Truman, Margaret

Truman, Margaret
Feb. 17, 1924-Jan. 29, 2008
Daughter of American president Harry S. Truman and writer


Being the daughter of an American president proved both an advantage and a disadvantage to Margaret Truman, the only child of Harry S. Truman and the wife of the former New York Times managing editor Clifton Daniel. While she enjoyed being a White House debutante, she struggled at the same time to become a personality in her own right. In her early twenties she tried a career as a concert singer, then she was for a time a radio and television interviewer, and in recent years she has met with some success as a published author. Miss Truman has disclosed information about her famous family in several nonfiction books, including her autobiography, Souvenir, as well as Letters from Father and the biographies of her parents, Harry S. Truman and Bess W. Truman. Using her firsthand knowledge of the Washington scene, she has also written well-crafted mysteries set in the nation's capital, of which several, including Murder in the White House, Murder in the Supreme Court and Murder in Georgetown, reached the best-seller list.

At the time Mary Margaret Truman was born, on February 17, 1924, in Independence, Missouri, her father, Harry S. Truman, was a county judge. Starting as an ambitious farmer, he had after a nine-year courtship, in which he tried to prove himself financially worthy, married Elizabeth Virginia (Bess) Wallace, the reigning social queen of Independence. After serving as a captain in the field artillery in World War I, Harry Truman became part owner of a Kansas City haberdashery and entered politics as a protege of Thomas J. Pendergast, the boss of the Kansas City Democratic machine. Margaret's birthplace and childhood home in Independence was built before the Civil War by her mother's great-grandfather, a prominent flour miller, and it was maintained by Harry S. Truman as his home base throughout his White House years.

An only child, but part of a large, close-knit, extended family, Margaret recalls being spoiled by her father, disciplined by her mother, taught manners by her grandmother, Mrs. David W. Wallace, and pampered by doting aunts and uncles. She was also within shouting distance of many girlfriends of her age, and together they took over a chicken coop in the Truman backyard, and turned it into a clubhouse, where they put out a newspaper, "The Henhouse Gazette," that featured family anecdotes among other items.

After Harry S. Truman was elected a United States senator in 1934, the family spent half of each year in Independence, where Margaret went to public school, and the remainder of the year in Washington, D.C., where she attended Gunston Hall, a girls' boarding school. There she won prizes for her achievements in Spanish and English, was included on the honor roll, and performed in school productions of Shakespeare. In 1942 she entered George Washington University, where she excelled in her major subjects of history and international relations. She sang in the university glee club, joined the Pi Beta Phi sorority, and was active in the Canterbury Club, an Episcopalian organization.

Margaret Truman was twenty-one years old when her father, who had become vice-president eighty-three days earlier, succeeded to the presidency on April 12, 1945, following the sudden death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. She soon discovered that among the positive features of living in the White House was the chance to meet a variety of interesting people. "The opportunity to associate with great men and women who rise to the top in a democracy is the most superb advantage," she wrote in Souvenir. Another advantage was that as a confirmed movie buff she was able to "command" whatever films she wished to see. The main disadvantage of public life was its lack of privacy. Margaret Truman felt the pressures of the goldfish-bowl existence in her social life and vowed never to marry while she was still in the White House.

Influenced by her piano-playing father and bolstered by his constant encouragement, Margaret Truman had begun to take voice and piano lessons as a child and sang in the choir of Trinity Episcopal Church in Independence. She was encouraged in her musical aspirations by the noted vocal coach Estelle Liebling, and she received intensive voice training from Mrs. Thomas J. Strickler, a family friend who had once served as an assistant to the teacher of Amelita Galli-Curci.

After obtaining her B.A. degree from George Washington University in 1946, Margaret Truman went to New York to prepare for a concert career. She made her professional singing debut as a coloratura soloist with the Detroit Symphony under Karl Krueger on March 16, 1947, on its weekly network radio program. In August of that year she made her first appearance on the concert stage with Eugene Ormandy and the Hollywood Bowl Symphony, a performance that brought her seven curtain calls. During the next three months she toured more than thirty cities across the United States, presenting a program of operatic arias, lieder, and light classics. Her reviews were mostly kind, although some critics tactfully suggested she needed further training.

Because of her family's prominence, Miss Truman found it difficult to assess her voice in terms of critical opinion. As she wrote in Letters from Father, "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 the President, I had to be not better than average but better than the best in order to justify my appearing on the stage."

