How Thomas Hart Benton Enraged Harry Truman

Truman loathed Thomas Hart Benton for an unflattering portrait of Tom Pendergast, Truman’s mentor, but ultimately wound up calling Benton ‘the best damned painted in America.’

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/ The Daily Beast

In retrospect the choice of Thomas Hart Benton to paint a mural for the Truman library seems a natural fit. Both Benton and Truman were natives of the State of Missouri. Benton, like Harry Truman, had politics in his blood, since he was the son of a U. S. congressman and was named for his great-uncle, the first U.S. senator from west of the Missouri River. They were both ardent Democrats. They both knew the history of their state inside out. They were both great readers of history.

But for months—for months that stretched into more than a year—Harry Truman resisted the notion of having Benton make a painting for the Truman Library. He had some old grudges to work through.

At stake were some matters of artistic taste, but more than that, there was the issue of Truman’s personal loyalty to the notorious political boss of Kansas City, Boss Tom Pendergast, who had been responsible for Truman’s entry into politics.

After the failure of Truman’s haberdashery store in the old Muehlbach Hotel, it was genial and corrupt Boss Tom Pendergast who engineered Truman’s election as county judge for Jackson County in 1922. Despite the title “Judge,” this was an administrative rather than judicial position, and it set the stage for Truman to lead a successful, widely acclaimed campaign to transform and improve Jackson County with new roads and public buildings. Truman never relinquished his loyalty to Pendergast even after he was publicly disgraced. When Pendergast died, Truman, then president of the United States, was the only politician to attend his funeral. “He was my friend,” Truman replied, when asked to explain his decision.

With regard to Benton, Truman’s key stumbling block was Benton’s mural of 1936 for the state capitol. Truman felt that Benton had libeled his native state—and had deliberately ridiculed his old political mentor.

The idea for the Missouri Capitol mural had been cooked up late one night at a hotel party in Jefferson City, when after plentiful drinks Benton persuaded two state legislators that the building needed a Benton mural. Shortly afterwards an appropriation was passed in the state legislature to pay for the painting. Remarkably, no limits were set on Benton’s choice of subject matter. Consequently, Benton was able to focus not on heroes and heroic events, but to produce “a social history of the State of Missouri.”

In Benton’s hands, “a social history” opened with a scene of a fur trader selling whiskey to an Indian, and went on to show Mormons being tarred and feathered, slaves being whipped, Jesse James robbing a bank, and Frankie shooting Johnny in a St. Louis saloon. It closed, perhaps most shockingly off all, with a scene of Boss Tom Pendergast, sitting in a nightclub with two of the trustees of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. This was not just providing a critique of the past—it was hitting close to home. For years Truman believed that Benton had put the figure there without Pendergast’s knowledge. In fact, he had made it with Pendergast’s approval and had sketched Pendergast from life.

In the opening week, the mural drew 50,000 spectators, but Missouri boosters were horrified and a bill was introduced in the state legislature to have it whitewashed. The intensity of the controversy about what Benton had painted is suggested by an editorial in the Tula Tribune on January 27, 1937, which focused particularly on the likeness of Pendergast:

Conspicuous in the picture is the acknowledged portrait of T. J. Pendergast, the Democratic boss of Kansas City whose organization votes dead men, who manipulates to steal government itself. In the picture Pendergast is seated at a table with representative citizens who are taking their orders from this hijacker of government … Shame on you, Thomas Hart Benton, shame on you, and shame on whomever, representing Missouri’s government, paid $16,000 to buy this picture of infamy.

As it happened, the bill to have the painting whitewashed was sidelined, and thus the mural was still intact in 1939, when Pendergast was sentenced to 15 months in Leavenworth Penitentiary. To celebrate this event, some wag sneaked in and painted jail stripes and a jail number on the likeness in Benton’s mural. Harry Truman is said to have supposed—erroneously—that Benton himself added this embellishment as a publicity stunt.

