Give 'Em Hell, Harry: 9 Amazing Facts about President Harry Truman
Give ‘Em Hell, Harry: 9 Amazing Facts about President Harry Truman

Give ‘Em Hell, Harry: 9 Amazing Facts about President Harry Truman

Larry Holzwarth - October 28, 2017

Give ‘Em Hell, Harry: 9 Amazing Facts about President Harry Truman
The President’s personal Scotch and Bourbon crystal set saw steady use. Truman kept Scotch on hand for guests, he preferred Bourbon as his beverage.

He was fond of bourbon

Harry Truman enjoyed the relatively simple diet of his native Missouri. Upon entering the White House he and his wife Bess were dismayed at the quality of the food service as practiced under the Roosevelt administration. Bess immediately took steps to bring the White House kitchens up to her standards, while Harry continued to enjoy the simple, straightforward meals which had always sustained him.

He continued another habit which had long sustained him as well – he enjoyed a morning bracer of a stiff shot of bourbon. It was consumed after his daily two-mile walk, always completed at a brisk marching pace, outdoors in any weather. Today such a habit is looked at with near shock, but Truman wasn’t the first President to imbibe a morning bracer, nor likely the last.

It was not unusual among other world leaders either, Churchill started his day with brandy and the newspapers in bed, deGaulle was known to enjoy champagne and orange juice in the morning. Truman did not allow his fondness for bourbon to cloud his judgment. For example, in 1947 he declared a sixty-day moratorium on shipping grain to all distilleries in order to increase supplies available for shipping to starving Europe.

Still, he and Bess had definite ideas of how they liked their bourbon served, although they both referred to their evening libation as an Old Fashioned. When they first came to the White House they made this preference known to the long-serving house barman, who promptly served them properly with muddled fruit, sugar and bourbon. They were just as promptly rejected.

After several exasperating attempts to create an Old Fashioned to meet their pleasure without success, the barman asked the Truman’s for specific directions on the preparation of their drinks. Both Harry and Bess wanted straight bourbon, over ice, served in an Old Fashioned glass. And that is how they had them.

Give ‘Em Hell, Harry: 9 Amazing Facts about President Harry Truman
Former President Harry Truman at the groundbreaking ceremonies for his Presidential Library in 1955. Senator Stuart Symington stands to Truman’s right. Truman Library

He was one of the first Presidents to build a Presidential Library

As a reader and lover of history throughout his long life, Harry Truman was acutely aware of the value of his papers to posterity. He believed that consolidating all of the records of his life in a single setting would provide a valuable tool to future historians, giving them insights into the events of a lifetime as measured against the trials and activities of both the President and the many who advised and counseled him.

His papers to be preserved included personal letters and diaries, notes, books read with the corresponding marginal notations of the reader, personal preferences, official documents and records, and all of the minutiae of his existence.

To create this archive, Truman actively participated in the raising of funds and the selection of a suitable site for his Presidential Library. One of the first steps was the writing and publication of his memoirs. When Truman left the presidency there was no financial provision for a pension, a staff, Secret Service protection for the ex-president or his family, or even the means to get home. President Eisenhower graciously lent the former President the private railcar Ferdinand Magellan to convey the President home. Truman did not drive home, despite a longstanding myth that he did.

To build his library, Truman solicited donations, made paid public appearances, wrote articles and op-eds for newspapers and magazines, and did whatever else he could to generate sufficient capital. His success and the ongoing dedication of others built the Truman Library, located in Independence Missouri.

The first to be built under the 1955 Presidential Libraries Act, which encouraged but did not fund such endeavors, it is now operated by the National Archives and Records Administration. Truman spent the last years of his life actively working at the library, training staff, giving lectures, and meeting with visiting students of all ages.

Give ‘Em Hell, Harry: 9 Amazing Facts about President Harry Truman
Because of White House renovations, Truman resided in the Blair House during a 1950 attempt on his life. White House Museum

He survived two assassination attempts while President

Twice attempts were made on Truman’s life while he was President, although only the second is well known. In the first attempt in 1947, Zionist terrorists known as the Stern Gang tried to kill the President (as well as British officials including Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden) through the use of letter bombs. These attempts failed when the letter bombs were diverted by first British police, who then alerted the US Secret Service.

At the time US recognition of a Jewish state of Israel was still much in doubt, one of the reasons being Truman’s concern over such Zionist terror activities in Palestine. Truman later led US recognition of Israel.

The second and more well-known, although myth-laden, occurred during the White House renovation project when Truman and his family were living in the Blair House. Puerto Rican Nationalists wanting an independent state for the island targeted the Blair House in an attempt to kill the President on November 1, 1950.

