Songs, Lies, and Audiotape: Margaret Truman Daniel (1924-2008) on the Air

Having just learned of the passing of Margaret Truman Daniel, the former US President’s only daughter, I am going to conjure up her voice by listening to some of the radio programs on which she was featured. Truman made her broadcasting debut in Detroit, back in 1947; she started out as a pianist, then turned to singing. To most Americans, of course, she was, first and foremost, the First Daughter. Could she pull off a career on the strength of her vocal chords, people wondered, or was it all a matter of pulled strings? Fully aware of this debate, Truman was often in on the joke, an act that made her a welcome guest on what, in the early 1950s, was the biggest show on radio. Tallulah Bankhead’s Big Show.

On 3 December 1950, Truman faced the acerbic Bankhead for the first time. “I suppose you’re all a-wondering how we were able to get such a prominent personage as Miss Truman to be guest on our program,” quipped the celebrated hostess. “Well, really, all it took was a telephone call. I called a certain party, and that party called another party, who in turn called another party. Uh, naturally, these were all democratic parties.”

On the same broadcast, Truman was also confronted with Fred Allen. Sharing the microphone with the seasoned if semi-retired radio wit proved quite a challenge for the still inexperienced Truman.

Truman. How do you do, Mr. Allen?

Allen. Well, how do you do? It’s certainly a pleasure. But, please, don’t call me Mr. Allen. Call me by my given name.

Truman (imitating Bankhead). All right, Daaahling!

Bankhead. This girl has the makings of a Milton Berle.

Truman. Fred, I’ve been an admirer of your radio program for a long time.

Allen. Well, thank you. But where were you when my option came up back there in 1948?

Truman. In 1948, we were busy with an option problem ourselves.

Allen. Yes, but that option was renewed for another four years. You were lucky you didn’t have a quiz show running against you. And, by the way, Miss Truman, I’m surprised you don’t have a radio program of your own.

Truman. Oh, I can’t do anything well enough to have my own program.

Allen. Oh, on radio that’s no handicap.

When Allen insists that Truman ought to have her own variety program, Bankhead feels threatened:

Allen. Say, uh, this might be an idea, Margaret. Now, how about doing a big variety show, about an hour and a half program, and get the biggest names in show business. Why, you could be the mistress of ceremonies.

Bankhead. Just a moment! That’s my program. I don’t mind standing here without any lines, but I simply refuse to stand here without a program.

Truman. Oh, don’t worry, Tallulah. I wouldn’t dream of doing a program like that.

Bankhead (at her huskiest). And why not, Daaahling?

Truman. Well, I don’t think I’m old enough.

Bankhead. Whaaaaaaat!

Three months later, on 4 March 1951, recent Time magazine cover girl Truman was back on the Big Show. “Aren’t you Charlie’s Aunt,” Allen’s wife and sidekick Portland Hoffa inquired, mistaking Truman for the sister of Britain’s reigning monarch. “Love Is Where You Find It,” Truman trills after a confrontation with Ethel Merman, then learns about the harmonica from Herb Shriner.

“I’m an actress now,” Truman declared upon her return to the Big Show on 6 May 1951. A week earlier, she had played opposite James Stewart in a Screen Directors Playhouse production of Jackpot (26 April 1951), a satire on the excesses of commercial radio. Bankhead condescended to give Truman the title role in “Advice to the Little Peyton Girl,” a dramatic sketch based on a story by Dorothy Parker. Yet the emphasis was decidedly on the “Advice” and the one proffering it, not on the “Girl”; as the young woman’s “older, wiser, and oh-so-understanding confidante,” Bankhead devoured the scene.

Sharing the microphone with experienced performers, Truman was not so much propped up as shown up by them. The following year, for instance, the successful recording artist was called upon to sing opposite Gordon MacRae on the Railroad Hour in the operetta “Sari” (17 March 1952), an adaptation of Noel Coward’s Bitter Sweet. The words “Pretty boys, witty boys, you may sneer” come to mind. Perhaps, Truman, or Bankhead’s script writers, had been right. She did not quite have it in her to be a radio personality. Guesting five times on the Big Show, however, she proved herself a genial team player.

Being shown up by your hostess is bad enough; worse still is when you are the hostess and the guests don’t show up. This misfortune befell Truman on the premiere of her next radio venture. Along with Mike Wallace, the gal from Missouri was to host Weekday, a six-hour, five-day-a-week daytime variety program also starring Martha Scott and Walter Kiernan. Imitating the successful Monitor, Weekday promised drama, music, and chat.

On the opening program, back in 1955, Truman announced Eddie Fisher, her “star companion” for the day. “Hi Eddie!” she opened; but Fisher did not respond. As Slate and Cook recall in It Sounds Impossible (1963), the chats were partially recorded. That is, Truman did not get to talk to her guests, but was expected to simulate her scripted interviews, with the control room feeding her a recorded voice, an experimental technique called “‘stop-start’ taping.” Eddie was not stuck up; he was just a tape getting stuck.

Such difficulties notwithstanding, Truman stuck with the show until 1956, picking up a regular television assignment nearly a decade later. She may not have hit the Jackpot, but she maintained her media presence long after her father and his party had been voted out of office.

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