There is John and Abigail, Tony and Maria, and Johnny and June, but what about Harry and Bess? One of the sweetest love stories in the annals of American history is that of our 33rd President, Harry S. Truman, and his wife of 53 years, Bess Truman.
Their story began in Independence, Missouri, in 1890. Five-year-old Bess Wallace was rather indifferent to her Sunday school classmate. But, for six-year-old Harry, it was love at first sight. “I saw a beautiful curly haired girl there,” Truman would later recall. “I thought (and still think) she was the most beautiful girl I ever saw. She had tanned skin[,] blond hair, golden as sunshine, and the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen or ever will see.”
Bess and Harry attended the same school from the fifth grade up until their graduation from high school in 1901. Over that time, she largely snubbed his advances, except for the “big days,” as Truman called them, when she let him carry her books. After high school, Truman moved to Kansas City and then Grandview, 20 miles away, where he worked on his family’s farm.
In 1910, the two had a chance encounter. Truman was visiting his cousins in Independence, and, as a favor to his aunt, he returned an empty cake dish to her neighbor, Bess' mother. Bess apparently answered the door, and from that adorable small-town exchange, a relationship blossomed.
When he could, Truman made trips to see Bess, traveling to Independence by carriage or train. But, given the distance, much of his courting happened in handwritten letters he sent beginning on December 31, 1910. In a letter dated June 22, 1911, in fact, Truman rather impetuously asked for Bess’ hand in marriage. Talking about a drought that Missouri was suffering, he wrote, “Water and potatoes will soon be as much of a luxury as pineapples and diamonds.” That was quickly followed by, “Speaking of diamonds would you wear a solitaire one on your left hand should I get it?” Bess left him hanging for weeks before finally denying this first proposal; the two were instead engaged in November 1913.
After Harry served in World War I, the Trumans were married on June 28, 1919, in a simple afternoon ceremony at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Independence. The altar was bedecked in daisies and pink hollyhock; Bess wore a white, wide-brimmed hat and carried a bouquet of roses, and Harry was dressed in a smart vested suit.
Starting with his first note in 1910, Truman lovingly wrote a total of 1,300 letters to Bess—at times during the war, his career and his presidency when they were apart. Most of Bess’ side of the dialogue is long gone; a private person, she burned her correspondence. But the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, in Independence, Missouri, holds 50 years' worth of Truman’s missives.
Tammy Williams, an archivist at the Truman Library, and I recently discussed a letter the former president sent to Bess on their 38th anniversary—June 28, 1957. In the playful message, featured below, Truman lists every anniversary and, for each year, documents the important goings-on in their lives.
“It is not the super sappy, romantic letter. He has some of those—but this one is sweet in a different way,” says Williams. “So much of it has to do with him and what was going on in the country and in the world. But, everything that was going on with that impacted their relationship. They survived it together.”