The attack was near suicidal in nature, and the two attackers engaged in a shootout with White House Police and Secret Service Officers. One attacker and one officer were killed and three others wounded including the second attacker, Oscar Collazo, who recovered. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, later commuted to time served in 1979.

Truman had been napping upstairs in Blair House when the attack began and glanced briefly out of the window towards the gunfight which was occurring about thirty feet away. He was immediately hustled aside by Secret Service officers. This led to the apocryphal story that Truman, awakened from his nap, had shouted out the window demanding to know what was going on.

In reality, Truman was visibly shaken by the attempt and the loss of an officer and mulled over both in his diary for some time after. The myth of his belligerence under fire has only grown with the passage of time.

Give ‘Em Hell, Harry: 9 Amazing Facts about President Harry Truman
Truman spent 175 days at Key West’s Little White House during his Presidency, both working vacations and relaxation time. US Navy

He loved Key West Florida’s Little White House

In 1942 President Roosevelt had taken a federal government camp built by the WPA and jokingly renamed it Shangri La (now Camp David) for use as a Presidential retreat and vacation ground. Truman used it rarely, finding the rustic nature of the camp not to his taste.

He preferred to vacation instead of at what became known as the Little White House, a former residence of the Commandant of the Naval Base at Key West Florida. Truman made it his winter White House beginning in 1946. Eventually, he spent 11 vacations there for a total of 175 days during his nearly eight years in office.

His vacations were usually working vacations and the activities at Key West reflect that. The meetings creating the Department of Defense were conducted there and the result codified as the Key West Accord. Truman announced what became known as the Truman Doctrine – a promise to resist Soviet expansionism – just before leaving for a working vacation at Key West; dealing with the repercussions and remonstrations of world leaders and the press was handled from there. Much of what became the Marshall Plan was hammered out there.

The Navy expanded communication and transportation capabilities to the point that the President at the Little White House enjoyed the same access to information that he had in Washington. But it wasn’t all work there. While in residence Truman enjoyed deep-sea fishing in the Gulf of Mexico and occasional cruises on the Presidential yacht, although Army man to the bone he was never an appreciative sailor.

Truman freely enjoyed the small-town atmosphere of Key West itself, and he was never without cronies for a game of poker or conversation over bourbon in the evenings. After he left the Presidency he returned no less than five times, staying at the private residence of friends. The Little White House is now owned by the State of Florida and operated as a museum, remodeled to match its appearance when Truman used it to recharge his batteries.

Give ‘Em Hell, Harry: 9 Amazing Facts about President Harry Truman
Margaret Truman (reflected in mirror) and her voice coach just prior to her performance at Constitution Hall. Critic Paul Hume was less than impressed. Truman Library

He once threatened a critic of his daughter’s singing

Harry Truman was a student of the piano and a lifelong lover of music. This passion was reflected in his daughter Margaret, who desired a singing career. In 1950 Margaret performed a recital at Washington’s venerable Constitution Hall, which was reviewed the following morning in the Washington Post. The reviewer, a gentleman by the name of Paul Hume, was not impressed and said so in his review.

He described her voice as being “…of little size…” and commented that her singing “…has not improved in the years we have heard her…cannot sing with anything approaching professional finish.” Truman the President chose to respond as Truman the incensed father in a letter to the Post dated December 6th.

Truman called it a “…lousy review…” and informed the critic that he was an “…eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay.” Truman informed the writer, “Someday I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose…” It is an indication of the character of both men that years later they exchanged somewhat more cordial letters and between them the incident was forgotten, although as President Truman was the recipient of much criticism over the letter.

Truman’s love of music also got him in trouble with his wife Bess on at least one occasion. Truman, then Vice President, was at the National Press Club on a Saturday in February 1945. During the war, the Club was open to servicemen on Saturday nights. Actress Lauren Bacall, not yet a big star, was there too. Truman was attracted to a piano in the ballroom and sat down to play, to amuse both the troops and himself.

Give ‘Em Hell, Harry: 9 Amazing Facts about President Harry Truman
Bess Truman was none-too-pleased with this and other photos of her husband and Lauren Bacall which ran in several newspapers. Truman Library

Enterprising photographers in the room convinced Bacall to sit on the top of the piano as Truman played, which she did, lounging across the top of the piano and smiling down at the grinning Vice President, both obviously enjoying themselves. The photos ran in papers across the country the next day and Bess was livid by all accounts. Bess informed the soon-to-be President that on no condition should he ever play the piano in public again. Although he did play in public again, albeit it rarely, his piano was always thereafter unadorned.

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