During 1948, Margaret Truman took a sabbatical from her singing career to help her father with his campaign for reelection, in which he defeated the Republican challenger Thomas E. Dewey, notwithstanding predictions by political pundits and the media to the contrary. Coached by her fellow Missourian Helen Traubel, she resumed her singing career in 1949, appearing in radio and television concerts. That year she signed long-term contracts with NBC and with RCA-Victor records.

The legendary exchange between President Truman and the Washington Post music critic Paul Hume, may be regarded as the beginning of the end of Margaret Truman's music career. In his review of her performance in a concert in Washington, D.C., on December 5, 1950, Hume praised her personality but commented that she "cannot sing very well," that "she is flat a good deal of the time," and that she has no "professional finish." The President wrote in huffy response: "I have just read your lousy review….I never met you, but if I do you'll need a new nose…."

After she abandoned her singing career in the 1950s, Margaret Truman conducted her own radio show, Authors in the News, for seven years and also did some acting in summer stock. In 1955 she was cohost of a radio show, Weekday, with Mike Wallace. Allen Ludden, the show's producer, recalls, "She was a joy to work with, a nice, dignified, kind of square lady who was very good on the show." In 1965 Miss Truman was the television hostess of the CBS International Hour, presented on five CBS stations, introducing music and dance programs from around the world.

On April 21, 1956, Margaret Truman married Clifton Daniel, then a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, who later became its managing editor. Shortly after their engagement, Miss Truman wrote her first book, Souvenir; Margaret Truman's Own Story (McGraw-Hill, 1956), in collaboration with Margaret Cousins. In her words, she wrote it "in self-defense" when she heard that someone else was planning a book about her life. "Maybe I was still trying to please my father, though, and fulfill his prophecy," she remarked. "He wrote me at the end of 1946 that 'you write interestingly and perhaps when you arrive [at a certain age] and your good voice cracks, you can be a great storywriter….'"

N. L. Browning, reviewing it in the Chicago Sunday Tribune (May 27, 1956) called Souvenir "a fascinating chronicle of Margaret Truman's life from early childhood to the present." Josephine Ripley observed in the Christian Science Monitor (May 24, 1956) that the author "is as well-behaved in print as she is in public….Here is…a rollicking running account of the life of a spontaneously natural little girl from the Midwest who slid down a rabbit hole and found herself at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."

Although Margaret Truman's White House Pets (McKay, 1969), generously illustrated with photographs, qualified as an eligible coffee-table item, it was ignored by most of the major media. It was rather unreliably assessed in Kirkus Reviews (October 15, 1969) as "an anecdotal splatter of pet tales" and summed up as "tame, but name-plated for salability." Publishers Weekly (October 20, 1969) announced that "Miss Truman has come up with some "lightly entertaining material…."Disingenuous but pleasant." White House Pets was excerpted in the January 1970 issue of the Ladies Home Journal.

In Souvenir, Margaret Truman had modestly written, "I have had no thought of writing history. The best I could hope to write would be a footnote to history. As the only child of the President of a great world power in a cataclysmic time, I will certainly be expected to make some comment on this man who will belong to history—to evoke him in special ways, available only to a daughter." Assisted in her research by the historian Thomas Fleming, Miss Truman fulfilled that expectation in 1972 with her biography Harry S. Truman (Morrow, 1972), which was chosen as the Book-of-the-Month Club's special midwinter 1973 selection.

"No chancelleries are going to topple, no certainties become unhinged, because of any revelations made here," Cabell Phillips wrote in his review in the New Republic (January 6/13, 1973). As for her evaluation of her father's place in history, W. C. McWilliams commented in his review in the New York Times (October 24, 1972), "Her political portrait of her father is unbelievable because it presents him as faultless." The reviewer went on to say, however, "It is the personal, familial side of her biography that makes it valuable—every anecdote adds dimension to the Trumans as a family and to Harry as a man."

A distaff counterpart of John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage (1964), Margaret Truman's fourth book, Women of Courage (Morrow, 1976), written with the help of Alice and Tom Fleming, contains biographies of twelve American heroines. As the New York Times reviewer Letitia Baldrige (November 28, 1976) pointed out, "This is not a book by an accomplished historian….It is rather a simple narrative by an admitted patriot…." Although the book included heroines from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as Dolley Madison and Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the reviewer felt that Miss Truman wrote best when describing women she had known personally - Dr. Frances Kelsey, Senator Margaret Chase Smith, and Marian Anderson. Since it was a timely addition to the then relatively untapped field of women's history, the reviewer recommended: "This is a book to give your daughter to read - and your son, too."

