Harry S. Truman Museum
The home in Key West, used by Harry S. Truman during his presidency. The residence is now a museum.
Historians rank Harry S. Truman, our 33rd President, among America's ten best, although he was not particularly popular during his presidency (1945-52). What, then, are the qualities of the man that have vaulted him into his illustrious place in history? Truman has been called the "last human being" to occupy the White House, "an uncommon, common man."
Be that as it may, President Truman called the White House the "Great White Jail" and took great pleasure in escaping from it. Next to going home to Missouri, his favorite get-away was The Little White House in Key West, Florida. Truman's press secretary at the time commented the president could get more real work done in Key West than in Washington. Despite the heavy burden of office, Truman had a way of enjoying himself in Key West. Most days began with a brisk walk around the naval base. He fished, swam and lounged in the sun.
In April 1991, the Little White House was restored at a cost of $2 million and opened to the public. Prior to that time, roughly between the years 1974 and 1989, the house had fallen into serious disrepair. It had become a refuge for vagrants and rumored to be a crack house. Detroit businessman Henry A. Drettmann and his wife Mary, generously funded the restoration.
Guided tours, lasting about 40 minutes, give valuable insight into the President, and his days in Key West. Visitors begin by viewing a short movie which includes interesting newsreels.
Truman was at first a reluctant visitor to the Sunshine state. His doctor ordered him to this compound at the U.S. Naval Base when he couldn't shake a cold during the grueling early months of his presidency. He soon fell in love with the area. In March of 1949, he wrote to his wife Bess, "I've a notion to move the capital to Key West and just stay."
Even today, the fourteen room white frame house is modest by presidential standards, and was Spartan when Truman made his first visit in November of 1946.
According to the tour guides, 80 percent of the furnishings in the house are authentic, including the bedroom desk where Truman reputedly wrote more than 15,000 personal letters. Other significant pieces include Bess' desk, a poker table concealed under a removable mahogany wooden cover, a framed front page of the Chicago Tribune with the infamous headline "Dewey Defeats Truman," and other artifacts.
Guides jokingly tell you about Truman's famous Key West Uniform. A Miami publicist by the name Hank Meyer came up with the idea of sending the president colorful sports shirts. Truman loved the casual shirts and pictures of him wearing his "Key West Uniform" made front page stories across the nation. The subsequent publicity started a craze which continued for the rest of his visits to the city. He received dozens and dozens of similar shirts as gifts. Truman even expected his visitors to don the typically floral, Hawaiian shirts. Members of the press also adopted the Key West Uniform.
Truman was very fond of nightly poker games, which often lasted until midnight. Unlike today, the press kept quiet about these games, in consideration for the president's reputation. Apparently, it was believed the public might consider such card games unseemly. How times have changed! Historians say Truman had an unusually warm relationship with the press who referred to him as "Truman the Human."
The guides also mention Harry came downstairs every morning at 7:00 a.m. for a quick shot of bourbon with an orange juice chaser, rather than the standard cup of coffee. This unusual habit was said to astonish his housekeepers.
As a side note, two other Presidents, John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower visited the Little White House.
With so many other attractions in Key West, Truman's Little White House doesn't get the attention it deserves and that's a shame. The museum gives the American public a unique opportunity to discover a very personal side of Harry Truman and how his down-to-earth personality affected his presidency and the events of his day.
Key West and America lost a great man on December 26, 1972, when Harry Truman died. Two days later, the citizens of Key West gathered on the beach for a memorial service for their friend and their president. Taps was played and a wreath tossed onto the waves.
The Little White House is located at 111 Front Street (Truman Annex) Key West, Florida, 33040.