Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Harry's Proposal

Harry Truman remembers that he feel in love with Bess at first site, but it wasn’t that simple as this article explains:
Harry Truman always said he fell in love with Bess Wallace when they were children in Sunday school together. It was love at first sight, at least in Truman's probably oversimplified recollection in later life of what happened sometime during the 12 years they attended Sunday school. Harry fell deeply and permanently in love with Bess Wallace. He apparently never thought of being attracted to any other girl and never had a date with anyone else. Bess was, as he remembered many years later, "all that a girl could be possibly and impossibly."

The young woman in this love story, though, did not reciprocate Harry Truman's extraordinarily single-minded and ardent feelings. The little bit of evidence of Bess Wallace's early years that survives, most of it photographic, suggests she was a young woman with a pleasing personality who enjoyed some fun. She had a cherished circle of family and friends, and probably had some boyfriends. Maybe she stooped to a little flirting from time to time. One can't imagine Harry Truman engaging in flirtation. This was the young man who said of himself, "I was always afraid of the girls my age and older." Nonetheless, he tried to make friends with Bess when they were in high school together, and she let him walk home with her on occasion. This was all the encouragement she gave him. "I was lucky if I got to carry her books home for her sometimes," Harry remembered.

After high school, they parted ways, but eventually they came back together:
Courting Bess Wallace was not easy for Harry Truman. He was in Grandview, about 20 miles from Independence. He didn't have a car until 1914 and had to rely before that on a cumbersome and sometimes unreliable combination of horse-drawn carriage, trolley, and train to get to Independence. Telephoning, involving operators, party lines, and two different telephone companies, was arduous, and Harry and Bess apparently used the telephone sparingly. Harry would have to rely on his letters to fill in the gaps between the times when he could visit her.

During one his letters to Bess, Harry rambles into a proposal:
He opens the letter with talk of the weather. It had been very dry, despite his fervent wish for rain; he'll have to drink whiskey rather than water. "Water and potatoes will soon be as much of a luxury as pineapples and diamonds," he writes. Having maybe by accident written the word "diamonds," he decides to go further with it. "Speaking of diamonds would you wear a solitaire one on your left hand should I get it?" After this, he lets his emotions run loose. "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. I don't think so now but I can't keep from telling you what I think of you." Bess had told him she was tired of reading love stories in the books they were reading. But Harry had a special interest in one special love story. "I am trying one from real life on you," he writes. "I guess it sounds funny to you but you must bear in mind that this is my first experience in this line and also it is very real to me."

The question here is what Bess is thinking because nine days later Harry writes again, still no answer from her:
Harry waited nine very long days for an answer from Bess. He went through the mail every day when it came in, but found nothing. One can imagine the young man's anxiety and impatience. Finally, probably in despair, he wrote Bess another letter. It's dated July 1, which was a Saturday. He begins with some typical small talk about the books they were reading, and then he asks plaintively, "Did you get a letter from me not long ago? Please answer if only to give me fits for being so fresh."

With this second letter, she still didn’t write back. He tried calling, but couldn’t get through. Then he wrote a very short note, asking her to be “civil” at least and Bess finally responded:
Bess finally relented. She probably sent him a letter, or she might have phoned him. If she did send a letter, it hasn't survived—none of her letters from this courtship period have survived. She must have been warm and friendly, though also serious and firm. She told him she would not become engaged to him; she rejected his proposal.

At this point, Harry could have given up on Bess or confronted her, but he doesn’t do any of this. He writes her a very composed letter:
Harry's letter goes straight to the main question that must have been in Bess's mind: How is this young man going to react to being rejected? "You know that you turned me down so easy that I am almost happy anyway," Harry writes. Bess must have been intrigued, or astonished, by such an ironical response. Perhaps it made her laugh and cry at the same time. Harry goes on: "I never was fool enough to think that a girl like you could ever care for a fellow like me but I couldn't help telling you how I felt. . . . I knew that if ever I got the chance I'd tell you how I felt even if I didn't even get to say another word to you. What makes me feel real good is that you were good enough to answer me seriously and not make fun of me anyway. You know when a fellow tells a girl all his heart and she makes a joke of it I suppose it would be the awfulest feeling in the world." Bess must have felt all the anxiety of her predicament falling away. Such a strange, remarkable, wonderful letter. Maybe she smiled and cried again.

Harry goes on to say what their relationship will be now that the awkwardness caused by his proposal has been swept out of the way. If he had chosen to use a diplomat's language in this very diplomatic letter, he would have said he wasn't ever make love to another girl, but he promises he won't bother her with any talk of love again. "I really never expected any reward for loving you . . . . I am more than glad to be your good friend for that is more than I expected." He will, he says, come see her the coming Saturday, if she doesn't tell him not to, and, he promises, "I'll not put on any hang dog airs but will try to be the same old Harry."

Eventually, Bess did decide to marry Harry as we all know:
Harry got away with this indiscreet but heartfelt outburst. He and Bess Wallace kept seeing one another and exchanging letters. In November 1913, sitting with Bess on her front porch, Bess told Harry that her feelings about him had changed since she rejected his proposal two and a half years earlier. She said she felt now that if she ever got married, it would be to him. They did not announce their engagement for another four years, and they were not married until June 28, 1919. Harry hadn't made the money he needed to get a house for Bess that was as good as 219 North Delaware Street, but he solved this problem by moving in with her and her mother. Harry and Bess Truman lived together in this house, with absences in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, for 53 years, 5 months, and 28 days.

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