For years Truman felt resentful towards Benton. He specifically denounced the statehouse mural as “a horror,” and in 1941, when a film agent showed him a Benton painting of Burt Lancaster in the title role of The Kentuckian, Truman reacted with distaste. “Both of my grandfathers were from Kentucky as were both of my grandmothers,” Truman wrote. “All of the four had brothers and sisters most of whom I saw when was a child. They did not look like that long-necked monstrosity of Mr. Thomas Hart Benton’s.”

In the early ’50s, the television newscaster Randall Jessee, who was a friend of them both, asked Truman if he’d like to meet Benton and his wife, Rita, at a dinner party at Jessee’s home. “We’ll, he’s the fellow who made a mistake in painting those murals about Mr. Pendergast down at Jefferson City,” Truman replied. “I’ve got a long memory, you know, and I don’t know whether we’ll get along or not.”

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Fortunately, both Benton and Truman had mellowed quite a bit by 1957, when Benton was approached by two representatives of the Truman Library—David Lloyd, a rising young lawyer, and Wayne Grover, archivist of the United States—about the possibility of Benton taking on a major mural project for the building, which had been completed a few years before. At the time Benton was still at work on another large mural for Robert Moses, for a power dam in Massena, New York, but he readily assented.

They all celebrated with a couple of highballs. But the highballs were premature.

Not long afterward, Truman visited Benton’s Kansas City studio and listened carefully while Benton explained his plan. Truman made no firm commitment, however, either then or at later meetings at the Truman Library, when they discussed what might be the possible subject matter for such a painting.

In fact, this proved a second stumbling block. Truman was an avid reader of history, and an admirer of Thomas Jefferson, who had engineered the Louisiana Purchase. He sketched out a sequence of events from Jefferson’s administration to his own, which while reasonable in verbal terms was an unmanageable mass of subject matter for a painting. When Benton protested that the subject was too large, the president said laughing, “Well, what the hell is it you can paint?”

Rising to the bait, Benton proposed portraying Truman’s hometown, Independence, which was also the site of the Truman Library, as it looked in 1821 when it served as the starting point for wagon trains on the Oregon Trail. He also agreed to write out a program for his mural, and even went to the trouble of creating a clay model of a preliminary design, which Truman studied carefully. Fortunately, Truman had made it clear that he himself didn’t want to be included in the mural, which made it possible to create a scene set in the past.

It’s said that Benton realized that he would probably get his way and be permitted to carry out the project when Harry Truman opened a desk drawer and pulled out a bottle of bourbon. “I hear you like this,” Truman said. The ice, as it were, had broken.

“They had good times together,” Benton’s sister Mildred recalled. “They both liked the same kind of whisky, and I expect Tom was pretty moderate when he drank with Mr. Truman.”

The contract for the mural was signed in June 1958, but Benton didn’t begin painting until a year and a half later, which he devoted to careful research, including tracking down Pawnee and Cheyenne models to the parts of Oklahoma where they lived, so that he would represent historically accurate physical types. The broadcaster Randall Jessee and his wife served as models for the pioneer couple in the center of the design.

No small task for a man then in his seventies, the final mural takes up 495 square feet and contains more than 40 figures, as well as assorted animals, wagons, steamboats, teepees, houses, costumes, and tools—all rendered with careful historical accuracy. One of the major artistic problems was to find a mode of perspective rendering which would not look distorted when the mural is seen from the side or an odd angle. Benton’s solution was to use a dramatically forced bird’s eye perspective, which does not neatly align with the architecture, and which consequently does not look noticeably skewed when you change your viewpoint. Both technically, and with regard to historical research, the painting was a tour de force.

With exquisite tact, Benton invited Truman himself to apply the first brushstrokes to the mural—a patch of blue sky—and by the time the project was complete, Truman had done a complete turn-around. The artist who had formerly been the creator of “monstrosities” had become, in Truman’s words, “The best damned painter in America.”