Key West: ‘Give ‘Em Hell' Harry on Vacation

Harry Truman loved to vacation in Key West. Today, he's become one of the main attractions in this easy-going tourist destination.

Harry Truman was a likeable president irrespective of one’s politics, maybe because the nation was still at war and he really needed the country’s support, or maybe because it was a less politically acrimonious era and the people feeding at the trough in DC were more discrete. Whatever, we loved Harry, not because, as President Johnson said, “Harry gave ‘em Hell,” but because he gave ‘em hope.

A C-Span Cable Network Presidential Poll of 64 leading historians in 2009 ranked Harry Truman 5th best out of 42 presidents.

Imagine the distress Truman faced as he came unexpectedly into office at that moment in history: he faced the decision on the Bomb and dealing with Stalin (and to a degree de Gaulle even Churchill). Winston had a mind of his own and had driven FDR crazy with his logistical demands to help the Allies before Pearl Harbor saved Britain and possibly the World.

How exhausted Truman must have been when he arrived for his first break in Key West. Admiral Nimitz had suggested Truman come; the Admiral was familiar with the Naval Station that had been created in 1822 on land reclaimed by dredging, land that was once ocean front. The president indeed came many times, in all spending 175 days of his presidency here in what became known as the TLWH (Truman Little White House.}

Paul Hilson, the Special Events Coordinator at the TLWH looks down at the Truman card table and says, “I love the Smithsonian but it’s got nothing on us with this table!”

Harry had his routine, which included both work and relaxation. He had his poker game, which always amuses visitors because the card table is laid out as if during a game. When we ask our guide, Anne Trogner, “Which chair is the President’s?” she smiles and says, “The chair with the best hand, a Full House!”

The Key West Naval Station was created to fight piracy but became important too during Prohibition and the crisis at the Bay of Pigs. It ultimately was sold to a developer who turned it into handsome condos.

Hilson remembers how small Key West was when he was growing up. “Kids thought they couldn’t spit on the sidewalk,” he says, “and not have their mother know about it when they got home. And there was only one drug store in town that was air-conditioned and kids would go there for their sodas and to hang out.” He recalls how people remember Edison’s coming in World War I to advise the navy on underwater inventions and seeing the poor man in a woolen suit sitting on the pier enduring the hot weather.

Harry’s favorite Diner!

Another routine President Truman had was to walk along Caroline Street to #806 for lunch at Pepe’s Cafe, “Established 1909, the oldest eating place on the Florida Keys.” Pepe’s shows its age—marvelously. Wanna eat there? Well you may find parking, you may find a table, but unless you have the clout of Harry Truman you may have to try several times to both parking and a table at the same time.

The Presidential T-Shirt was the favorite garb for a president starting to relax. The Chicago Daily Tribune will never be allowed to forget its headline error.

DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN has an interesting background story. The publisher of the Chicago Tribune hated Truman and supported Dewey. He felt Dewey was the favorite and would win. The edition of the Tribune was prepared before the result and was preprinted for effect. There are errors in the production and the bottom of the column on the extreme right has been printed upside down. Says Ms. Trogner, “That is why you can Google this edition and see an image but you can’t buy a copy of that particular edition from the newspaper.”

This is a small but a significant part of US history. The original furniture of 1948 is thanks to the navy. Upstairs his desk has a series of small donkey Democrat symbols marking the periphery of his desk. “Was this how he had his desk?” someone asks. Ms. Trogner smiles and says, “No, President Truman was not the kind of president to decorate his desk with items like that. They were gifts from visitors.”

The Truman Little White House.

A long time ago the curator of the Truman Presidential Library in Independence, MO told us that some regarded Truman as a simple man, a farmer. True, he was not a college graduate but he was incredibly well read and knowledgeable. He was also lovable and loved. We saw proof; we were the only visitors that day and the curator handed us the framed photo of Bess Truman that was on the Presidential desk. ”It had become loose,” he said, “so we had to open it up to fix the catch. Inside, behind the photograph we found he had folded up a love letter sent by his wife when he had gone to the front in World War I. He’d kept it forever.”

It’s hard not to think back and give complete credit to this president who did us so well when FDR died. The major street out of town has been named Truman Avenue. That’s fitting, although it may be unfortunate that someone chose to so-name a laundry that was built in a former paint shop at the corner of Truman Avenue and Margaret Street. The Deseret News (and Salt Lake Telegram) of March 20, 1957 claims to have telephoned Margaret Truman, the president’s only child, for her reaction that her name had seemingly been stuck on a laundry. “I think it’s hysterical,” said the least pompous of any of our Presidents’ children, “I wish I was down there to take advantage of the service.”

Margaret Truman Daniel was an author and professional singer who may be remembered “for her father’s angry letter to a Washington Post music critic who disparaged her singing.” Said Harry Truman: “I have just read your lousy review.” Adding, “Someday I hope to meet you. When that happens you'll need a new nose!” When reporters asked her about this she said, “I’m glad to see that chivalry is not dead.”

Her son Clifton is an author, too, and is as unassuming as his mother was. One of his books Dear Harry Love Bess covers his grandmother’s letters to President Truman. When asked what did Bess Truman, the longest-lived First Lady in US history, think was the duty of the First Lady, he replies, “She always said, ‘A woman's place in public is to sit beside her husband, be silent, and be sure her hat is on straight.’"

Photographs by Authors

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians. Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written 5 books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life