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Truman Family Secrets New Book Recounts Suicide That Shadowed President's Family

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Above image credit: David Wallace, author of “I Called Him Uncle Harry: Growing up in the Truman-Wallace Household,” in front of the Truman Home in Independence. (Brian Burnes | Flatland)
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7 minute read

In 1903 a popular father of four shot and killed himself in a bathroom of his Independence home.

The shock of the gaslight-era tragedy would resonate for decades, devastating his widow and rendering her a recluse for nearly 50 years.

The act also convinced her children to live their adult lives almost entirely within earshot of her, and arguably influenced the daily mood of Harry Truman, 33rd president of the United States.

A new book about the Truman and Wallace families. (Brian Burnes | Flatland)

“My grandfather’s suicide created a very strange dynamic which I believe eventually affected my uncle’s administration,” said David Wallace, author of a new memoir, “I Called Him Uncle Harry: Growing up in the Truman-Wallace Household.”

Truman was the husband of Elizabeth “Bess” Wallace, eldest child of David Willock Wallace.

His self-inflicted death – and Bess Truman’s subsequent determination to protect her mother, Madge Gates Wallace – caused long separations from her husband, with Bess often spending months in Independence while her husband wrote her pining letters from Washington, D.C.

“In my uncle’s published letters he is often complaining about Bess being back in Independence instead of with him in the White House,” Wallace said.

“That affected his morale a lot.”

Coming Home

Wallace, a resident of Palm Springs, California, returned to Independence recently to observe the 135th anniversary of the Feb. 13, 1885 birthday of his aunt, Bess Truman.

Wallace spoke at the Midwest Genealogy Center, an event hosted by the Mid-Continent Public Library, the Truman Library and the Independence Pioneers Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. He signed copies of his memoir, just published by Donella Press of Kirksville, Missouri.

Wallace also, for the first time in nearly 30 years, walked through the Truman Home, where he lived as a boy during the 1930s and early 1940s and later spent summers as a teenager.

A former West Coast stringer for New York gossip columnist Liz Smith, as well as the author of several volumes about the Hollywood film industry, Wallace said he wrote his latest book in part to honor his “Aunt B.” 

It was Bess Truman, he said, who held her family together when in 1903 her mother Madge Gates Wallace fled Independence for Colorado to escape the perceived shame of her husband’s suicide.

Madge Gates Wallace. (Contributed | Donella Press)

After a year of self-imposed exile, Madge Gates Wallace and her children returned in 1904, moving into what is now known as the Truman Home at 219 North Delaware Ave. Then it was the home of Madge’s prominent father, George Porterfield Gates, a co-founder of the Waggoner-Gates Milling Co., which produced the popular Queen of the Pantry Flour.

Gates’ stature likely contributed to the pressure endured by Madge’s husband, whose family could not match the wealth of the Gates clan.

David Willock Wallace. (Contributed | Donella Press)

The sometimes unemployed son of a former Independence mayor, David Willock Wallace had been debt-ridden and depressed, more than once being dropped off drunk at the door of his family’s home.

After his death, his survivors closed ranks.

Upon the marriages of grandsons Frank Wallace and George Wallace in 1915 and 1916, respectively, the patriarch Gates presented each with a lot just to the east of his own home. There the two brothers built bungalows and moved in with their wives, Natalie and May.

When Harry Truman married Bess Wallace in 1919, he moved into the main house.

“He didn’t want to live there, but he had no choice,” Wallace said.

“If he wanted to marry my Aunt Bess he had to agree to live with her mother.”

Crowded House

Wallace’s father, Fred, married Christine Meyer in 1933. Two months after David’s birth in October, 1934, all three also moved into the large Victorian home. After Wallace’s younger sister Marian arrived in 1937, eight people shared the square footage.

On the first floor Madge Gates Wallace had her own bedroom and adjacent bathroom.

On the second floor David and his sister, his parents, plus Bess and Harry Truman – in those years a U.S. senator – and their daughter, Margaret, all shared four bedrooms and one bathroom.

“Everybody worked hard to get along,” Wallace said, smiling.

The family not only accommodated one another’s bathroom schedules but religious differences as well. Bess Wallace was Episcopalian while her husband Harry Truman grew up Baptist. Christine Wallace had been reared Catholic and her husband Fred had converted to the faith, meaning young David and Marian grew up Catholic, too.

“Nobody ever caused any trouble about religion,” Wallace said.

“On Sundays, it was never ‘Where are you going to church?’ but ‘Will you be back in time for dinner?’ “

Yet at the same time the cloistered Wallace and Truman families indulged occasional prejudices, perhaps more genteel than overt.

Wallace cites his memory of Vietta Garr, the family’s African-American cook.

“Vietta basically raised me,” said Wallace. “I also wanted to write this book because, in many Truman books, she has basically dropped out of sight.”

