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08 February, 2017

HARRY TRUMAN, A MUSIC CRITIC'S WORST NIGHTMARE


“My choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse or a politician. And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference.” -- Harry S. Truman

I was nonsensically teasing old friend Bob Peters yesterday on a totally unrelated subject and happened to mention the name Harry S. Truman.  That got me to thinking about some funny Harry Truman stories that are just too good not to share on Wright Lane.  For some reason, there was always something just a little different about the candor and wit of the 33rd President of the United States that always intrigued me.


When President Harry Truman picked up his "Washington Post" early on December 6, 1950, to read a review of his daughter Margaret Truman's singing performance, he was livid. Though conceding that Miss Truman was "extremely attractive," Paul Hume, the "Post's" music critic, stated bluntly that "Miss Truman cannot sing very well" and "has not improved" over the years. The president wrote the following letter to the 34-year old Hume, whom he compared to the columnist Westbrook Pegler ("a rat," in Truman's view).

WASHINGTON
THE WHITE HOUSE
Mr Hume:

I've just read your lousy review of Margaret's concert. I've come to the conclusion that you are an "eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay."

It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you're off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work.

Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!

Pegler, a gutter snipe, is a gentleman alongside you. I hope you'll accept that statement as a worse insult than a reflection on your ancestry.

H.S.T.

Wow!  In retrospect, Donald Trump was not the first U.S. president in recent memory to take the press to task.

Then there's another priceless story about Truman's association with the renowned Hollywood actress Lauren Bacall.

A sitting American vice-president entertaining a Hollywood star? Sounds like something that could have happened to former v-p Joe Biden. But a moment starring vice-president Harry Truman, back in 1945, got renewed attention after news broke recently that actress Lauren Bacall had passed away at the age of 89.

Before Bacall was truly a big star, she paid a visit in February of that year to the National Press Club in the nation's capital as a surprise guest for U.S. troops. “The story is that during World War II the club was open on Saturdays for servicemen to get free hot dogs and beer,” explained Gilbert Klein, an American University journalism professor and the chairman of the press club’s history committee. “Politicians could come, but they weren’t allowed to talk for more than two minutes.”

Truman, at that time President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s veep, tried something a little different from talking: He decided to tickle the ivories in the club’s ballroom. “At that time, Truman didn’t have much to do – he was vice president, he was presiding over the Senate and had speaking engagements, but he wasn’t nearly as busy as he was when he was a senator,” said Randy Sowell, an archivist at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum (there you go Bob). “And so he had some free time on his hands and he enjoyed going to events like that.”

Bacall popped out. Her press agent suggested she jump on top of the piano. She and the vice-president posed for photographers. “What disturbed many people was that Truman appeared to be having such a good time, which he was,” wrote historian David McCullough in his enormous biography, Truman. “Bess (Mrs. Truman) was furious. She told him he should play the piano in public no more,” McCullough wrote of the vice president’s wife.

But apparently Bacall did appear with Truman again. “Thereafter, she was sort of associated with Mr. Truman and she and her husband Humphrey Bogart were two Hollywood celebrities who supported Truman in 1948,” Sowell recalled.

And finally, poor daughter Margaret who always seemed to get a bad rap in spite of the fact that she was a professional singer, eventually performing at Carnegie Hall, a TV personality and author of 32 books, including biographies of both parents and 23 mystery novels in a popular series all set in and around Washington.
When the Trumans moved to the White House, they brought Margaret's piano with them. In the summer of 1948, a leg of the piano fell through the floor of her room. The incident further proved that the White House needed major structural repairs. An engineer commented that the house was still standing only "out of habit."

In her 1981 book she recalled "Because of my father, I was more easily able to obtain important engagements. But I also received more attention by first-string critics and more demanding audiences who felt that because my father was president, I had to be not better than average, but better than the best in order to justify my appearing on stage."

Margaret thought her performance at Constitution Hall in Washington in December of 1950 to be one of her better ones but the aforementioned critic Paul Hume thought otherwise, prompting her father's scathing and combative rebuttal. 

In the ensuing uproar, reporters pressed her for her reaction to the highly publicized letter.  "I'm glad to see that chivalry is not dead," she told them.

In "Harry S. Truman", she wrote: "Dad discussed the (Hume) letter with his aides and was annoyed to find that they all thought it was a mistake.  They felt it damaged his image as president and would only add to his political difficulties. 'Wait till the mail comes in,' Dad said. 'I'll make you a bet that 80 percent of it is on my side of the argument.'

A week later, after a staff meeting, Truman ordered everyone to follow him into the mailing room. "The clerks had stacked up thousands of Hume letters in piles and made up a chart showing the percentages for and against the president," Margaret recalled.  "Slightly over 80 percent favored Dad's defense of me.  Most of the letter writers were mothers who said they understood exactly how Dad felt and would have expected their husband's to defend their daughters the same way.

'The trouble with you guys is,' Dad said to the staff as he strode back to work, 'you just don't understand human nature'."

Margaret adored her father, whose directness and sense of humor she inherited; and she credited him with prophesying her literary career long before it began.  She said he told her in 1946 that "you write interestingly" and added that perhaps, with the passage of time, "you can be a great story writer."

Note:  Margaret also made headlines with her marriage to a dashing newspaper man, Clifton Daniel Jr., who eventually became the managing editor of The New York Times.  Together they had four sons.  Mrs. Truman-Daniel died on January 27, 2008, at 83 years of age.

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