Friday, February 17, 2017

When life handed her the life of a presidential child, Margaret Truman passed on making lemonade and turned the big lemon into books

margaret truman.jpg

Mary Margaret Truman Daniel (1924-2008)
Entertainment personality, author

After seeing “It’s a Wonderful Life,” President Harry Truman told the press if he and his wife Bess had had a son, he’d have been actor Jimmy Stewart. As things turned out, they had a daughter, and she turned out like Myrtle Mae Simmons, Elwood P. Dowd’s niece in another Stewart film, Harvey.

Her mother Bess disliked Washington. She spent most of the year at home in Missouri, returning to DC for the social season. This left Margaret, who graduated George Washington University in 1946, to shoulder many of the First Lady’s social duties in The White House. She disliked the duties and the residence, comparing it to living in a museum.

Margaret wanted to pursue a career as a classical singer, and made her debut on radio in 1947. RCA Records signed her two years later.

Her career got decidedly mixed reviews. In 1950, Washington Post music critic Paul Hume wrote that Truman was "extremely attractive on the stage... [but] cannot sing very well. She is flat a good deal of the time... and still cannot sing with anything approaching professional finish."

President Truman wrote to Hume, "Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!" Truman was upset by the death of his press secretary and longtime friend, Charlie Ross, a few hours before the concert.

Margaret simply responded that “Mr. Hume is a very fine critic. He has a right to write as he pleases.”  

Hume, whose paper had refused to wrote about the episode and was scooped by another, issued the statement, "I can only say that a man suffering the loss of a friend and carrying the burden of the present world crisis ought to be indulged in an occasional outburst of temper."

The episode generated 10,000 letters to the White House, two-to-one in Hume’s favor.

Margaret tried acting, and appeared on television variety and quiz shows in the 1950s. At 32 she married a New York Times writer, Clifton Daniel, and they had four sons. Living in New York, she raised and ran the family, looked out for her aging parents, and served on the board of her father’s presidential library.

When a Harry Truman nostalgia boom arose after Watergate, Margaret was ready with an affectionate, best-selling biography that sold a million copies. She earned $200,000 on the paperback rights alone.

Launched as an author, she wrote a number of other White-House related books, a best-selling biography of her mother, and her memoirs. In 1980 she launched a popular, if lightweight, murder mysteries set in Washington DC institutions: the White House, the Supreme Court, the Pentagon; twenty-seven in all.

After the 2000 suicide of the writer Paul Christianson- who ghosted a meretricious series of detective novels featuring Eleanor Roosevelt, under her son Elliott's name- among his papers were found claims he also wrote the Truman novels.

The issue remained unsettled until 2014, when the writer Donald Bain- who also turned out 43 novels “by” the television detective Jessica Fletcher, of Murder, She Wrote- wrote an article for Publishers Weekly claiming authorship with his “close collaborator” and adding his name to the covers of novels published after Daniel died.

Clifton Daniel rose to head The New York Times’ London and Moscow bureaus in the Cold War and was the paper’s managing editor in the mid-’60s. He died in 2000; their son, William, died four months later after being run down by a New York cab.

Margaret Daniel moved to Chicago to be near her oldest son, Clifton, and died after a brief illness in 2008. Clifton wrote his own memoir of his grandparents, and has been active in reconciliation projects associated with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

Paul Hume was music critic for the Washington Post from 1946 to 1982 and won a Peabody Award for his work. He also taught at Georgetown and Yale, and was a commentator on the old Texaco Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts. When I worked as a congressional intern in Washington the summer of 1976, he was still hosting a classical music program on WGMS-FM.

In Kansas City to cover a Maria Callas concert in 1958, Hume called on President Truman. As The Post put it in Hume’s 2001 obituary, “The president played both of the pianos he had in his office, and the two became friends. They had seats across the aisle from each other for the concert that night, and Truman introduced Hume to his wife, who admired his work.”

#LiteraryBirthdays #HenryBemisBooks #MargaretTruman

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