Event White House History Live: Mourning the Presidents
Join us in learning more about White House History right from your own home. Our Facebook Live series, White House...
The president’s shirts were loose, comfortable, vividly patterned, and tropically bright. They represented a break from the blue-suit, white-shirt formality that had been Harry Truman’s hallmark since his days as a Kansas City haberdasher. They proclaimed temporary independence from the mansion Truman called “the big white jail.” Some people found them gaudy, garish, and unpresidential. Others simply called them Harry Truman shirts. When photographs of Truman wearing them hit the newspapers, people showered the Little White House at Key West, Florida, with gift shirts. Since there were far more than the president could wear, he had dozens laid out on the lawn for others to take. And that led to “the Key West uniform” and contributed to the breezy informality of all of the president’s Florida vacations. Arriving at Key West in the giddy aftermath of Truman’s dazzling upset election victory in 1948, Vice President-Elect Alben Barkley took in the president’s vivid shirt, jaunty cap, and casual slacks. “Where’s the general store?” he asked. “I want to get an outfit like that.”1
Truman visited Key West 11 times from November 1946 to March 1952, vacationing and working there in good times and bad for a total of 175 days. He timed his escapes for the fall or late winter, trading Washington’s cold and often snowy weather for the warm breezes that blew through what the newspapers variously called the whispering, rustling, or swaying palms.2
At the end of the island chain stretching from Florida into the Gulf of Mexico, the coral island of Key West—4 miles long and two miles wide—is the southernmost point in the United States. Coconut palms, purple and red bougainvillea, frangipani, red and pink hibiscus, and tinted oleanders thrive in the frost-free tropical climate. Off-shore, the cobalt-blue reaches of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico offer deep-sea fishing for yellowfin, grouper, amberjack, mackerel, and barracuda.
For Truman, the navy submarine base at Key West offered a degree of privacy, security, and freedom unavailable in most vacation spots. The president could swim on a beach reserved for him, nap in the afternoon, sip a bourbon if he felt like it, and play poker until midnight. “Down there the president felt that he could step out of the house and walk around without every person he encountered wanting to stop him and talk to him,” said Commander William M. Rigdon, who managed the president’s vacation workday. “From the first day he saw the advantages it offered.”3
The president slept in the northeast bedroom on the second floor of the 10-room, West Indian-style Commandant’s House, which soon became universally known as the Little White House. Built by the U.S. Navy in 1890, it had screened and louvered porches that filtered the midday sun, welcomed the ocean breezes, and assured privacy. After Truman won his election in 1948, the navy had the house professionally redecorated, hanging maritime paintings and prints borrowed from the U.S. Naval Academy. Impressed with the new style and comfort of the place, Truman told his wife: “I’ve a notion to move the Capitol to Key West and just stay.”4
When Truman’s choice of Key West was made known, the navy designated a former enlisted men’s beach for his use. Located on a spit of land near the Civil War-era Fort Zachary Taylor, it had its drawbacks. The sand was sparse, and the underlying crushed coral could cut a swimmer’s feet. The navy hauled in tons of new sand to build up and improve the beach, constructing a small cabana as a place to change into swimming suits or step out of the sun. A concrete shuffleboard was installed. The president enjoyed it from the start. Once he started swimming there the press named it “Truman Beach.”5
The president quickly settled into a Key West routine. He rose as early as 7:00 a.m. and took a bracing morning walk, ranging the tree-shaded streets of the submarine base and sometimes venturing into town. The presidential yacht Williamsburg docked nearby to offer communications and logistical support. Its crew had breakfast ready when Truman returned to the Little White House, usually around 8:00 a.m. The president was often joined at the breakfast table by members of his senior staff, some of whom shared the house with him. They might include Fleet Admiral William Leahy, his chief of staff; William D. Hassett, his correspondence secretary; or Clark Clifford, chief counsel, speechwriter, and political tactician. After breakfast the president worked on his mail until about 10:00 a.m., then gathered aides and walked with them to Truman Beach to soak up the sun, tell stories, discuss the day’s news or government business, and watch games of beach volleyball or darts. When Truman was ready he took off his sun helmet and went in for a swim. “If the weather was cool, he swam anyway, to the shivering horror of Secret Service men who had to stay in the water as long as he did,” said Commander Rigdon, who, along with his other duties, kept a detailed log of the president’s vacation activities, not neglecting humorous incidents and adding an occasional wry comment.6
