By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer
NEOSHO, Mo. —
A local author has shed new light on Harry Truman’s wife Bess, who despite her traditional conventions in public was, like Harry, one for whom the buck stopped in private.
Neosho native Sara L. Sale became interested in Harry Truman in Jack Johnson’s history class at Neosho High School. She went on to become a historian and college professor who specialized in the Truman Era. Most recently, she taught at Northeastern Oklahoma A & M College.
Having ordered a few titles from the “Modern First Ladies” series published by University of Kansas Press, Sale noticed no one had written about Bess Truman.
She contacted the director, and by 2007 had an advance contract for “Bess Wallace Truman: Harry’s White House ‘Boss.’” It was published in hardcover this week.
Truman Library in Independence was where Sale did most of her research, studying a wealth of letters and other documents during her summer off from teaching at Sterling College in Kansas.
“There are no Bess Truman papers,” Sale said.”She destroyed most of the letters to Harry. I suspect it was because she was a very private person. But Harry begged her to save his letters, and there are 1,600 of them on file.”
Sale also traveled to Washington, D.C., to conduct research at the Library of Congress.
“Bess had a social secretary, and she left her papers there,” Sale said. “They outlined appointments, social engagements and included a daily record of her activities that was given to the White House press corps each week.”
Through those, Sale was surprised to learn that Bess -- who did not enjoy personal publicity and avoided the spotlight -- was interested in politics.
“I wasn’t aware of her interest in that,” Sale said. “I had read Margaret Truman’s official biography and she never really indicated Bess had a great interest, and was rather reluctant to be the first lady.”
While at the White House, Bess went to work to encourage Harry to appoint more women to his administration in governmental positions. Sale also found that Harry discussed important policy decisions with Bess, and quietly transformed the position of first lady into a more modern version.
“You could say she was a women’s advocate,” she said. “She worked closely behind the scenes with the vice chair of the Democratic National Party, India Edwards, who would approach her about appointing women for various positions. Then Bess would go to work on Harry.”
Sale found that Bess remained involved in politics after the White House, serving as honorary co-chair of Missouri native Thomas Eagleton’s senate campaign.
With the encouragement of Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess also was a supporter of the national Girl Scout organization. All the while, though, she avoided the spotlight, preferring to keep her strong-mindedness private.
“Bess also found it very tiresome to shake hands,” Sale said. “I learned in a letter she wrote to her good friend Mary Paxton that the only way she got through all the hand shakes was with the strength of her tennis arm. She was a long-time tennis player.”
“Bess Wallace Truman: Harry’s White House ‘Boss’,” can be found at Joplin Public Library, Crowder College Library, Neosho Public Library, Missouri Southern University Library, and online at www.kansaspress.ku.edu and www.amazon.com.