Harry Truman's only child dies at 83


Published: Tuesday, January 29, 2008 at 2:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 29, 2008 at 2:36 p.m.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Margaret Truman, the only child of former President Harry S. Truman who became a concert singer, actress, radio and TV personality and mystery writer, died Tuesday. She was 83.

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Margaret Truman smiles happily in her dressing room after her concert appearance in Constitution Hall in Washington, on Dec. 8, 1950, when she sang before her parents, President and Mrs. Truman, and British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, who were in the audience. The only child of former President Harry Truman, died Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2008. She was 83. she died in Chicago following a brief illness, according to a statement from the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.

The Associated Press, file photo

Truman, known as Margaret Truman Daniel in private life, died at a Chicago assisted living facility following a brief illness, according to Susan Medler, a spokeswoman for the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence. She had been at the facility for the past several weeks and was on a respirator, the library said.

Her father's succession to the presidency in 1945 thrust her into the national spotlight while a college junior.

"I feel that I've lived several different lives and that was one of them," she said in 1980. "Some of it was fun, but most of it was not. It was a great view of history being made.

"The only thing I ever missed about the White House was having a car and driver," she once said.

Her singing career attracted the barbs of music critics even the embarrassment of having her father threaten one reviewer. But she found a fulfilling professional and personal life in New York City where she met her husband, journalist Clifton Daniel, who later became managing editor of The New York Times. They married in 1956.

She published her first book, an autobiography titled "Souvenir," in 1956. She said it was "hard work" and told reporters: "One writing job is enough."

But then she did a book on White House pets in 1969, and later more, one a biography of her father. The idea of doing a mystery called "Murder in the White House" came "out of nowhere," she said.

That 1980 title was followed by mysteries set in the Supreme Court, the Smithsonian, Embassy Row, the FBI, Georgetown, the CIA, Kennedy Center, the National Cathedral and the Pentagon. The last book, "Murder on K Street," was released last year. Donald Bain, a well-known ghost writer, was rumored to have written Truman's mysteries, but he has denied it.

Later in life, she was a grandmother and sang only in her church choir.

"I've had three or four different careers," she told an interviewer in 1989. "I consider being a wife and mother a career. I have great respect for women both those who go out and do their thing and those who stay at home. I think those who stay at home have a lot more courage than those who go out and get a job."

Mary Margaret Truman was born Feb. 17, 1924, in Independence. She was the only child of Bess and Harry Truman, who was a county judge at the time.

For a few years after her father was elected to the Senate in 1934, she split her school year between Independence and a private girls' school in Washington D.C. She later attended George Washington University. She also had taken voice lessons, at the urging of a church choir leader. After graduation, she used the political limelight to launch her singing career.

"I wanted to establish myself as an individual capable of standing on my merit, to experience the satisfaction of achievement," she explained.

She made her professional singing debut with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 1947 and gave her first Carnegie Hall concert two years later. Critics generally praised her poise but were less impressed with her vocal talent.

When Washington Post critic Paul Hume wrote after a 1950 concert that she "is extremely attractive on the stage ... (but) cannot sing very well. She is flat a good deal of the time," her father fired off a note on White House stationery scolding Hume for a "lousy review."

"I have never met you, but if I do you'll need a new nose and plenty of beefsteak and perhaps a supporter below," the president wrote.

The note made Page One news but was not the sort of publicity an aspiring artist seeks. Years later she was able to laugh about it: "I thought it was funny. Sold tickets."

She soon turned more to radio and television, where she made regular guest appearances with Jimmy Durante and Milton Berle.

On radio, she was co-host, with Mike Wallace, of a daily talk show on the NBC network and had her own nationally syndicated interview program for eight years. She also worked with Fred Allen and Tallulah Bankhead.

Her stage career began in 1954, about the time she quit the concert stage.

"I learned my comedy timing from Fred Allen and Goody (Goodman) Ace," she recalled. "You couldn't do better than that. I'd still rather hear an audience laugh than do a serious play."

Throughout her 20s, reporters were constantly asking about marriage prospects, but she said she was pursuing her career for the time being.

When she met Clifton Daniel at a dinner party in 1955, he was working in New York after a decade as a foreign correspondent. It was not until a month before their wedding in April 1956 that their romance became public.

"We had a lot in common," he wrote in a 1984 memoir. "We were the kind of people who wouldn't marry anybody our mothers wouldn't approve of: a couple of citified small-towners, puritans among the fleshpots."

She and Daniel had four sons; he died in February 2000. Son William died in September 2000 when he was hit by a taxi; he was 41.

She was honorary co-chair of the Harry S. Truman Library Institute, the nonprofit partner of her father's presidential library, and a governing board member of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. Health issues had prevented her from visiting the library in recent years, but she remained actively interested in its operations, said Michael Devine, director of the library.

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