FOR many Americans, the enduring image of President Harry...

Salmagundi

July 21, 1992

FOR many Americans, the enduring image of President Harry S Truman is of a plain-speaking cuss who wasn't afraid to "give 'em hell." But David McCullough's new, 1,100-page biography, "Truman," provides character shadings that might surprise a lot of readers.

The young Truman's great infatuation with Bess Wallace and his letters to the object of his affection strike a sharp contrast to the tougher image of the man who would succeed Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, drop two atomic bombs on Japan and fire General Douglas MacArthur. In June of 1911, when Mr. Truman was 27 years old and helping to run the family farm in Grandview, Mo., he wrote a proposal of marriage to Bess, who lived in nearby Independence.

"You know," he said in the letter, "were I an Italian or a poet I would commence and use all the luscious language of two continents. I am not either but only a kind of good-for-nothing American farmer. I've always had a sneakin' notion that some day maybe I'd amount to something. I doubt it now though like everything. It is a family failing of ours to be poor financiers. I am blest that way. Still that doesn't keep me from having always thought that you were all that a girl could be possibly and impossibly. You may not have guessed it but I've been crazy about you ever since we went to Sunday school together. But I never had the nerve to think you'd even look at me."

Bess gently turned down the offer, but two-and-a-half years later, she would consent to become engaged to Mr. Truman. They were married in June of 1919, after he had served as a U.S. Army captain in France during World War I.

Mr. Truman was 35 at the time of the wedding. Within several months, he and an old army buddy opened a clothing store in Kansas City. The former "good-for-nothing" farmer eventually would fulfill his "sneakin' notion" and indeed "amount to something," something more grand than even he might have imagined.

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