “delicate”, so by the time Bess was in high school, she was taking on more and more responsibility for her younger brothers. From the outside, things may have looked fine. David Wallace was outgoing and still involved in politics. He would play with the children and was always involved in celebrations, from setting up fireworks displays to riding at the head of parades on his black horse. Bess adored him, but his financial difficulties began to get the best of him and he started to drink. The final child, David Frederick born in 1900, only added to the strain.
David Wallace held on for another three years, but early on the morning of June 17, 1903, he got up, went into a bathroom at the back of the house and shot himself in the head. It’s hard to know exactly what went through his mind, but the years of struggling to keep up, of depending on his father-in-law to give him money, and of fulfilling Gates’ negative expectations, added to his increased drinking must have all contributed to his feelings that he couldn’t go on. The family was devastated. Mary Paxton, Bess’ best friend and next door neighbor, went over that morning to be with her. Together she walked with Bess in silence as she paced with clenched fists for several hours.
David Wallace’s death and subsequent funeral were agonizing for the family, especially for Madge. He had been the presiding officer of the Knight’s Templar, so his funeral was elaborate and well attended, but the local newspaper also wrote an article giving gruesome details of his death. Add to that the realization that he had left the family deep in debt, and Madge couldn’t handle it. She and the children moved in with her parents, but soon after the funeral left Independence to visit a relative and stayed away for over a year.
As you would expect, Bess’ father’s suicide changed her life in a number of ways. From a practical standpoint, she found herself, at age eighteen, the effective parent of her younger brothers. She also began to feel a sense of responsibility for her mother that would last for the rest of her life. On another level, although she never blamed her mother, she began to think about her parent’s relationship, what it lacked, and what she would want in a marriage, if she ever found anyone to marry.
Bess at high school graduation
After the family returned to Independence, although Madge remained basically a recluse, Bess began to become socially active again. She spent a year at the Barstow school, a finishing school for young women that prepared them for college, although many went there just to round out their high school education. Bess had suitors, but no one seemed to meet her requirements. Then in 1910, a young man knocked on the door to return a cake plate for his cousins, who were neighbors of the Wallace family. That young man was Harry S. Truman.
The way Harry told it, he had fallen in love with Bess when her first saw her in Sunday School, when she was five and he was six. Over the school years, he had never had the nerve to do more than carry her books home from school a few times, but there had never been another girl for him. In the intervening years, Harry had his own challenges and had changed quite a bit. In school he had never been athletic, probably in part to protect the eyeglasses he had to wear from the age of five; he played the piano; and he, according to his own account, “read every book in the Independence library.” His own ambitions to go to West Point were dashed partly because he would never have passed the eye exam, but also because his father lost all his money and Harry had to work to help support the family. After a time working in Kansas City, his father asked him to come home and help him run the farm that Harry’s mother had inherited with her brother. So the Harry that showed up at the Wallace home that night was suntanned and fit in a way that the younger Harry never was.
Their courtship began that night, but would last for quite a few years. After about a year, Harry proposed, in a letter. After 3 weeks of silence, Bess refused. Harry responded by thanking her for letting him down so easily, saying that he didn’t really think “that a girl like you could ever care for a fellow like me,” and continuing to write. Harry Truman didn’t discourage easily.
Bess had made it clear that she expected anyone she married to be able to support her, and Harry became focused on making money. He tried several schemes which didn’t pan out, and signed on as a partner to his father’s business, which eventually left him with more debt. In the meantime, Harry and Bess continued to write almost daily, and he had a standing invitation to her house on Sundays. In his characteristically honest way, he told her about life on the farm, but he also let her know that he was no country bumpkin, writing about operas, symphonies, and plays that he had seen when he lived in Kansas City. They discussed literature and exchanged book recommendations and criticisms.
Harry S. Truman around 1917
Finally, in the fall of 1913, Bess told Harry that if she married any man it would be him. He was elated and determined that he would be able to establish a home for her that she could be proud to live in. But everything seemed to work against him. On the farm it was the weather, then his investment in a zinc mine didn’t pan out. Then in 1917, it looked like everything might come together for them. They both invested money in an oil company and things were going very well, until the US entered WWI. The stock in the oil company immediately dropped causing them to lose almost all the money they had invested, but worse than that for Bess was that Harry felt he had to do his duty. He had re-enlisted in the National Guard, and in August he was admitted into the US Army and was scheduled to go to Europe.
Although, several of her friends got married before sending their beaux off to war, when Bess mentioned it, Harry now refused. He did not want her to be stuck with a “potential cripple.” They did however, after all these years, in spite of Madge’s objections, announce their engagement. Bess had a special photograph taken to give to Harry when he went to war. He carried it with him for the rest of his life, first into battle in his shirt pocket, and later it always had a prominent place on his desk. (This is the photo at the top of the post.)
Harry returned safely, and on June 28, 1919, at the ages of 35 and 36, Bess and Harry were finally married. They were faithful to each other throughout all the difficulties in the coming years: a failed business, taking care of Madge, and Harry’s unexpected presidency. Bess had found in Harry a man who would be open with her about all those difficulties, as well as a man who wouldn’t give up in the face of obstacles.
Harry and Bess Truman on their wedding day June 28, 1919 (source)
One note of irony, however, after they were married they moved into Madge’s house “temporarily,” but lived there for the rest of their lives whenever they were in Independence.
Harry S. Truman painted by Greta Kempton (1903 – 1991)
Bess Truman painted by Greta Kempton (1903 – 1991)