Author David Wallace with Vietta Garr, longtime Truman-Wallace family cook, in 1973. (Contributed | Linda Rees)

Garr commanded the family’s kitchen in Independence. After Harry Truman became president in 1945, he and Bess brought her to the White House. Even after the Truman presidency, Garr remained a daily presence at what by then was known as the Truman Home.

But if she put food on the family table, she didn’t sit down at it, Wallace said.

Both the Wallace and Truman families had longstanding Confederate sympathies, as well as long memories.

Harry Truman’s mother, Martha Ellen Young Truman, never forgot the Kansas jayhawkers who sacked her family’s farm during the Civil War. Her family later had to leave Jackson County during Union enforcement of General Order Number Eleven, an 1863 edict designed to clear southern sympathizers from several western Missouri border counties.

“I grew up with that being pounded into my head all the time,” Wallace said.

“It was part of what made us, including my uncle, the kind of people we were, being raised in a very strange part of the country –  a slave state being run by the Union.

“Vietta was considered part of the family – but she was also considered a servant.”

Garr spent 36 years with the Truman family. In 1957 the Trumans established a $5,200 trust fund for Garr, and Margaret helped her design a small home she built in Independence.

Bess Wallace, meanwhile, also maintained her mother’s anti-Semitism. No Jewish friends or neighbors were allowed into her home, Wallace writes. This was true even for one of Harry Truman’s closest friends – Army buddy and Kansas City haberdashery co-owner Eddie Jacobson.

Wallace concedes there’s little evidence the prejudices inside the Wallace-Truman home in the 1930s later influenced Truman Administration policies. 

In 1948 Truman issued Executive Order 9981, initiating the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces. He also authorized the de facto recognition of the infant state of Israel.

And yet, in the early 1960s, David Susskind, then producer of a series of Truman television interviews, only got as far as the Truman home’s unheated vestibule.

When Susskind once asked the former president why he was never inside the home – according to Wallace – Truman explained.

“David, this is not the White House,” Truman said. “It is the Wallace house. Bess runs it and there’s never been a Jew inside the house in her or her mother’s lifetime.”

It remains a mystery to Wallace, who during his recent visit to the Truman Home pointed toward the house’s front door and pondered that moment again.

“My aunt had no problem with Jewish people and certainly my uncle didn’t,” he said. “So I have never figured out why, when my grandmother died in 1952, my aunt Bess continued that policy that Susskind encountered.

“I don’t know whether my aunt Bess did that out of her respect for her mother’s attitude – which seems sort of strange.”

Shroud of Secrecy

Wallace does have an explanation for the family suppression of his grandfather’s suicide.

Margaret didn’t learn of it until 1944, when she was 20 years old, when an aunt told her. Margaret, who soon asked her father about it, was stunned when he “seized my arm in a grip that he must have learned when he was wrestling calves and hogs around the farmyard,” Margaret wrote in her 1986 biography of her mother. Her father, she added, angrily demanded that she never mention it to her mother.

Margaret later wrote that she never did – nor, in turn, did her mother ever mention it to her. Margaret Truman Daniel died in 2008.

David Wallace, meanwhile, also had never been told the truth. He discovered it on his own, at age 30, while researching a writing project and going through copies of the Independence Examiner from 1903.

“There had been just this total cloud of silence,” Wallace said.

There had been a political calculation. In 1944, when Truman was considering whether to agree to become President Franklin Roosevelt’s vice presidential running mate, he had worried that political opponents would learn of the tragedy and exploit it. While Truman had to deny that he once had belonged to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, no word surfaced of the 1903 suicide.

Today Wallace said his aunt’s policy of silence appears, at minimum, archaic in context of the current urgency given to intervention with those exhibiting signs of depression or suicidal behaviors. 

And yet, he added, it was part of how his Aunt Bess – 18 years old at the timeher father’s suicide left her largely in charge of the family home – resolved to run it.

“My aunt was the one who created the environment that was so strange to protect her mother,” Wallace said.

“But, damn it all, she was going to protect her mother and, damn it, she did.”

Author David Wallace, with his aunt Bess Truman, in 1973. (Contributed |Linda Rees).

Shortly after Madge Gates Wallace’s death in 1952 at age 90, Bess and Harry Truman purchased the Gates home from her estate. After Bess Truman’s death in 1982 at age 97, ownership of the home, according to her will, passed to the federal government. 

Today the white Victorian structure is known not as the Gates-Wallace house, but as the Truman Home, standing at the intersection of Truman Road and North Delaware Avenue in Independence, part of a National Historic Site maintained by the National Park Service.

Wallace, now 85, is the last remaining member of the extended family that once lived there.

It was, Wallace said, “the first place I ever called home and it enclosed what were probably the happiest years of my life.

“I just wanted to get on the record of what it was that made us who we were.”

Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a Kansas City-based writer.

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