The Hidden White House

Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America’s Most Famous Residence

Robert Klara

Thomas Dunne Books

ONE
MOVING DAY
 
 
I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house, and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.
—letter from President John Adams to his wife; quote chiseled into the State Dining Room’s mantel
There is a story about President Calvin Coolidge taking a walk around the White House grounds one evening with Missouri senator Selden P. Spencer, who pointed to the luminous mansion of carved sandstone and remarked, jokingly, “I wonder who lives there.” The lugubrious Coolidge responded, “Nobody. They just come and go.”1
Indeed they do, and no two stories of how a new president and his family come to live in America’s most famous house are alike. Most, however, share a common trait: The White House is a prize that candidates fight for, often for years. But a handful of others gain admittance by fate alone, and this was the case with Harry S. Truman. “If there ever was a man who was forced to be President,” Truman once said, “I’m that man.”2 The news reached him and his family on the afternoon of April 12, 1945. It struck them like a bolt of lightning. It came, fittingly, in the middle of a rainstorm.
*   *   *
In those days, the Trumans lived in a second-floor apartment at 4701 Connecticut Avenue, in a quiet neighborhood tucked into the city’s northwestern quadrant, not far from Rock Creek Park. On that April afternoon, Bess glanced out the window at moody gray skies over the city and did not like the looks of them. Her husband—a last-minute choice to be Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vice president—was scheduled to fly up to Rhode Island to deliver a speech. Air travel frightened Bess Truman; many things did.
Down the hall, the Trumans’ daughter, Margaret, was primping in her bedroom mirror. The twenty-one-year-old college junior was preparing for a date that evening. A few feet away sat the cantankerous Madge Wallace, Bess’s eighty-two-year-old mother, who was visiting from Missouri. Grandma Wallace hurled one probing question after another about the evening’s suitor, while Margaret, dabbing on her makeup, minted perfect responses. She knew the drill by now. Nearly twenty-six years earlier, Madge Wallace had lost Bess at the altar to that “dirt farmer” Harry Truman, and she was bent on assuring that her lovely granddaughter didn’t wind up with a bum, too.3
Harry Truman was far from being a bum, but his salary as public servant had never amounted to much. In the eleven years since Harry’s narrow election to the Senate in 1934, the Trumans had lived in a series of tiny apartments. Back home in Independence, the Wallace family home was a fourteen-room Victorian with stained-glass parlor windows. But Washington was a big town. Beginning with the family’s first flat—a cramped price gouger at $150 a month—getting by had been difficult.4
It was why the Trumans adored 4701 Connecticut Avenue so much. They’d chanced on their two-bedroom apartment in 1941, and the onset of the war would show them just how lucky they’d been. World War II brought a scarcity of everything, especially housing. In 1942, Washington’s population swelled by a quarter of a million people, all of whom went looking for apartments. Soon, ten thousand boardinghouses were operating in the capital city, many filled with young women from the hinterlands, “government girls” who’d arrived to push the paperwork of war.
*   *   *
In a city of old row houses and overcrowded hostelries, the Trumans’ building was a vision from a fairy tale—a white brick prewar of five stories embracing a leafy courtyard trimmed with flower beds. Apartment 209 faced the front and took in the morning sun. It had two bathrooms, a sleeping porch, and even enough space for Margaret’s Steinway baby grand. For all this, the family paid $120 a month. Truman’s recent elevation to the vice presidency had bumped his monthly take-home pay to exactly $982.45, making their apartment an outright steal.5 And yet the attachment they’d formed with their apartment had since run deeper than the family budget. As solid Missouri stock, the Trumans lived modestly. Ostentation made them uncomfortable. So far as they cared, FDR was welcome to the carved paneling and marble fireplaces of the White House; the Trumans were perfectly happy with their rental.6
At 6:00 P.M., the telephone rang. Margaret walked over and answered it. It was her father calling. Margaret began her usual kidding with him—telling him she had a date and wouldn’t be home for dinner—but Truman cut her off and demanded to speak with “Mother.”7 Confused and hurt over her father’s uncharacteristic “voice of steel,” Margaret surrendered the phone and trooped back to her room.8 Bess Truman took the receiver and nestled it into her graying curls.
