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OBITUARIES : Margaret Truman Daniel, 1924 - 2008

President Truman's only child was successful writer

January 30, 2008|Myrna Oliver | Special to The Times

Margaret Truman Daniel, who was the only child of President Truman and his wife, Bess, and who forged successive careers as a concert singer, an actress, a high-profile wife and mother, and a prolific biographer and mystery novelist, died Tuesday. She was 83.

Daniel, the widow of former New York Times managing editor Clifton Daniel, died in Chicago after a brief illness, according to the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Mo. A longtime resident of New York City, she recently moved to an assisted living facility in Chicago, where her eldest son, Clifton Truman Daniel, lives. A cause of death was not released.

Arguably the first first daughter to be subjected to the intrusive scrutiny of the burgeoning modern communications media, Daniel was a student at George Washington University when her father ascended to the presidency upon the death in 1945 of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lessons in the perils of unwanted political celebrity were instant.

She set off something of a public relations food fight when she quietly instructed a waiter, "No potatoes, please," and later said she drank tomato juice while dieting. The Potato Growers Assn. quickly lodged an official complaint and peppered the White House with protest letters. The Tomato Growers Assn. countered with an onslaught of supportive letters. The groups waged a marketing war in the national media, touting the nutritional value of their products.

When Daniel was photographed wearing a scarf, Women's Wear Daily editorialized that she had damaged the millinery industry -- a dispute quieted only after she wore a hat to another publicized event. Her hatted photo, in turn, set off protests from hairdressers.

Suddenly aware that what she said, what she did and how she looked would make her the most spotlighted White House offspring in history, she muted her comments and made sure her appearance in public was politically correct. As a young, single woman, she largely postponed dating to avoid false reports of pending engagements.

For seven years, she said later, her goal was to behave so that she wouldn't "wind up with a bad headline." In the process, she developed a longtime disdain for Washington and privately came to refer to the White House as "the great white jail."

What Mary Margaret Truman, the girl born and bred in Independence, Mo., would not mute, mollify or abandon was her quest -- somewhat unusual for a well-to-do young woman of the mid-20th century -- for a career.

First came singing.

Although she majored in history, she had taken voice lessons from childhood and was determined to make it as a concert singer. From 1947 until 1954, she sang operatic and classical selections at sold-out concerts across the country, receiving a warm reception from affectionate (or politically toadying) audiences but frigid reaction from critics.

Washington Post critic Paul Hume was famously scolded by President Truman when he wrote of her 1949 concert at Washington's Constitution Hall, "Miss Truman is still too much of a vocal beginner to appear in public."

A 1947 concert in Pittsburgh had elicited similar criticism. "In one word, childish," snapped the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette echoed: "It is a pleasant, sweet voice, but it lacks volume and maturity. She sings with clarity and . . . precision, but leaves a great deal to be desired in musicality."

When she appeared the same year at the Hollywood Bowl along with legendary conductor Eugene Ormandy, 15,000 people applauded. But Albert Goldberg, then music critic of the Los Angeles Times, cautioned: "Interpretively, Miss Truman is not yet far beyond the student stage." He added that her voice "possesses promise" but required training, and he praised her poise in front of a large audience. She later said that she "was so cold I didn't think of being frightened."

Long after her eight-year concert career ended, she told The Times, "I knew a lot of people came out of curiosity. But I always hoped they stayed because they liked it."

Her friends thought the critics drove her from singing, but Daniel insisted she simply became more interested in acting.

She had appeared in high school and college stage productions and in a few radio programs for children. That limited experience, combined with encouragement from actress Helen Hayes, bankable name recognition and an able agent, won her a professional radio play debut opposite James Stewart in 1951.

She portrayed his wife in an NBC adaptation of the 1950 motion picture comedy "The Jackpot" that had starred Stewart and Barbara Hale.

Daniel was under contract to NBC and, from 1954 to 1961, was co-host of the five-minute radio spot "Authors in the News" and in 1955-56 was co-host with Mike Wallace of the radio program "Weekday." Filling in for Edward R. Murrow on his TV show "Person to Person," she interviewed her parents in 1955.

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