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Truman Library releases 'Dear Harry' letters from Bess

Monday, February 15, 2010 | 12:44 p.m. CST; updated 1:48 p.m. CST, Monday, February 15, 2010

INDEPENDENCE — Coming soon: a new Bess Truman.

Truman Library officials this week are observing what would have been the 125th birthday of the famously private former first lady by releasing or describing documents detailing her personal life.

On Friday, archivists opened about 2,400 pages from the White House Chief Usher Files, which note the daily activities of Harry and Bess Truman from 1945 through 1953.

Clifton Truman Daniel, the Trumans' eldest grandson, on Saturday discussed his examination of 185 letters, most never seen by the public, that Bess Truman wrote to her husband from 1919 through 1943.

Both collections represent initial examples of the almost 300 boxes of Bess Truman documents still scheduled to be opened in the next several years. The roll out, which will include other correspondence as well as financial records, cumulatively will add to a more nuanced portrait, said Ray Geselbracht, special assistant to the library director.

"There has not been much evidence about Bess Truman as a person," said Geselbracht. "These materials will provide insight."

The White House Chief Usher papers at first may seem routine, with typed pages documenting the president's schedule accompanied by handwritten entries noting when he and his wife ate breakfast or received guests.

But other entries seem ambiguous.

Tammy Kelly, library archivist, kept noticing the word "motoring."

In the entry for April 21, 1949, "motoring" was used to describe a 2½-hour interlude with no destination listed. The same page recorded Bess Truman's attendance at a luncheon as well as three teas.

"Maybe this was just her way of getting out of the fishbowl," Kelly said.

The 185 letters offer another window into her personal life. Harry Truman once protested after coming home and finding his wife throwing into a fire old letters written between them.

"Think of history," he said.

"I have," she said.

These letters escaped those flames. The 725 pages suggest a Bess Truman far different from the allegedly aloof public figure — warm, affectionate, funny.

In one letter, written to her husband while he attended National Guard camp, she described the sight of an Independence neighbor in her nightclothes.

"What surprised me was how much fun she was," said Daniel.

"I was used to the 80-year-old Bess Truman. She usually didn't have much to say to me beyond 'Don't play with that' or 'Where's your mother?' "

In a July 1926 letter, Bess Truman suggested she was savvy enough to recognize a delicate political situation and seek expert advice. After an acquaintance called and asked if her husband would serve on a candidate's committee, Bess sent word to Kansas City machine boss Tom Pendergast.

Through an intermediary, Pendergast advised Bess that her husband decline.

"Mr. Pendergast said he considers it better for you to keep out of all fights," she later wrote.

Following Bess Truman's 1982 death, a vast reserve of correspondence between her and her husband surfaced. Their daughter, Margaret Truman Daniel, donated the approximately 1,300 "Dear Bess" letters to the federal government.

She chose, however, to keep the 185 "Dear Harry" letters in the family.

Clifton Daniel, now preparing a book on the correspondence, is not sure why. The letters do not contain anything resembling a "bombshell," he said.

They do contain the occasional derogatory racial remark.

"My grandmother was a person of her time," Daniel said. Such remarks, he added, should be seen in context not only of his grandfather's civil rights record but his grandparents' regard for Vietta Garr, an African-American Independence resident who for decades served the family as a cook and personal assistant. The Trumans helped finance a home for Garr.

It is possible that his mother, who died in 2008, maintained ownership of Bess Truman's letters out of respect for the former first lady's regard for privacy, Daniel said.

"If my grandmother had found these letters, she probably would have burned them, too," he said.


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