“Bess,” Truman barked, “I’m at the White House. President Roosevelt died about two hours ago. I’m sending a car for you and Margaret. I want you here when I’m sworn in.”9 And then he hung up.
In their nearly twenty-six years of marriage, Bess Truman had never heard a tone in her husband’s voice quite like the one that echoed in her head now as she put the receiver back on the hook.
*   *   *
It’s not known whether the Truman women said anything to each other as the heavy black limousine thrummed the cobblestones on its way down to the White House, but they didn’t have to. Already, the realization was dawning that the lives they’d known for the past eleven years had been swept away in the time it took to answer a phone. Moments after the conversation had ended, a reporter from the Associated Press raced up the stairs to knock on the apartment door. Still in her slip, Margaret opened it without thinking—only to slam it back shut in the reporter’s face. Bess and Margaret tried to sneak out of the building through the back door, but the press had already staked the whole place out, leaving them to run a gauntlet of photographers before reaching the limousine. This, they knew, was only the beginning.
They’d been so lucky up to now. Until a cerebral hemorrhage felled him in his cottage retreat down in Warm Springs, Georgia, FDR had been the most captivating president of the twentieth century. His laughter, his crafty storytelling, that thousand-watt smile—all of it kept the newsmen in a permanent state of distraction. It permitted the Trumans to live as ordinary people. Margaret pursued her B.A. in history at George Washington University. Bess would slide behind the wheel of her ’41 Chrysler Windsor to visit the stores downtown, where, to her enduring delight, nobody recognized her.10 Bess’s shock and grief over Roosevelt’s passing were genuine, but before long it became clear to her that she was actually mourning not one loss, but two—a president, and her privacy.11
Now the news of FDR’s death cut into radio broadcasts and spread in whispers down the sidewalks. Traffic on Connecticut Avenue knotted between Cumberland and Chesapeake streets as drivers slowed up to rubberneck at the building where the new president lived.12 Or used to live. What were the chances the Trumans could ever go back there now?
As the crow flies, the White House stood only four miles from 4701 Connecticut Avenue. To Bess’s mind, the place might as well have been on the moon. Decorum would, of course, require her to feign happiness over the chance to live in the executive mansion. Privately, though, she made her true feelings about the White House clear. “I just dread moving over there,” she said.13
*   *   *
The White House wasn’t ready to take them anyway, at least not yet. The days following FDR’s death had plunged the usual efficiency of the mansion into chaos. No sooner had Harry Truman been sworn in than the planning for Roosevelt’s funeral began. The Roosevelts’ things had to be packed up. FDR and Eleanor had lived in the White House for twelve years. Their Victorian love of clutter had, by the end, left the mansion looking like a Paris flea market. Truman took it upon himself to ease the strain on Mrs. Roosevelt. “Now don’t you be in any hurry to leave the White House,” he told her. “Take all the time you need in the world.”14 What the new president failed to understand was that hurrying was one thing Eleanor Roosevelt liked to do. On Monday, April 16, the day after her husband was laid in his grave, she pulled on an old pair of shoes and a tattered housedress and began tagging furniture, oil paintings, ship models, and barrels of china. “The amount of packing to be done was appalling,” Elliott Roosevelt remembered, but his mother refused to slow down. “I’ll be out by Friday,” she warbled, and she meant it.15
As the movers came and went, usher J. B. West decided all the activity was good cover for a personal mission. Taking a notebook in hand, he quietly slipped out of the mansion, crossed the street, and climbed the steps of the yellow town house just off Lafayette Square. He wanted to meet Mrs. Truman, his new boss.
