Margaret Truman: Singer, biographer and crime writer
Saturday 02 February 2008
She was a singer, a praised biographer, and a bestselling crime novelist. But she is best known for a letter threatening physical violence to a music critic who panned one of her performances. It was written by her father – who at the time just happened to be the President of the United States.
Step aside Jenna Bush, Chelsea Clinton, Amy Carter, Luci Baines Johnson and Caroline Kennedy. Even in a less celebrity-besotted age than ours, it was hard enough to cope with having a famous parent. But no First Daughter has coped as successfully as Margaret Truman, and none has made her own comparable mark on life. But then again, after a letter like that, who would cross her?
Harry Truman penned it after a Washington Post critic noted sniffily of a programme Margaret gave of Schumann, Mozart and Schubert in December 1950, that while his daughter was "extremely attractive" on stage, "Miss Truman cannot sing very well. She is flat a good deal of the time." In response, the 33rd President accused the critic in question of being a "frustrated old man" who wrote "poppycock". Then Truman truly let rip: "I hope to meet you some day. . . and when that happens, you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below." Margaret's reaction was more measured: "I'm glad chivalry isn't dead." The public seemed to agree. When the letter was published, White House mail ran 80 per cent in favour of her father's fit of rage.
Margaret's singing career tapered off after her marriage in 1956 to Clifton Daniel, a talented New York Times reporter. Daniel would soon become the Times's managing editor, while she moved into radio, and then books.
Her first was an autobiography entitled Souvenir, written when she was barely 32, which told of how an ordinary Midwestern girl, by an accident of history, found herself living in the White House. Later she produced well-received biographies of her parents – Harry S. Truman in 1973 (a year after his death) and Bess W. Truman, published in 1986, four years after her mother died – followed by a highly successful series of Washington-based thrillers. The first of them was a Book of the Month Club selection, whose paperback rights in 1980 fetched $215,000, a king's ransom at the time.
Margaret Truman was 10 when her father was elected to the US Senate from Missouri and the family was forced to move from the Truman home-town of Independence, near Kansas City, to Washington for six months a year. In 1945 residence in the capital became permanent when Harry Truman, having been elected Vice-President, assumed the Presidency itself when Franklin Roosevelt died that April.
She disliked living in the White House, which she often referred to as "The Great White Jail" – albeit one in which she once brought aspirin to the visiting Winston Churchill when he fell ill. Later her father used her as an unofficial ambassador, and during a European tour in 1951 she persuaded Churchill to give the Trumans one of his paintings, a view of the Moroccan city Marrakesh. A month before her own death, Margaret sold it at Sotheby's in London, for almost $1m (£500,000).
Her artistic career, however, was another matter. Many expected it to founder when her father left the White House in 1953 but, as she wrote in Souvenir: "Since I had done everything I could think of not to trade on my father's position and stand on my own feet, I was more optimistic than the gossipers."
Her confidence was well-founded. Harry S. Truman, the intimate biography of the plain and simple President who was her adored father, sold more than a million copies, while the series of crime novels exploited to the hilt her knowledge of Washington and the dark ways of power. There were 23 in all. The first, entitled Murder in the White House, in which a womanising Secretary of State is found strangled in the presidential home, appeared in 1980. Others followed almost yearly, until Murder on K Street [home of Washington's power lobbyists and law firms], published in 2007.
They featured diplomats, politicians, powerful journalists and other prominent denizens of the city, and some critics drew comparisons with Agatha Christie. Her own son, Clifton Truman Daniel, had a simpler explanation. His mother, he told The New York Times, seemed to have strong and usually unfavourable opinions of most people in Washington. "That's why she writes these murder mysteries, so she can kill them off one at a time."
Mary Margaret Truman, singer and writer: born Independence, Missouri 17 February 1924; married 1956 Clifton Daniel (deceased; three sons, and one son deceased); died Chicago 29 January 2008.
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