Bess Truman: Life in the Spotlight

Bess Truman's First Lady portrait.
The official First Lady portrait of Bess Truman, which now hangs in the Music Room of the Truman Home. Painted by Greta Kempton, 1952. HSTR 467.


Harry Truman served in the United States Senate from 1935 until 1945. Moving to Washington D.C. was a big adjustment, but Bess kept close ties with her family and friends in Independence. She invited her mother to stay with them for extended periods of time. Bess and Margaret spent summers at their home in Independence to allow Margaret to attend school.

Bess was able to maintain a relatively normal private life as a senator’s wife. It wasn’t until Truman became president that her life changed much more dramatically. Unlike her predecessor, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess was adamant that her role as first lady be in the background. She discontinued the practice of holding weekly press conferences and required that all press questions be submitted in writing. Her answers to these questions were often terse and revealed little about her family’s private life. Although she made appearances at Washington functions as First Lady, she rarely spoke in public. Bess gave teas, led fundraising campaigns, attended official dinners and entertained dignitaries. Although Harry enjoyed such social functions, Bess never felt completely comfortable in the public eye. When Elizabeth, the future Queen of England, and her husband Philip were given a dinner in 1951, it was one of the few occasions Bess said she really enjoyed. Behind the scenes she was a resourceful manager of her household and the Trumans’ staff thought Bess was a warm and hospitable employer. President Truman looked to Bess for her opinion on matters concerning the presidency and he often referred to her as “the Boss.” She was seen by many of her friends as “the perfect lady,” always thoughtful and genuine, with an unusual attention to detail and protocol.

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Last updated: September 2, 2022

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