The major media paid little attention to Letters from Father; The Truman Family's Personal Correspondence (Arbor House, 1981), which was edited and annotated by Margaret Truman. Appraising the book for Library Journal (August 1981), William Thomas Miller wrote: "While affording an intimate glimpse of the Trumans, this collection offers scant new information or insights."

Margaret Truman's memorial to her mother, who died in 1982 at the age of ninety-seven was a biography, Bess W. Truman (Macmillan, 1986). "Refreshing, real and touching," was Helen Thomas' evaluation of the book in the New York Times Book Review (April 3, 1986). "Far from being a 'Mommy Dearest' or even an uncomplimentary autobiographical novel like 'Home Front' by Patti Davis,…Bess W. Truman is primarily about love…." Robert F. Nardini in Library Journal (April 1, 1986) found the work disappointing, however, and noted that "the author fails to show that Bess Truman was an interesting figure in her own right, and worthy of a separate biography."

Writing murder mysteries was not an improbable departure for Margaret Truman. For many years she had been an avid mystery reader, an interest that she shared with her father. The first in her series of Washington-based mystery novels was Murder in the White House (1980). According to Don Fine, the editor and publisher of Arbor House, which published Murder in the White House as well as her subsequent mystery novels, it was not ghostwritten, like so many other celebrity books. It was Don Fine who mapped the marketing strategy for the book. "The fact that Margaret has instant recognition is a great plus," he said, "but she doesn't have instant recognition as a novelist." The publisher placed some 50,000 copies in chain bookstores before publication and arranged for the stores to help finance an advertising campaign. "We wanted to build interest in the book on its own terms so that it wouldn't be hostage to a terrible review somewhere," Fine explained. The plan worked, and when a New York Times review of the book came out it was already in its third printing, with 71,000 copies in circulation, and on the best-seller list for several weeks. Dick Clark Cinema Productions purchased the movie rights; the Book-of-the-Month Club designated the novel as an alternate feature selection; and Fawcett Books acquired the paperback rights for $215,000.

To guarantee authenticity, Miss Truman scrutinized the floor plans of the White House. She denied that she had based her characters on real persons, but as Douglas Martin observed in the Chicago Tribune, "The unmarried secretary of state's penchant for pretty girls is at least vaguely reminiscent of one recent German-accented occupant of that office. And the strong-willed White House chief of staff bears a passing resemblance to H. R. Haldeman." The President also has a daughter about the age Margaret was when her father entered the White House. She "is clearly very different from Margaret Truman," William French noted in the Toronto Globe and Mail (June 26, 1980) "but we can feel through her some of the frustration that Miss Truman must have felt in her social life."

It turned out to be fortunate that Arbor House did not count on the critics to boost sales. Although reviewers conceded that Murder in the White House contained some elements of a fine mystery novel, they felt that it suffered from lack of polish. Chris Chase, for example, wrote in the Chicago Tribune (July 6, 1980): "There's nothing terrible about Murder in the White House; there's nothing terrific either. Truman is no master of suspense, her characters are thinner than tissue paper, and as a writer she is fairly careless." As William French noted in his Globe and Mail review, "Miss Truman seems to have studied Agatha Christie on how to introduce false leads, point to the wrong suspect and generally confuse the issue. She does this with a certain amount of technical dexterity, but it's too mechanical and juiceless." The Canadian reviewer felt that the attitudes revealed by Miss Truman were more interesting than her prose: "She is cynical about politics and politicians, and not just because her secretary of state is a satyr….Most of the politicians who make an appearance are incompetent or corrupt…."

Nor were the critics rhapsodic about the writing style in Margaret Truman's second mystery novel, Murder on Capitol Hill (1981). Jean M. White of the Washington Post (July 19, 1981) noted that she "writes entertainingly about the Washington scene and not without a touch of gentle amusement," but criticized her "uninspired" prose and complained that she "clutters her plot and cast of characters."

Her next contribution to the mystery genre, Murder in the Supreme Court (1982), was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection. James Kaufman of the Christian Science Monitor (November 3, 1982) observed: "It's easy to overlook the sometimes slight characterizations here, because the plot clips along and provides good intrigue by an adept writer." High praise came, too, from the mystery maven who writes under the pseudonym of Newgate Callender, who noted in the New York Times (November 7, 1982): "Her distaste for chicanery and hypocrisy in high office is apparent, and her real indignation when confronted with moral dishonesty is one of the bonuses of the book."