The door on which West was knocking belonged to Blair House, the White House’s official guest residence. The Secret Service had decided to install the Truman family there immediately after FDR’s funeral. The agents had learned by degrees what Bess had probably suspected from the start: A president simply cannot live in an apartment building. The Trumans’ neighbors at 4701 Connecticut Avenue had been good sports about it all—the security checkpoint hastily set up in the lobby, the demands for identification. But, as Margaret remembered, “it was obviously impossible for us to stay.”16
West was led up to a room on the fourth floor that Mrs. Truman had selected as her temporary office. He could see immediately that the new First Lady was buckling under the strain. The Secret Service had given the Trumans their own private Pullman aboard the Roosevelt funeral train, but “sleep was practically impossible,” Margaret remembered.17 The trip had exhausted her mother. Among Mrs. Truman’s many worries, one was especially sinister. Though FDR had suffered from coronary disease, it was the presidency that had really killed him. Now she dreaded the “terrific load on Harry”—the Oval Office moving on to its next victim.18
Bess Truman put on the best face she could as she looked at the usher. West had come to get a sense of her requirements, which was ludicrous on its face: Bess Truman had no requirements. “I’m afraid I don’t know much about the operations of the White House,” she said. “You can appreciate how sudden this is for us.”19
West could appreciate that. The usher was Iowa-born, educated no further than high school. As he gazed at this Missouri homemaker seated across the desk, he recognized a lot of himself: an ordinary person thrust without warning onto the public stage. Bess Truman hadn’t chosen the White House, and neither had West. The vagaries of the civil service system had transferred him there in 1941, for no other reason than the ushers’ office needed help and West happened to know shorthand. Since then, he had learned that, for as glamorous and beautiful as the mansion seemed to the public, the old house could be a cruel place. It excelled at plunging its occupants into depths of confusion, loneliness, and fear—the very things already apparent in the pale blue eyes of Bess Truman.
West noticed something else. Despite her obvious distress, the First Lady had smiled, offered him a comfortable chair, and addressed him informally. It was the sort of respect rarely shown to the help. “I felt at ease and I liked her immediately,” West later said.20 At this moment, a friendship began to form between Bess Truman and the White House usher. Considering what the house across the street held in store, both of them would need it.
*   *   *
On Wednesday, April 18, another pair of feet scurried up the steps to Blair House’s front door, but this time the sensible shoes and toothy smile belonged to Eleanor Roosevelt. Surprised and flattered by the visit, Bess and Margaret invited FDR’s widow to come in.
Like everything else Mrs. Roosevelt did, she paid this call in haste and seemed to be anxious to get to her next engagement—even though that was little more than a long automobile ride to upstate New York, where retirement awaited her at Val-Kill, her rambling cottage in the Hyde Park woods. Finally crated up, the Roosevelts’ possessions had filled no fewer than twenty army trucks, which had already left as a northbound convoy. Mrs. Roosevelt had beaten her own move-out deadline by two full days.
The ostensible purpose for her stopping by was to wish the Trumans well, but it soon became clear that Mrs. Roosevelt had a second reason: She wanted to warn the incoming family about the White House. “[She] was somewhat apologetic about the [building’s] condition,” Margaret recalled. “The war and her heavy travel schedule had never given her time to do much decorating or housekeeping.”21
That sounded reasonable enough. Who couldn’t cut Eleanor Roosevelt, the busiest First Lady in history, some slack over a little dusting and vacuuming? Then, just before she left, she let drop another detail. The whole house, Mrs. Roosevelt said, was “infested with rats.”22 She recounted the story of how an especially fat rodent had shown up at a luncheon on the terrace some weeks before, winning the instant and undivided attention of the guests. With that, FDR’s widow wished the Truman family luck, clattered back down the steps, and disappeared into history.
*   *   *
The following day, propelled by their curiosity, Margaret and her mother donned their dresses and hats and made their way across Pennsylvania Avenue. Passing through the guard booth at the northwest gate, they started up the sweeping semicircular drive that led to the White House. For all their dread of moving here, it was difficult even for Bess and Margaret Truman to deny the beauty of the place. Gnarled boughs of oaks and elms twisted overhead, their canopies already coaxed into leaf by the warm spring breezes. To the left, near the circular pool, the tulip trees, silver bells, and forsythia had burst into bouquets of pink, white, and yellow.