Returning to the Little White House for a 1:00 p.m. lunch, Truman generally allowed himself the luxury of an afternoon nap, followed by a two-hour poker game at 4:00 p.m. and dinner at 7:00 p.m. Unless Bess Truman and their daughter, Margaret, were with him, the president most often skipped the nightly screenings of first- run movies and adjourned to the south porch for a second poker session that wound up near midnight. When Rigdon noted in his log that the president had spent the evening “visiting with friends on the south porch,” insiders knew that was code for poker.7
Except when his wife and daughter visited, it was a masculine world. Truman liked the easy banter at Truman Beach—or in a fishing boat or at the poker table, which might be called the true center of a Truman vacation. Coming downstairs after his afternoon nap, Truman told Rigdon, “Bill, round up a quorum.” Soon the president and seven other men were pulling up chairs around the poker table made for him by sailors at the submarine base.8 Many thought he loved the game mostly for the ribbing that punctuated play. “Getting together with his old friends with whom he was completely comfortable was the greatest relaxation he had,” Clark Clifford remembered. Truman bet freely and often, liked wild cards, oddball variations of the game, and an occasional bluff. Fellow players said he enjoyed himself even while holding losing hands.9
Ken Hechler, then an aide and later a Democratic congressman from West Virginia, concluded that the president sometimes used poker for more than just relaxation. “Although the conversations were never very heavy, I did observe several occasions when the president sized up prospective appointees and other people by measuring how well they stood up to ribbing,” he said. Another aide, George Elsey, said the stakes were set so that “nobody would get hurt if his luck or his skill were particularly bad.” Key West rules softened the blow for losers: the pot automatically replenished 10 percent of the losses. Rigdon said it was impossible to win or lose more than $100 a week; others put the risk factor at $190. But for some, that was still a lot of money. Assistant Press Secretary Roger Tubby once fell so disastrously into the hole that he began to fret about paying his household bills. Finding himself with a good hand, he nervously stayed in the game as the pot grew larger and others dropped out. Finally only he and Truman remained. Then Truman folded and the happy aide raked in his winnings. “Well, it was simply the president staking me, getting me out of the hole,” Tubby said.”10
At Key West, with more time to read, think, and talk, Truman often displayed his love of history. Aide Joseph G. Feeney said that one night the talk at the Little White Flouse turned to famous military conflicts. Truman arranged four sets of silverware on a table, and he and press secretary Charlie Ross fought out 14 major battles in world history, moving the knives, forks, and spoons to represent armies and divisions.11
Although he valued the rest and relaxation, Truman could not shed his responsibilities. On his second Key West vacation in March 1947, he discussed details of the Marshall Plan, soon to become the keystone of the economic recovery of postwar Europe. While at Key West he dealt with a coal miners’ strike led by United Mine Workers leader John L. Lewis, the cold war with the Soviet Union, and the shooting war in Korea. Events followed the president, even under the palms. During his March 1949 visit, communist forces routed China’s Nationalist government and took over the Chinese mainland, leading to the domestic political debate over “Who lost China?” In March 1950, during a news conference on the lawn, he rejected demands that he give Senator Joseph R. McCarthy access to the State Department’s security and loyalty files and made front pages when he called the Red-hunting Wisconsin Republican “the greatest asset that the Kremlin has.” In November 1951, he surprised his staff by disclosing that he had decided not to run for reelection the next year. He swore them to secrecy until he was ready to make the news public.12