Praise for Murder in the Smithsonian (1983) was much more subdued. Reviewing the novel for the New York Times (June 24, 1983), Anatole Broyard wrote: "Margaret Truman is intelligent and observant, but she is not a natural writer, and in reading Murder in the Smithsonian, one realizes what an enormous difference there is between talent and contrivance. One feels Miss Truman bravely, stubbornly standing behind each of her sentences, holding them up, as it were." And Dan McCoubrey, writing in the Washington Post (June 27, 1983), noted that "however accurately expressed, the writing is very self-conscious and the characters, except for a few, are stock despite nice touches now and then." McCoubrey went on to say that she failed to tie up loose ends at the conclusion, but acknowledged that Murder in the Smithsonian "is a good light read—it is probably not coincidental that the publication comes just in time for the beach and swimming pool trade."

Margaret Truman's next attempt to cash in on her knowledge of the capital city, Murder on Embassy Row (1984), was described in Kirkus Reviews (June 1, 1984) as "another mild, talky Washington D.C. mystery." The reviewer found it "slow but likable, with some faint attempts at Nick-and-Noraish repartee from the lover/sleuths—and sure to reach a sizable, sedate mystery-readership." Les Whitten, writing in the Washington Post (July 15, 1984), pointed out some strangely coincidental similarities between Margaret Truman's Murder on Embassy Row and Elliott Roosevelt's Murder and the First Lady, both of which were published in 1984. "Consider," he wrote, "the authors are both children of successive Democratic presidents. Both novels' locales are upper-crust Washington. Both murders in the title are perpetrated with poison. Both principal villains are British. Both books use the British embassy and the White House for crucial scenes. Both center on transatlantic smuggling." But the reviewer went on to comment, "There, alas for Margaret Truman, these chance affinities cease. For Elliott Roosevelt's book is an urbanely mellow (if gory) yarn of merit, while Truman's is meretricious."

Margaret Truman's sixth suspense novel, Murder at the FBI (1985), begins on the FBI firing range, where a horde of tourists watches a marksman shoot a target that turns out to be the body of agent George Pritchard. "It's a corker of an opener," Jean M. White wrote in the Washington Post (August 18, 1985). "Truman writes a lively Washington scene with the sure hand of one who knows her way around the streets, institutions, restaurants, watering holes, people and politics. Her characters have more substance than those in previous books….But the prose still lacks style and verve and can turn turgid."

According to Kirkus Reviews (June 15, 1986), Margaret Truman's seventh mystery, Murder in Georgetown (1986), "keeps the action reasonably lively" and is "filled out with nice romance…and musings on journalism ethics." The reviewer for Publishers Weekly (June 6, 1986) suggested that "it may be deemed the best of Truman's bestsellers." Murder in Georgetown was chosen as a Mystery Guild selection and as a Literary Guild alternate, as was Miss Truman's next work Murder in the CIA (1987), about the killing of a literary agent and its solution by her friend, an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency. According to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly (October 9, 1987), with this book the author demonstrated "a deepening knowledge of her craft, topping her previous bestsellers."

Margaret Truman and her husband, Clifton Daniel, who although retired from the New York Times continues to lecture and write, make their home on Park Avenue in New York City, in a triplex furnished with Truman family antiques and possessions that belonged to Daniel while he was based in London. They also have a weekend house on Fire Island. Miss Truman prefers New York to Washington, which she calls "a company town." The Daniels have four grown sons, Clifton Truman, William Wallace, Harrison Gates, and Thomas Washington.

Described as more attractive in person than she is in her photographs, Margaret Truman has large blue-green eyes, ash-blonde hair, a flawless complexion, and a dimpled smile. She is five feet five inches tall and usually wears classically styled couturier clothes, most of them designed by Fontana of Rome. Admitting that domestic science is not her forte, Miss Truman has generally hired a housekeeper and had a nursemaid for her children when they were small. She confesses that her husband is a better cook than she is. She loves to dance and retains a lively interest in the theatre. A trustee of the Harry S. Truman Institute and of George Washington University, Miss Truman also serves as a director of Riggs National Bank and Seabury Press, and she is secretary of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation. She holds honorary degrees from George Washington University, Wake Forest University, and Rockhurst College.

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