TRUMAN, Harry. Autograph letter signed ("H.S.T.") to Paul Hume, Music Critic of the Washington Post, Washington, D.C., 6 December 1950. 1 1/3 pages, 8vo (5 x 8 in.), on rectos of two sheets of White House stationery, with original stamped autograph envelope, slight yellowing to edges, otherwise very fine.
HARRY GIVES 'EM HELL: TRUMAN'S NOTORIOUS LETTER TO WASHINGTON POST MUSIC CRITIC PAUL HUME, THE MOST FAMOUS EXAMPLE OF PRESIDENTIAL INVECTIVE
"Mr. Hume: -- I've just read your lousy review of Margarets concert. I've come to the conclusion that you are an 'eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay.'"
"It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you're off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work."
"Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beef steak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below! [Westbrook] Pegler, a gutter snipe is a gentleman along side you. I hope you'll accept that statement as a worse insult than a reflection on your ancestry."
A letter of undiluted vitriol that constitutes the most famous example of Presidential invective, and probably one of the most intemperate letters ever penned by a President on White House stationery. It has also been termed "perhaps the most celebrated Presidential letter of this century" (John M. Taylor, From the White House Inkwell, 1989, p.193).
The circumstances of Truman's legendary outburst are interesting. On the evening of December 5, the President and his guest, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, attended a recital at Constitution Hall in Washington given by the President's daughter Margaret, a trained musician who had established a career as a professional soprano and concert artist. Her concert was attended by Washington's music critics, including Paul Chandler Hume (1915-2001). A musicologist and author, Hume was professor of music at Georgetown University (1950-1977), and adjunct professor of music at Yale University (1975-1983), but is best-known for his long tenure as music critic of the Washington Post ( 1947-1982). That evening, Hume did not like what he heard. His review, published in his usual column in the morning edition of the Washington Post, stated that "Miss Truman cannot sing very well. She is flat a good deal of the time--more last night than at any time we have heard her in past years." Miss Truman, he added, "has not improved in the years we have heard her," and "still cannot sing with anything approaching professional finish." As if that were not enough, Hume complained that "she communicated almost nothing of the music she presents," that her interpretation "was no more than a caricature," and implied that the public would only attend her concerts because she was the President's daughter.
The President, scanning his paper the next morning, was outraged by Hume's review, which, according to George C. Marshall, criticized everything except the varnish on the piano. Truman reached for two sheets of his standard White House stationery and in an unusually large, slashing hand, gave vivid and uncensored vent to his anger at what he considered "the dirtiest, meanest critique you ever saw," a harsh and undeserved attack upon his beloved daughter.
Truman signed his blistering letter simply "H.S.T.", sealed it in a White House envelope, addressed it, added a 3-cent postage stamp (rather than franking it, as he was entitled to do with official correspondence), and, on his morning walk, dropped it into the nearest mailbox. Paradoxically, the missive might never have been sent, under normal circumstances. Truman regularly dictated or drafted outspoken, mildly profane, no-holds-barred letters as an expression of his strong feelings when annoyed or offended, as a harmless way of letting off steam. Usually, by the time his secretary had returned a typewritten copy to him for signature, his anger had subsided and she would be instructed to simply file it, unmailed. Years later, nearly 140 such unmailed letters, found in the files at the Truman Presidential Library were collected and published (Strictly Personal and Confidential: The Letters Harry Truman Never Mailed, ed. Monte M. Poen, 1982). In the case of the Hume letter, Truman apparently did not ask for a typed version and so did not give himself the opportunity to reconsider.
And there was yet another special circumstance which allowed this unique letter to become public. Much of Truman's daily correspondence--particularly his letters to the press--was normally under the strict scrutiny of Truman's Press Secretary, Charlie Ross, an old school classmate from Independence whom Truman had recruited immediately after taking the reins as President. Ross, an experienced journalist, had served for years as Washington bureau chief for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Under normal circumstances at the Truman White House, Ross would very probably have intercepted the President's incandescent epistle. But on the afternoon of the day of Margaret's recital, just after delivering a White House briefing to reporters, Ross had been stricken by a heart attack and died. Because he had become very close to the Truman family, the news of his sudden death was deliberately kept from Margaret before her concert. As Margaret later recalled, "I was the only one in Constitution Hall who did not know about it" (Margaret Truman, Harry S. Truman, p.501). Ross's assistant press secretary, Eben A. Ayres recalled in an interview in 1967: "Charlie Ross died that afternoon and they didn't want Margaret to know...she thought an awful lot of Charlie...Of course, it was a great loss to the President, but he had to go to that concert, and, I think...coming back afterwards and reading this review, and then with the loss of Charlie and everything, he just blew up."
Ayres also recalled the commotion which erupted upon receipt of the letter at the Post. The next day, he was contacted by Philip Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, seeking confirmation that the extraordinary letter threatening its music critic with explicit physical violence had, in fact, been penned by President Truman. Ayres remembered "I got a telephone call from Philip Graham...and he said, 'We've got a letter down here,' he put it that way, he questioned, at least, whether the President wrote this letter and I guess he told me whom it was to...And I said, 'Well, I'm afraid so, but I'll check up anyway and call you back.' So I hung up and I went to Matt Connelly, who was out by the President's office, and I told Matt about it. Matt looked at me--I don't know whether he said anything or just nodded. Matt knew that the letter had been written...So I went back and called Mr. Graham and I said, 'Yes, the President did write the letter,' and there was no attempt to conceal it or deny it...." (Eben A. Ayres, Oral History Interview, 16 May 1967, Truman Library).
Truman was amused to recount, years later, that Hume, "who didn't know much about anything," initially doubted the letter was from the President, "and he called in the music critic for the Washington Star, and they met in a coffee house someplace, and Hume showed the letter...He recognized my handwriting, but he told Hume he was sure I couldn't have written it, that it was written by somebody playing a joke. And then he went back to his office and wrote the whole story and scooped Hume..." ( M. Miller, Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman, p.1973, p.88).
When it was published, with portions suppressed, the letter set off a firestorm of criticism. But many Americans agreed with Truman's spirited defense of his daughter (in fact, over 80 of the letters received at the Truman White House took the President's side). Many years later, at age 80, Hume was philosophical about the famous incident: "the President has every right to get mad, and to show it in any way he wants. I wrote a review President Truman hated, and he wrote to say so. It wasn't considered Presidential, but I loved him for having written it" (People Magazine, 29 January 1996, p.94).
1. Paul Hume
2. David S. Starring
3. Leonard Horowitz
4. Malcolm S. Forbes, in 1983.