And then suddenly, there it was. Rising from a nest of bushes just ahead, a tetrastyle portico of Ionic columns reared skyward from an Anglo-Palladian palace of white sandstone. The mansion soared to nearly sixty feet, its roof balustrade enclosing a forest of chimneys. Dotted by tall and slender windows, the facade erupted with carvings—griffins, garlands, rosettes, and swags tooled into the soft sedimentary rock. The house was massive, stunning, and also somewhat haunting. Its intricate stone blocks had been carved by Scottish masons, then hoisted into place by slaves. So many lives had been lived within its walls, yet the house had belonged to none of them. Like an old hotel—or a reusable coffin—it was simply cleaned and shined up for the next occupant. Now, as Bess and Margaret drew closer, they could see that the beautiful white frontage visible from the avenue was actually faded, cracked, and peeling. The painters, they would later learn, had not visited since the Great Depression.23
Six stone steps rose from the curbstone beneath the North Portico and there, at the top, stood J. B. West. He’d been expecting them. The purpose of this visit, as Margaret later put it, was to have a peek at “our new quarters.”24 West would see that they got that peek, though inwardly he’d probably worried about this visit. Though the usher was proud to work at the mansion, he was ashamed of what had become of it. The public rooms downstairs were dignified and beautiful, with their billowing draperies, polished parquet, and antique clocks ticking quietly on the mantelpieces. But the Truman women had come to see the second floor, where they’d be living. That was a different story.
The moment that Margaret Truman stepped into the family quarters, “what we saw made me yearn to stay in Blair House,” she said.25 The floor looked, West admitted, “like a ghost house.”26 The usher led the women through a warren of deserted rooms, their feet stepping across mangy, threadbare carpets. Cracked and yellow with neglect, the walls bore the dusty outlines of where hundreds of the Roosevelts’ framed pictures had hung. Remnants of draperies clung to the curtain rods like rags, bleached and brittle from the sun. What furniture that remained lay strewn about the rooms, its upholstery faded and torn, “like it had come from a third-rate boarding house,” Margaret said.27 Many of the chairs and tables were literally falling to pieces. The usher explained that upkeep had not been a priority during the war years, but the excuse felt hollow. “What little was left of the White House,” he said, “gave it the appearance of an abandoned hotel.”28
At first, Bess could muster no response. Her frozen expression was “a paragraph of exclamation points,” Margaret recalled.29 Margaret herself struggled to reconcile what she’d seen down in the public rooms with the ruins at the top of the stairs. She marveled that the public had no idea what squalor existed in the White House. “The areas seen by tourists were kept freshly painted and decorated,” she said. “But … the private quarters [were] dingy.”30
Dingy wasn’t the worst of it. The disrepair reached beyond the aesthetic and into the far more serious realm of the structural. Cracks several feet long cut across the walls in all directions. Overhead, the plaster ceilings sagged like tent canvas.31 But the Truman women did not ask about the house’s architectural integrity, and the usher did not mention it.
After a while, Bess Truman finally spoke up. “How much redecorating can we do?” she asked. West’s reply was the first good news the women had heard since coming in the front door. The usher explained that Congress appropriated a yearly allowance of fifty thousand dollars for the mansion’s upkeep (funds that Eleanor Roosevelt had left wholly unspent) and that this money could at least buy some paint and drapery fabric, for starters. Margaret remained sullen. “She assured me that the old place would look a lot better once we got some fresh paint on the walls,” Margaret recalled, and she’d almost believed it.32
The broken furniture presented another problem because the Trumans had no furniture of their own to replace it with. “We’d planned to use what’s already here,” Bess explained to West.33 In view of the facts, that plan now felt absurd and embarrassing. But time was short and alternatives few. As the three continued their tour of the family quarters’ maze of bedrooms and parlors, Bess Truman motioned toward whatever items looked salvageable—a chair here, a bed there—as West compiled a list of pieces to be rounded up and reconditioned.
The night of April 19, Margaret Truman sat in her room in Blair House, opened her diary, and recounted the sad little tour of earlier in the day. “The White House upstairs is a mess,” she wrote. “I was so depressed when I saw it.”34
*   *   *
Had Harry Truman not been a man who’d sweated in the mail room of the Kansas City Star, steered a horse-drawn plow through the Missouri dirt, and lost his haberdasher’s shop in the recession of 1922—had he not, in other words, been a tireless worker with no use for the conceits of the upper classes—he might have been upset to learn that the executive mansion was in such rotten shape. But the new president was unruffled. He’d lived in old houses his whole life, and what farmer hasn’t seen a few rats?