Truman insisted, as many presidents have, that so much work went with him to Key West that his holidays were more a change of scenery than true vacations. There was much evidence to back his claim. He said he signed his name 600 times a day on bills, proclamations, executive orders, and letters no matter where he was. He worked on the State of the Union address during November visits, and he gave frequent news conferences. Executive assistants “by the half dozen” made claims on his time. “What I’m saying,” he told a cousin, “is that the business of the government never stops no matter where the president goes—it follows him.”13
Truman’s search for a private retreat began in 1946 as his presidency moved into its second year. He had never warmed to Shangri-La, the heavily wooded camp Franklin D. Roosevelt had enjoyed in the mountains of western Maryland. Prone to seasickness, he found the top heavy and unstable Williamsburg had disadvantages for anything more ambitious than weekend trips in sheltered waters. But he did feel the need for brief escapes in a peaceful and private setting.14
In November 1946, a Republican surge in the midterm election reversed Democratic majorities in the Senate and House. The Truman administration reached so low a point some said it would never recover. Time said the president held an office that had “proved too much for him.”15 Truman ended the dispiriting congressional campaign with a persistent cold and a hacking cough. His doctor ordered a vacation in a warm climate. A search began for a warm-weather place that could accommodate not only the president but 15 staff members, 15 or so Secret Service agents, and 20 to 30 White House reporters and photographers. Margaret Truman said her father never regretted the final choice: the U.S. Naval Station at Key West, Florida.16
The president’s aircraft flew out of Washington on a rainy, cold, and dreary November day and headed for a week in the Florida sunshine. White-uniformed sailors toed chalk lines as the president’s open car rolled through the gates at the Key West naval base for the first time. When Truman reached his desk he quickly called Bess to report his safe arrival. Rising the next morning, he scanned the newspapers, listened to radio newscasts, and dipped into a book. Then, slipping a purple robe over his blue-and-white striped pajamas, he walked in bedroom slippers the two blocks to the officers’ swimming pool, no doubt startling those used to presidents in more conventional daytime dress. In the afternoon he went to the beach for two hours of sand and sun and took his first dip in the ocean.17
“My cough and my cold are nearly gone already,” Truman wrote to his mother and sister. Then he added one more thought: “I am seeing no outsiders. From now on I’m going to do as I please and let 'em all go to hell. At least for two years they can do nothing to me, and after that it doesn’t matter.” He had cards printed to get the point across: “Don’t Go Away Mad . . . Just Go Away.” His bluster cooled. But Key West remained a welcome retreat for the remainder of his presidency.18
For months the navy had been experimenting with a war trophy, the U-2513, a fast German submarine seized by the British in 1945, at the end of World War II. On a morning shortly after Truman’s arrival, the crew raised the 48-star presidential flag, piped the president aboard, headed out to sea, and rigged for diving. The prospect of a dive put Truman’s Secret Service agents on edge. “There were quite a few people who had beads of perspiration as big as marbles on their foreheads,” Rigdon said.19
The U-boat disappeared beneath the waves at 9:30 a.m., halting its descent at 450 feet. That made Truman the first president to dive in a submarine since Theodore Roosevelt submerged in the primitive USS Plunger 41 years earlier. The sub broke the surface after 44 minutes. Coming out on the conning tower, the president and his guests sat on the dripping superstructure, soaking their trousers. Commander Rigdon said Truman joked that the wet pants were due to “apprehension” experienced during the dive. He was predictably more assuring, and less graphic, when he described the dive in a letter to Bess: “There was no sensation to it and nothing could be seen except the inside of the ship and the teamwork of the crew, which was excellent.”20
Truman was never an eager fisherman. “He is a man who can take his fishing or leave it alone,” Time said. But he felt obliged not to disappoint the Florida boosters who expected him to try his luck. On the afternoon of his submarine adventure the president boarded the navy crash boat Dolphin for three hours of deep-sea fishing. At day’s end, photographers recorded his catch: a Spanish mackerel, a five-pound barracuda, and a grouper. The next morning Truman combined blue water and history. Boarding the destroyer Stribling, he headed out at 28 knots to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, an isolated group of small and barren islands 70 miles southwest of Key West. In the period after the Civil War the moated, six-sided fort served as a military prison. As a student of American history, Truman inspected the cell once occupied by Dr. Samuel Mudd, the Maryland physician imprisoned after setting the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin.21
