TRUMAN, Harry S. Autograph letter signed ("Harry Truman") to James M. Pendergast, Independence, Missouri, 8 November 1958. 6 pages, 4to (10½ x 7¼ in.), Truman's personal stationary, a few minor smudges, otherwise in fine condition, with original envelope with autograph address marked "Personal & Confidential," stamped free frank signature, some very light soiling, generally in fine condition.
"I'VE NEVER LEFT MY FRIENDS BUT THEY SOMETIMES LEAVE ME": A REMARKABLE ACCOUNT OF TRUMAN'S EARLY POLITICAL CAREER AND HIS RELATIONS WITH THE PENDERGAST FAMILY
James Pendergast was the nephew of the notorious Kansas City ward boss Tom Pendergast, whose various corrupt practices extended his political control through much of Kansas in the 1910s and 20s. According to Truman, he first knew Jim Prendergast during the war, only later meeting his uncle (see Merle Miller, Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman, New York, 1974, p.122). In his political career, Truman had started out under Tom Pendergast's wing, and Pendergast extended his own influence during the New Deal by controlling Public Works projects. Truman's early association with Pendergast proved a public-relations disaster, forcing Truman to defend himself to the Kansas City Star in his freshman year in the Senate: "I don't follow his advice on legislation. I vote the way I believe Missourians as a whole want me to vote."
Years later, Truman furnishes a bitter, detailed account to Jim Pendergast, Tom Pendergast's nephew and inheritor of the powerful "Pendergast Machine": "Tom Evans has reported to me his interview with you. To say I was surprised is to put it mildly. I had thought your picture interview had been shown. When I told you it should have been shown long ago, I meant it. But I could not join the Aylwards after what Jim did in your Uncle Tom's troubles." Jim Alwayrd, a Democratic supporter, had capitulated on Tom Pendergast's going to jail in 1939 for income tax evasion. "... I had hoped that you would carry on at 1908 Main just as your uncle had and that Jackson County would have a place to meet, talk and organize. It did not happen. Time and again I've tried to get in touch with you and it couldn't be done... Wonder if I could remind you of some passed happenings. In 1922 your father called a meeting of half dozen or so country county leaders... He announced that he thought I'd make a good candidate for Eastern Judge... Your Dad went to Chicago on election day because he thought his man was beaten. He told me that when he returned. I made a house to house canvass because I could make no good speeches. Anyway speeches do not win elections. I was beaten for re-election in 1924 because I stayed with your dad and your Uncle... [In 1934] You and Jim Aylward called me from Sedalia... I... met you and Jim Aylward at the Bothwell Hotel. You told me that Uncle Tom would be for me for the Senate if I wanted to run for it. Jim Aylward told me he'd line up St. Louis and you told me you'd raise the money. St. Louis was not lined up and I borrowed and begged for the money to make the campaign except for one or two contributions from personal friends there were none... Well I won by the help of personal friends and Fred Canfil... I made a record in the Senate just as on the County Court and in 1940 your Uncle was in jail and I was standing by him... I wonder what in hell a man has to do to keep the friendship of the second generation of Pendergasts. Its a hell of a way to end a lifetime friendship--but you did it. I've never left my friends but they sometimes leave me."
While in the White House, Truman recorded similar sentiments: "In his prime [Tom Pendergast] was a clear thinker and understood political situations and how to handle them. His word was better than the contracts of most businessmen. His physical breakdown in 1936 got him into serious trouble. I never deserted him when he needed friends. Many for whom he'd done much more that he ever did for me ran out on him when the going was rough. I didn't do that--and I am President of the United States in my own right!" (William Hillman, Mr. President, New York, 1952, pp. 188-189). James Pendergast had previously tested his loyalty to Truman in the 1940s when he had supported Congressman Roger C. Slaughter. Slaughter had made a promise to the president and then turned against him. "To Truman, who was a tried-and-true politico, loyalty was the number-one necessity for any sort of political organization. Jim Pendergast, supporting Slaughter, was wandering off the political reservation" (Robert H. Ferrell, ed. Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman, New York, 1980, p.89).
While typed letters signed by Truman are common, autograph letters signed are relatively scarce, especially of such length and with such significant personal content. This letter is the longest autograph letter of Truman to appear at auction in the last 25 years.
Provenance: Descendants of James Pendergast.