In fact, the rodent story his wife recounted with horror left Harry Truman tickled. “Mrs. Roosevelt told Bess and me that it [the White House] is infested with rats!” Truman wrote in a letter to his ninety-two-year-old mother a few days later. “Said she was giving three high-hat women a luncheon on the south portico when a rat ran across the porch railing.”35
Still, the main reason that the dilapidated White House didn’t trouble him was this: Harry Truman was a man with more important things on his mind. Foremost was how to perform in a job he had never wanted nor, thanks to a horrendous oversight by Franklin D. Roosevelt, ever been groomed for. Senator Harry Truman had never planned on being vice president, let alone president. In the teeth of the 1944 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, as the party threatened to split over Roosevelt’s potential running mates, James Byrnes and Henry Wallace (men too far to the right and the left, respectively, to carry a delegation vote), Truman’s name had been trotted out as a compromise. Most everyone liked the idea except Harry Truman. Citing the senator’s refusal to join the ticket, DNC chairman Robert Hannegan referred to Truman as “the contrarianist Missouri mule I’ve ever dealt with.”36 The mule held his hoofing until a long-distance call came in from a furious FDR. “You tell the senator,” the president boomed, “that if he wants to break up the Democratic party in the middle of a war, that’s his responsibility!” Roosevelt slammed the phone down. Truman, who’d overheard the call, blanched. “Oh shit,” he said.37 Then he accepted the nomination.
But during the eighty-three days that Harry Truman served as vice president, Franklin Roosevelt—exhausted by the war, his heart steadily failing—had met with Truman only twice, and those meetings were mainly photo ops. Figuring he needed the Missourian only as a bridge to the Senate when the war ended and the peace needed ratifying, FDR neglected to include Truman in any policy discussions. It was a rare oversight for an otherwise-brilliant president, who then died suddenly and left his VP in “almost complete darkness,” as press secretary Jonathan Daniels later wrote.38
Now, Truman logged inhuman hours in the West Wing as he attempted to crash-learn the world’s most difficult job. Truman’s diary shows that in the first two days of his presidency, he met with no fewer than forty-one senior officials, including the secretaries of state, war, and treasury; three admirals, two generals, and one colonel; FDR’s closest confidants, James Byrnes and Harry Hopkins; and eighteen senior members of Congress. What secrets they shared, Truman remembered; what counsel they offered, he accepted.
But mainly, Harry Truman read. Adm. William D. Leahy recalled massing a “sizeable stack” of official memoranda generated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and leaving them on Truman’s desk. “In a few days,” Leahy said, “he had digested them.”39 Years later, Daniels would recall, Truman “lifted his hand higher than table level to indicate the pile of documents, agreements, conference minutes, cables which he had to read in trying to understand the problems and responsibilities he had assumed.”40
And so Harry Truman had little time to worry about a few dingy rooms in the White House, the cracked walls and cobwebs and whatever else was up there. He had a country to run, a war to win. It would take nineteen days before Truman finally found a few minutes to wander down the West Colonnade and poke his head into the mansion.
*   *   *
The visit came on May 1, 1945. That morning, the radio crackled with news intercepted from a German broadcast: Hitler was dead. West assumed that this was the probable reason that the president was in a “jaunty” mood, an observable bounce in his step.41 Then again, the usher also discovered that Harry Truman pretty much had just one speed: fast. The man didn’t walk so much as march. And now that he’d finally gotten around to visiting the mansion he would call home, he had no shortage of comments about the place. “When you think of all the great men who’ve lived in this house,” Truman chirped to the usher, his owl eyes blinking at West through thick eyeglasses, “you can’t help but feel a sense of awe.”42
Maybe. West’s days of awe had ended sometime back during the Roosevelt administration. At the moment, he was most likely feeling a sense of dread. After all, Truman wanted to go upstairs to see “where Mrs. Truman is going to put us all.”43 Fortunately, the painters and maintenance men had been put to work, and the rooms had shaken off the derelict look that had so horrified Truman’s wife and daughter. For a solid week, West recalled, “[o]ur staff [had] painted, hung draperies, cleaned, upholstered, and rearranged the White House for the Trumans.”44
As the president soon learned, where his wife would “put” the family was where First Families ended up anyway: the western side of the second floor. Holding to tradition, the president would take the bedroom just off the Oval Study, and with a quick walk through an adjacent sitting room, he could reach Mrs. Truman’s bedroom in the southwest corner. As for Margaret’s quarters, well, West figured it was a good thing the president had come by, because there was an executive decision to be made.