The sun, palm trees, Truman Beach, and the easy atmosphere made the vacation memorable and ensured the president’s return. “The sun shines with terrific force down here,” Truman happily reported in a letter to Bess. “My face and head are as red as a beet, but the rest of me is brown, except for a strip around the middle which is white.”22
From the very first trip, the government made sure Key West met the president’s needs, starting with direct, rapid, and secure communications with the White House. Teletype equipment and a radio backup were provided from the first visit. By 1951, a secure telephone conferencing system was in place so Truman could convene long-distance discussions with two or more cabinet members or White House aides. Air service was available on short notice when he needed to speak to an official face-to-face.23 Commander Rigdon, an expert stenographer who had begun his navy career as a ship’s clerk, managed the office routine and kept the official logs for each trip. “To keep things running at Key West required that I be on the job before the president came down in the morning, and to remain on call until he retired at midnight,” he said. “Just before he retired he would brief me on any plans he had for the next day.”24
Writing to his wife, Roger Tubby described a day at the Little White House, starting with mail deliveries, informal staff discussions, phone calls to Washington and then the 10:00 a.m. walk to Truman Beach. “The president suns in a deck chair for a while, talking business or pleasure,” Tubby wrote. “There are jokes and laughter, comparing of seashell collections, stories of Missouri, observations by the press, the state of the nation, health, educational problems—almost anything and everything. After a while several phone calls come into the beach house and go out. [Then] Mr. T. takes his dip for about 10 minutes, swimming neither far nor fast but pleasant splashing.” Truman, who swam with his glasses in place, called his head-out-of-water style “the Missouri sidestroke.”25
Key West’s attractions quickly gained favor not only with Truman but with his staff. Rigdon said that on Truman’s first visit in 1946, his needs were met by a staff of 16, including cooks, stewards, secretaries, clerks, and communications personnel. On his 11th and final visit in 1952, the support staff had increased to 57 people, and more space had to be found to house them. Rigdon’s logs also expanded, growing from a slim 17 pages for the 1946 vacation to elaborately illustrated productions of more than 100 pages each.26
By then, the publicity given Truman’s Key West vacations had created a tourist boom. New air-conditioned resorts and motels appeared, adding new luster to a somewhat shabby town whose rows of cheap bars catered mostly to off-duty sailors. “New stores are opening, restaurants are crowded, the sidewalks are flowing with women in shorts and halters and men in atom-flash sports shirts,” Time reported.27
Truman felt drained by the time of his second visit in the late winter of 1947. His departure had been delayed for a week by preparations for a speech to Congress in which he drew the line against further Soviet expansion in Europe, laying down the Truman Doctrine of “containment” that became the bedrock of U.S. foreign policy. “No one, not even me . . . knew how very tired and worn to a frazzle the Chief Executive had become,” Truman wrote to his daughter after he settled in. “This terrible decision I had to make had been over my head for about six weeks.”28
There was more fishing. But for the president the clear highlight of the vacation came not on the water but in his living room at the Little White House. After Sunday dinner on March 16, the staff joined him to listen to Margaret Truman’s professional debut as a coloratura soprano in a radio concert broadcast from Detroit. “The reception was perfect and the program was intently followed and thoroughly enjoyed by all hands,” Rigdon reported. Others were less charitable. Time said the president’s daughter had “a good, choir average soprano voice,” but added that 15 million Americans had joined her proud father in listening as she sang.29
