'Bess Truman just tucked President Harry's letters into the sofa'

When Bess Truman was stuffing letters from Harry into the sofa, she had no idea she was preserving history. Yet, it was this haphazard filing system that stored more than 1,200 letters she received from her husband for 49 years. Now, 24 years later, the letters have reappeared in the book ''Dear Bess'' by Robert Ferrell.

''She was a pack rat,'' Dr. Ferrell says. ''She never threw anything away.''

Bess would scatter letters around the Trumans' Independence, Mo., home in as many as 25 different places, he says. Some of the letters were stashed behind chairs, under beds, inside closets, in boxes, the basement, the attic - wherever Bess found it most convienent.

She probably intended to burn them once she had a bundle or two, but forgot about them, Ferrell says. Bess was basically untidy, he adds. If she had been a little neater or had not lived in the same house most of her life, the letters might have been lost, he says.

Ferrell, a professor of history at Indiana University, has written five books about the life of Harry Truman. ''Dear Bess'' is his most recent.

Ferrell's story of how he came across the letters last March is a case of being in the right place at the right time. A regular visitor to the Truman Library in Independence, Ferrell ''just happened to walk into the library when the archivist came up to me, grinned, and said, 'We found some papers down at the house. Would you like to see them?' '' He took Ferrell to the library basement and put two dust-covered boxes on the table.

''The minute I opened the box I realized what I had found,'' Ferrell says. Inside the box there were diary entries, memos, letters that had ''not sent'' written across the top, all in Truman's handwriting. ''I knew within three seconds that these were the private papers the President refused to let researchers see, and they were far better than I thought they would be,'' he adds.

At first glance, Ferrell knew he had stumbled upon book material and was quick to ask if anyone else had seen the papers. The librarian said he had opened the box for another researcher two months earlier who ''didn't know what he was looking at. He thought he had a mess of papers.'' One of those papers in the ''mess'' was a seven-page memo on the firing of Truman's secretary of defense, Louis A. Johnson, in 1950.

This is just one example of a series of ''scholarly failures'' surrounding the discovery, Ferrell says. Any presidential diary is publishable, he explains, because people love reading about presidents.

Within a half-hour of seeing the papers, which are public property, Ferrell was on the phone with his publisher. Four months later ''Dear Bess'' was on the bookstore shelves.

It would be facetious to say Truman's letters to Bess are merely love letters. Dating from 1910 to 1959, they span almost half a century and capture a sense of Americana not found in history books.

Beginning with Truman's account of life on a Missouri farm in the early 20th century, the letters reflect American values of hard work, honesty, honor, and a deep interest in the country. During this period, Truman's early prejudices also are revealed. According to Ferrell, Truman grew up in a family of ''Negro-haters ,'' where slurs against blacks, Jews, and immigrants were common.

But once Truman ventured away from the farm, he began to study black history and realized his perception of blacks was flawed. Later, he spent much of his political career crusading for black rights, Ferrell says. Upon Truman's death, the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said the President was the best friend blacks ever had, Ferrell says.

Ferrell says he never considered editing out Truman's early prejudice because it wasn't deep-rooted and it showed a human side of the President. In fact, the letters give a rare glimpse to many sides of the man - farmer, soldier, husband, father, and politician - providing greater insight to Truman's character.

One of the more charming letters was Truman's first proposal to Bess. Writing about the summer's drought, he put the question to her, ''Water and potatoes will soon become as much of a luxury as pineapples and diamonds. Speaking of diamonds, would you wear a solitaire on your left hand, should I get it?''

After learning that all Bess wanted was ''to be friends,'' a vulnerable Truman replies, ''I'll get over it as most boys do. You know that you turned me down so easy that I am almost happy anyway.''

It was not until nearly 10 years later - when he returned from World War I - that Harry and Bess walked down the aisle. Truman had finally won the love of his Sunday school sweetheart.

The collection also includes some of Truman's World War I letters and follows his rise to political office through two terms in the Senate, the vice-presidency, and presidency.

Whenever away from Bess, Truman wrote daily. In later years, they were often separated because Bess did not care for the fast-paced Washington life style, and would retreat to their Independence home.

Unlike Truman's, her letters were short, general, and less frequent. Several times he had written, ''I'm so busy and yet I'm writing you.'' No one is sure why, but few of Bess's letters have survived.

Although most of Truman's letters to Bess were preserved, Bess did burn some. According to daughter Margaret, her mother burned a bundle of letters in their fireplace in 1955, most of them written after 1948. ''That's a pity, because most likely these letters included information about the Korean war,'' Ferrell says.

Ferrell is certain more Truman letters remain to be discovered. These might include letters he wrote to his mother while stationed in France during World War I. The author also has a pretty good hunch where to find them. Just where might they be? Ferrell released his zippered-smile only to say, ''I can't tell you that. I don't want to get scooped!''

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