The second floor had plenty of room down on the eastern side of the house. Either the Blue or Rose bedroom, large and private, would have been perfect for Margaret. The Trumans were an unusually close family, however, and the president wanted them all to be together. The only available bedroom was one in the northwestern corner that Eleanor Roosevelt had used for her overnight guests. It was filled with the brooding furniture that Mary Todd Lincoln had bought in New York back in 1861, including an eight-foot-long rosewood bed with a headboard that resembled nothing so much as a tombstone. This crypt of a room was no place for a college girl who still loved to pile her pillows with stuffed animals. “The dark, clunky furniture that was cluttering up my sitting room had to go,” Margaret said, “preferably as far away as possible.”45
Yet here the president paused, seeing the problem. “Would we dare move Mr. Lincoln out of here?” the president asked his usher. “Would that be tampering with history too much?”46
Those big eyes were looking at him again. West later learned that the president had been born with a structural astigmatism—or, as Truman called it, “flat eyeballs.”47 In 1889, the family doctor had warned a five-year-old Harry that that roughhousing with his friends outside would get his eyes “knocked out.”48 Petrified into staying indoors, Truman discovered the Independence Public Library. By the time he turned fourteen, the story goes, he had devoured all three thousand books in it.49 The doctor’s advice had been misguided, but it had inadvertently forged a true intellectual. One of Truman’s passions was reading history, and one of his favorite topics was Abraham Lincoln.
Luckily for Truman, J. B. West knew some history, too. The usher explained that Lincoln had probably slept in several different rooms on the second floor. What’s more, Lincoln’s office had been down the hall in the southern corner, over the East Room. It was there where, on January 1, 1863, he’d signed the Emancipation Proclamation.50 That was all that Truman needed to hear. He immediately ordered Abe’s ponderous furniture trundled down the hall, starting in motion a process that would culminate with a new name for the Blue Bedroom: the Lincoln Bedroom.51
Truman’s combination of forethought and rapid, decisive action impressed the usher. “Harry Truman was his own man,” West said. “There was no pomp or pretense about him.… We were going to enjoy working for this family, I decided.”52
*   *   *
When the Trumans’ moving van lurched to a halt beneath the North Portico on May 7, West realized that Bess Truman hadn’t been kidding: They really didn’t own any furniture. About all that lay in the dark of the trailer were clothing and books. There hardly seemed a need for a truck at all, until West noticed one huge object inside—the sinuous black Steinway.
According to Margaret, it took block and tackle to finesse the instrument through a second-story window. West would recall the movers manhandling the thing through the front door.53 Maybe they were remembering different pianos, because there would be three of them in the family quarters alone: the baby grand in Margaret’s room, a concert grand in the Oval Study, and an upright Gulbransen in one of the sitting rooms.54
The upright’s purpose was to be wheeled around, because dueling pianos were inevitable in a family in which two-thirds of the members were accomplished at the ivories. Truman had played since he was five years old. “My choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse or a politician,” Truman often deadpanned to male visitors. “To tell the truth, there’s hardly a difference.”55 Truman could still dash off some bars of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 or Chopin’s A-flat waltz, but Margaret was accomplished enough as a vocalist and performer that she was thinking about turning professional after college.
While it was a matter of little concern at the time, all of those pianos were adding an enormous amount of weight to the house’s 128-year-old beams. Margaret’s Steinway was most likely a Model S, a “baby” that weighed a not-so-cuddly 540 pounds.56 Her father’s Steinway, a monster of mahogany crafted in 1937, came in somewhere between six hundred and eight hundred pounds.57
But the floor held, and the White House accepted the country’s thirty-second presidential family with a tired embrace. Margaret remained sullen, ruminating that the house “looked so shabby and second rate.”58 Her father proved far more adaptable. That night, Harry Truman tucked into his bed delighted as a schoolboy, later joking that he’d “slept in the President’s room.”59


 
Copyright © 2013 by Robert Klara