By the time of Truman’s fourth trip in February 1947, speculation was building on whether he would run for election in his own right in 1948. Most pundits told him not to bother. Time said the Democrats “seemed to be heading for the ditch,” with voters apparently ready “to dump the whole Truman administration.” But Time's reporter was surprised to find no evidence of concern on Truman Beach. The president was tanned, carefree, smiling, he reported. Chief Counsel Clark Clifford “glistened with confidence and sunburn oil.”30
Instead of worrying, Truman went fishing, using an elaborate betting system to enliven the day. Sides were drawn: Admiral Leahy headed one team, Truman the other. Each fisherman threw $5 into the pot. That financed $10 prizes for the longest and heaviest fish, with the remainder to be divided among the team with the heaviest catch. Tmman’s naval aide, Capt. Robert L. Dennison, claimed both $10 prizes with a 3 foot mackerel weighing 29'h pounds. But Truman’s boat pulled in the heaviest overall catch and divided the rest of the pot. “I made a dollar, getting six back for my five,” the president reported to Bess.31
At a shirt-sleeves news conference on the lawn of the Little White House, following a goodwill cruise aboard the Williamsburg in the Caribbean, Truman insisted he was not wasting time on vacation: “I have been in touch with the State Department every day since we have been away. I have talked personally to nearly every member of the Cabinet since we have been away. The only thing . . . that is different is just a change in scenery. We have direct wires that go there [the White House] and I get a pouch nearly every day and sign just as many documents and make just as many decisions as if I were sitting at my desk in the Executive Office.”32 Perhaps he was a bit more candid in a letter to Bess: “The weather here is ideal. It is hell to have to go back to slavery and the bickerings that I’ll have to face from now on. But it must be done.”33
“The little old voter fooled everybody,” Time reported after the election of 1948 was wrapped up for the history books. Truman produced his astonishing upset over Republican Thomas E. Dewey in a 31,500 mile trek by train across the country, speaking wherever crowds gathered. He made 350 speeches, delivering some 500,000 words. The crowds grew. So did the enthusiasm for the dogged campaigner. When at one speech a voice from the rafters called out, “Give ‘em hell, Harry,” Harry obliged. But there were few who took seriously Truman’s last words as Americans voted: “Why, it can’t be anything but a victory.” Soon after the voters ratified that claim, Truman boarded the Independence and flew to Florida for a rest.34
“Key West never before had seen such a celebration,” said the Miami Herald. The Associated Press reported people stood 10 to 20 feet deep along the sidewalks. Some estimates pegged the crowd at 25,000. Truman perched on the folded top of his Lincoln convertible and happily waved at the crowds as loudspeakers pumped out “The Missouri Waltz.” Truman grinned when the mayor of Key West announced Division Avenue would be renamed Truman Avenue. The New York Times said Key West’s welcome fit the president’s role as “Election Day miracle man and this town’s No. 1 vacationer.” At the submarine base, hundreds of sailors lined the route to the Little White House. Truman was glad to step inside. “I didn’t know how tired I was until I sat down,” he told his sister.35
The weather here is ideal. It is hell to have to go back to slavery and the bickerings that I’ll have to face from now on. But it must be done
Clark Clifford remembered that Key West vacation as a succession of happy days. Truman “had pulled off the greatest political coup, I believe, in American history, and had done it practically singlehandedly.” The campaigners may have been happy, but they were also exhausted. “I doubt I’ve ever been as tired in my life,” Clifford said. “I remember I went. . . without shaving, just as part of the general celebration. And we loafed; we didn’t discuss any serious business. I don’t know how the government ran during that time; we were utterly exhausted! I remember going down for a while, sleeping about 14 hours a day, and then lolling around on the beach.”36
Commander Rigdon remembered that for the first several days Truman seemed unable to shed the tensions of the long campaign. “I had never seen the president so taut,” so “unable to be still,” he wrote. “He couldn’t work, he couldn’t rest. He would start signing mail, suddenly push it aside, explaining to me, ‘It can wait, Bill.’” Truman did not touch a razor for days. “The only time I ever knew him to miss a daily shave,” Rigdon said. The stubble did not go unnoticed. “Looks like you’re growing a Vandyke,” a reporter commented. “No, that’s a Jeff Davis,” said Truman, stroking his chin and invoking the bearded Confederate president. Bantering with newsmen, Truman asked if they were comfortable in their quarters, saying of his staff, he would “give them the devil” if anything was wrong. “Give ‘em hell,” a reporter suggested. “I’m through giving them hell,” Truman replied, with perhaps too much optimism. “From now on we’ll work together.”37
