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First Family Stories: The Politics of Hair | February 13, 2023

First Family Stories: The Politics of Hair

First Family Stories

By Clifton Truman Daniel

“First Family Stories” is a serial memoir exploring the history, humanity and humor of being part of one of America’s First Families. Clifton Truman Daniel is the eldest grandson of Bess and Harry Truman.

“The Politics of Hair”

GRANDPA TRUMAN spoiled my mother. During the Great Depression, he saved jobs by halving the salaries of every Jackson County, Missouri employee—himself included. He also cut my mother’s allowance from 50 cents a week to 25. But she could always get him to give her back the other quarter.

My grandmother, on the other hand, saw it as her job to keep Mom’s feet on the ground, figuratively and in fact. And this carried over into adulthood.

Grandpa (Jackson County Judge Harry S. Truman), Gammy and mother, during the Great Depression (August 9, 1934)

When I was 12, my brother, Will, and I were visiting Independence when we discovered the ladder from the attic to the roof. Great Aunt May saw us two stories up and turned us in. Mom, rather than throwing a fit, astounded us by saying, “I haven’t been up there since I was your age,” and climbing the ladder back up. Needless to say, the Secret Service and my grandmother were apoplectic.

Together, they ordered all three of us off the roof. My grandmother locked the attic door and hid the key so well that the National Park Service didn’t find it until three months after she died. In the interim, they called my mother, asking if she knew the key’s whereabouts.

“Hell, no,” Mom said. “She hid it from me.”

In addition to lifelong discipline, Gammy was not above the occasional dig.

Grandpa hated long hair on men. The 1960s drove him nuts. During that period, a long–haired young man approached Grandpa on one of his morning walks and said, “Good morning, Mr. President.” Grandpa, in turn, shook the guy’s hand and said, “Young man, you’d look a lot better if you saw a barber.”

When I was 14, my brother Will and I had hair down to our shoulders. When we visited Independence fort Christmas that year, we breached protocol by taking our bags upstairs without first stopping by the study to greet Grandpa. He saw us go by, got to his feet, walked to the study door and confronted our mother as she came through from the kitchen.

“Who are the two longhairs walking through the house?”

Two years after he died, my grandmother visited us at home in Washington, DC. By that time, my hair was long enough to tuck into my front shirt pocket. I came downstairs one morning to find Gammy in the kitchen breakfast nook and Mom at the stove, cooking eggs for one of my siblings. I grabbed a bowl of cereal and milk and sat down with my grandmother.

“My goodness,” she said. “You have beautiful hair.”

Across the room, Mom dropped the spatula.

“Mother, for God’s sake!” she said. “Don’t tell him something like that. He’ll never get it cut!”

Sure enough, the next time Mom suggested a trim, I said, “Nope. Bess Truman thinks I have beautiful hair.” Bwah-hah-hah.

My brother Will and I (center) arrive at the Truman Library for our grandfather’s funeral, sporting shoulder-length hair.

I told that story for almost two decades.

And then, one day, the Truman Library gave me a gift—one of my grandmother’s letters, an original, mailed on April 17, 1972 to Mrs. Kenneth Bostian of 907 South Main in Independence. In it, my grandmother thanked Mrs. Bostian for the box of oranges and grapefruit she’d sent from her winter home in Miami and lamented that Grandpa hadn’t felt up to visiting Key West the previous month. She appreciated Mrs. Bostian’s letter (“the longer the better”) and some clippings that had been included. She apologized for not mentioning earlier that a mutual friend had passed away. Then this …

“I am really sorry Nellie Post has to contend with all those hippies. It does seem time something was done about them. When I saw my two big grandsons with long hair at Christmas time, I almost expired. But they were clean and had on decent clothing.”

I wondered, in passing, what the hippies had done to Mrs. Post. I keep meaning to find out.

But the important thing to realize was this: My grandmother hated long hair on men every bit as much as Grandpa, but she was willing to overcome her distaste just long enough to thoroughly annoy my mother.

Clifton Truman Daniel is the eldest grandson of President Harry S. Truman and his wife, Bess. He is the son of author Margaret Truman and former New York Times Managing Editor E. Clifton Daniel, Jr. Mr. Daniel is honorary chairman of the board of the Truman Library Institute, board secretary of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation, and vice president of the Society of Presidential Descendants. He is the author of Growing Up with My Grandfather: Memories of Harry S. Truman and Dear Harry, Love Bess: Bess Truman’s Letters to Harry Truman, 1919-1943. In addition to portraying his famous grandfather on stage, Mr. Daniel gives a series of lectures on various aspects of the Truman presidency and U.S. and White House history. Learn more.

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