First Ladies: Elizabeth Virginia Wallace Truman

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Elizabeth Virginia “Bess” Truman was the wife of President Harry S. Truman. She currently holds the record of longest-lived First Lady, at 97 years and 8 months.

Bess Truman

Elizabeth Virginia “Bess” Wallace was born on February 13, 1885 in Independence, Missouri. She was known as Bessie at a very early age. She was the oldest of four children born to David Willock and Margaret Elizabeth Gates Wallace.

As a child, Bess had a reputation as a tomboy, but was also known for her sense of fashion. “Bess always had more stylish hats than the rest of us did, or she wore them with more style.”

Harry Truman met Bess soon after his family moved to Independence, and the two attended school together until graduation.

Her father died in 1903. Bess, her mother and brothers moved in with her maternal grandparents.

Upon finishing high school she attended Miss Barstow’s Finishing School for Girls.

She married Harry Truman in Independence, Missouri in 1919. They had become engaged before he was shipped out for service during World War I. The couple would have one daughter, Margaret, born in 1924.

In 1934, the Truman family moved to Washington, DC. She became very involved in various organizations and joined her husband’s staff to answer mail and edit reports.

Harry and Bess Truman

With the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, her husband became president in April 1945, as World War II was slowly coming to a close.

Bess Truman did not appreciate the lack of privacy in the White House and did only what she had to do. She often only came to Washington during the social season, when she was expected to be there.

When the White House was rebuilt during Truman’s second term, the family lived in Blair House and kept their social life to a minimum.

As First Lady, Bess served as Honorary President of the Girl Scouts, the Womens’ National Democratic Club, and the Washington Animal Rescue League. She was Honorary Chairman of the American Red Cross.

Upon leaving the presidency in 1953, the Truman’s returned to Independence, Missouri.

Bess Truman

In 1959, Bess had a mastectomy to remove a large, benign tumor.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare into law in 1965, the Trumans were the first to be given its benefits.

President Truman died in 1972. Bess outlived him by a decade, living quietly in her home and spending time with her family.

Bess Truman died on October 18, 1982 from congestive heart failure. She was 97 years old.

She was buried beside her husband at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri.

Perhaps one of the best documentations about the character of First Lady Bess Wallace Truman was published in an April 1949 article in “McCall’s” magazine. The magazine quoted Jonathan Daniels, former Press Secretary to President Franklin Roosevelt, as saying “Bess Truman is a lady unchanged by the White House and determined to remain always what she is.


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