Five days into his vacation, Truman finally reached for his razor. Bess and Margaret were joining him, sharing a Key West vacation for the first time. The president’s restless mood changed when they arrived. He was “once again his old self,” Rigdon said, and added a final note: “It was observed that Mr. Clifford’s five-day growth of beard had [also] disappeared.” Ken Flechler called the growing and shaving of beards “the most important developments of the entire two weeks of almost total inactivity and complete relaxation.”38
But there were serious policy decisions facing the newly elected president on his return to Washington. Truman was looking ahead on a number of fronts, including the cabinet changes he planned for his new term. White House staff member George Elsey recalled that Truman—responding to an Elsey memo to Clifford—decided at Key West to devote his inaugural address to foreign policy and his separate State of the Union address to his domestic agenda. That structural decision resulted over the next two months in the use of the inaugural address to launch the Point Four Plan for massive international economic and technical assistance, an undertaking that became a key element of the administration’s cold war strategy. The State of the Union address contained Truman’s Fair Deal initiative, which encapsulated his economic ideas on the domestic front. “So there was thinking going on, if not many hours of laborious paper work,” Elsey said. “He didn’t just go into a vacuum and stop thinking just because he had won the election.”39
The two most important women in Harry Truman’s life also were ready for a vacation. “We needed a rest almost as much as he did,” Margaret Truman recalled. Shortly after she and her mother arrived, reporters and other members of Truman’s Key West tribe mounted a mock victory parade wearing what Margaret Truman called “the wackiest costumes you have ever seen in your life.” Charlie Ross, the gaunt press secretary and a Truman friend since high school, topped his swimming suit with an Abe Lincoln stovepipe hat. “The whole thing was a surprise and someone snapped a picture of me and mother laughing like a couple of lunatics,” Margaret Truman said. “It was funny, and wholly in the spirit of that triumphant vacation.”40
Truman Beach no longer exists, at least as Harry Truman knew it. The victim of a harbor-dredging and landfill project in the 1960s, it was deprived of its shoreline and is essentially a landlocked field. The U.S. Naval Station at Key West closed in 1974. Its office buildings, workshops, and officers quarters later became the core of an upscale condominium development.
Truman’s Little White House evokes the memory of the 33rd president. Owned by the state of Florida and privately managed, it opened in 1990 as the Harry S. Truman Little White House Museum. The desk Truman used is in his study. The piano on which he played Chopin and Mozart is in the living room. Margaret Truman’s voice can be summoned with a flick of the switch from a living room radio set, just as her proud father heard it in 1947. Truman’s poker table, with ashtrays made of the cutoff ends of .50 mm artillery shells, stands ready for a game on the south porch.41
Join us in learning more about White House History right from your own home. Our Facebook Live series, White House...
On July 16, 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act, formally the Act for Establishing the Temporary and Permanent Seat of the Government...
The White House and its residence share the holiday cheer felt by all of the country this time of year....
The White House Historical Association released a new episode of The White House 1600 Sessions podcast today, “David Rubenstein on Patriotic Ph...
State Visits are a key part of presidential diplomacy helping to develop and maintain relationships with other countries. These visits...
David Rubenstein is co-founder and co-chair of The Carlyle Group, a global investment firm based in Washington, DC. He is...
Join us in learning more about White House History right from your own home. Our Facebook Live series, White House...
Renowned Victorian painter George F. Watts gifted his painting "Love and Life" to the American people in 1893, and the painting...
The White House Historical Association’s Official 2022 White House Christmas Ornament celebrates what has become a cherished and longstanding holiday tr...
The Mayflower Hotel, Autograph Collection and the White House Historical Association today announced the opening of the White House History...