Music criticism in history: President Harry S Truman v The Washington Post’s Paul Hume
By Darragh Murray
You know you’re doing it right when you royally piss someone off. And when you piss off the President of the United States for a piece of music criticism, you may have hit the jackpot.
President Harry S. Truman’s response to critic Paul Hume is probably the most renowned response to a critical appraisal of a musical performance. As someone interested in both international affairs and history, I’ve been spending my work-time commute listening to the brilliant 2008 lecture series on the History of the International System by Professor James Sheehan at Stanford University (available for free through ITunesU).
Professor Sheehan, during his lecture on the origins of the Cold War, made a delightful reference to the musical career of President Truman’s daughter Margaret, an allegedly terrible musician and performer, at least by 50s standards (she probably was awesome by today’s standards). Classical music critic Paul Hume attended Margaret Truman’s performance at Constitution Hall in Washington DC on 6 December 1950. President Truman and his wife attended their daughter’s performance, bringing along with them the British Prime Minister Clement Atlee.
Margaret performed Mozart, Shumann and Shubert and Hume summed up the experience thusly:
“Miss Truman is a unique American phenomenon with a pleasant voice of little size and fair quality … (she) cannot sing very well … is flat a good deal of the time more last night than at any time we have heard her in past years … has not improved in the years we have heard her … (and) still cannot sing with anything approaching professional finish.”
Ol’ Harry was livid, and after one too many bourbons late on 6 December, penned the following missive to Mr.Hume, threatening to treat him with violence should they ever meet in person. It’s an amusing response.
I’ve just read your lousy review of Margaret’s concert. I’ve come to the conclusion that you are an “eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay”.
It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you’re off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work.
Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!
Pegler, a gutter snipe, is a gentleman alongside you. I hope you’ll accept that statement as a worse insult than a reflection on your ancestry.
Interestingly enough, the subject of the critique, Margaret Truman, found nothing wrong with Hume’s appraisal, stating that he was a fine critic and could write whatever pleased him.
It seems that Harry S. Truman, the man responsible for authorising the vaporisation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, might have benefited from a read of Wallace Wylie. Regardless, Hume managed to turn the incident to profit, selling the letter for $3,500 in 1951. Bill Clinton even hung a copy in the Oval Office. The original still remains in private hands.
“FAQ: Is the letter on display that Truman wrote in defense of his daughter’s singing?”. Truman Library. December 06, 1950. Retrieved 2011-11-01.
Smith, J. Y. (November 28, 2001). “Paul Hume: Music Critic Who Panned Truman Daughter’s Singing and Drew Presidential Wrath”. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via The Washington Post. Retrieved 2011-11-01.