It’s officially the holiday season — there’s Christmas music playing in the stores, lights dripping off of houses and last week, we all ate enough turkey to last a lifetime. (Honestly, #banturkey.) If you celebrated Thanksgiving like our family did this year – with 35 extended relatives and in-laws and neighbors and those poor plus-ones that got talked into attending – it was probably wonderful, and you were probably as excited as we were to get back to work on Monday for some peace and quiet.
If you’re a little burnt out on Forced Family Fun, we’ve got a dash of perspective for you, in the form of Madge Wallace.
Long before he became our 33rd President, Harry Truman was just a poor farm boy from Independence, Missouri, who never went to college – something his mother-in-law, Madge Wallace, never let him forget.
Madge was a particularly cranky and difficult mother-in-law, but she had her reasons; born the daughter of a wealthy flour mill owner, she suffered a rough marriage herself. Her alcoholic and unsuccessful husband, David, took his own life when their daughter Bess was 18.
It’s possible that no man would have been good enough for Madge Wallace’s daughter, but Harry Truman definitely was not. Too poor to attend college, he worked odd jobs as a clerk, mailroom attendant and railroad timekeeper before joining the Missouri National Guard. His failed haberdashery business and unsuccessful real estate speculation only added to Madge’s disappointment in her daughter’s suitor.
Harry had his sights set on marrying Bess since childhood, but when he proposed in 1911, she turned him down. She was close to her mother and held Madge’s opinions in such high regard that Harry and Bess didn’t marry until 1919, in their mid-thirties.
…And then they moved in with Bess’s mother.
You might think that Harry Truman’s eventual success – becoming a senator, then Vice President, then President upon the death of FDR – would have improved his standing in Madge’s eyes, but it didn’t do squat. The man desegregated the military, founded the U.N. and authorized the atomic bomb, for goodness’ sake! But Madge was still out there like “nope, dirt farmer.”
Of course, the housing arrangement they established in Missouri continued in Washington: Madge moved with the couple into the White House, where she could offer her opinions on everything that “Mr. Truman” (never President Truman) did. Famously, Madge publicly announced her admiration for Truman’s opponent in 1948, Thomas Dewey, and her prediction that Dewey would likely win over her son-in-law.
To make matters worse, his poor wife Bess now had to play the role of a politician’s wife, something she never particularly wanted. She probably would have been better off dealing with the bankrupt hat shop than having to follow the act of Eleanor Roosevelt as First Lady. Can you imagine having bigger shoes to fill? For twelve years, Eleanor had given a weekly press conference, which Bess was expected to continue, especially in the traumatic wake of a president’s death.
Bess Truman only gave one press conference, and answered “no comment” to nearly every question.
Which is the same thing “Mr. Truman” said whenever his Monster-In-Law came up. As a testament to the love he had for his wife, Harry Truman never said a bad word about Madge Wallace, despite her playing a pretty central (and pretty awful) role in most of his life.
As anyone spending time with family this holiday season knows, that’s hard to do. We love and like our family members a lot, and yet, you know there were some post-Thanksgiving gossip sessions between the dish-washer and the dish-dryer.
But maybe there’s a lesson there: Although Madge did everything in her power to reduce him to the dirt farm he was born on, Harry took the high road. He became the leader of the free world and stayed married to Bess for 53 years (see his cute note about it here). And although Truman had a 22% approval rating during his presidency, one of the lowest ever, he’s now widely regarded as a great American leader.