Jeff Kallman's excellent The Easy Ace: A Journal of Classic Radio
is a wonderful place to spend hours on end, rediscovering the Golden Age of Radio
as it's meant to be discovered and celebrated. Article after article
is filled with a wonderful new vignette about Golden Age Radio History.
---The Digital Deli Online.

[I]n his matchless on-this-day approach to chronicling “yesteryear,”
he easily aces out a less organized mind like mine,
which promptly lapsed into a more idiosyncratic mode of relating the past.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Dystemper of the Times

Margaret Truman has as much business in this space as I have in the Oval Office. But she did turn up as a frequent enough guest on The Big Show, whereas I never wanted to become President of the United States when I grew up. (I wasn't brought up to become the chief executive of the nation's largest organised crime family.)

She probably had that much business in show business, too. As a vocalist, which was her first ambition, she sounded as though she had to drop out of voice training to care for a dystempered elder parent.

It turned out that that’s exactly what she had, too, at least when the Washington Post’s Paul Hume (a distinguished music critic, and the paper’s music editor from 1947 until his retirement in 1982) reviewed her Constitution Hall recital of 5 December 1950. She performed before an audience that included said dystempered elder parent and wife in the company of such hoi polloi as the British prime minister, and Mr. Hume did his best to be polite about it.

Miss Truman is a unique American phenomenon with a pleasant voice of little size and fair quality. She is extremely attractive on stage. Yet Miss Truman cannot sing very well. She is flat a good deal of the time---more so last night than at any time we have heard her in past years.

It is an extremely unpleasant duty to record such unhappy facts about so honestly appealing a person. But as long as Miss Truman sings as she has for three years, and does today, we seem to have no recourse unless it is to omit comment on her programs altogether.

Miss Truman did her best to be polite about Hume, calling him a very fine critic with the right to write as he pleased. Clearly the young lady was borne of greater horse sense than her dystempered elder parent.

Mr. Hume:

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.


Hume proved too much a gentleman to challenge dystempered elder parent to bring it on. He also proved too trusting a soul in mentioning the letter to the music critic of the then-rival Washington News, Milton Berliner within hours of its delivery.

The Post’s editors decided, discretion being the better part of valour and probably no part of dystempered elder parent’s makeup, not to publish or publicise it. The News ordered up a story that hit the wires running and provoked an uproar about dystempered elder parent’s grotesque rejoinder against a distinguished practising music critic who was well within his right to review any public performance by even the music careering daughter of the President of the United States. (The Post was compelled to run its own story but ordered its writers only to quote from the News in the doing.)

Dystempered elder parent thus conveyed a sheepish reply that he had acted and written as a loving father and not a working President oblivious to the prospect that he might resemble an ass.

In entertainment terms, Margaret Truman was probably suited best to comedy, so long as she wasn’t expected to carry the sketch. Her Big Show appearances display her with a gentle knack for a soft punch line and a sportiness as a straight woman. The latter was presented best in a hilarious sketch, from the fifth show of the series, in which Fred Allen presided over The Margaret Truman Show and proceeded—-for his own part and that of such participants as Mindy Carson, Joan Davis, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Phil Silvers, and Meredith Willson—-not to let her get a word in edgewise. The former was presented in such routines as this, from the final show of the first season.

MARGARET TRUMAN: Hello, Fred. Do you remember me?
FRED ALLEN: Why, of course I do. I was on the show the last time you were on. Why, I even remember the song you sang, Margaret—“Love Is Where You Find It.” And I even remember that dress you wore. It was a green bouffant taffeta, caught at the neck with a Hershey bar.
BANKHEAD (high laugh).
ALLEN: Am I right?
TRUMAN: That’s remarkable, Fred.
ALLEN: Ohhhh, I have a memory like a jackass.
TRUMAN: You mean a memory like an elephant, don’t you?
ALLEN: Well, you vote your way and I’ll vote mine.
BANKHEAD: Margaret? You’ve met Portland Hoffa, darling.
TRUMAN: Certainly. Hello, Portland.
PORTLAND HOFFA: Hello . . . Excellency.
BANKHEAD: Margaret, it’s so nice to have you on our last show of the season. We’re disbanding for the summer, you know.
TRUMAN: Yes, I know. Where are you going to spend your summer, Tallulah?
BANKHEAD: Well, I haven’t quite made up my mind. I have a beautiful place in the country, but I had such a bad experience there last winter, when I went there for a weekend. I slipped on the ice and was laid up for two weeks . . . and how my foot ever got in that glass, I’ll never know.
ALLEN: Say, Tallulah.
ALLEN: Why don’t you pack your mink sleeping bag with the rhinestone zipper and come to visit us this summer? We have a very nice place in New Hampshire.
HOFFA: We’d love to have you, Tallulah. It’s beautiful country. On a clear day, you can see the Alps.
BANKHEAD (astonished): The Alps in New Hampshire?!
HOFFA: George and Betty Alps. They live about a mile down the road.
TRUMAN: I’d love to have you come with me, Tallulah. I’m thinking of going down to Key West for some sailing and fishing.
BANKHEAD: Oh! Key West—I’d adore that, I adore the ocean. And I’d like nothing better than to get up every morning at the crack of noon and go sailing.
TRUMAN: That’s good. I might even take some singing lessons down there.
BANKHEAD: Oh, but that’s wonderful, Margaret. Maybe I could take a few lessons, too. Oh, that sounds entrancing, sailing along Key West and singing.
ALLEN: That’s for you, Tallulah—singing off-key West.
BANKHEAD: Ah-hah-hah—isn’t he unemployed. (Pause.) Well, Margaret, how about a song from you?
TRUMAN: But Tallulah—I thought if I came on the program I could do some acting. I’m an actress now. Did you hear me on the radio with Jimmy Stewart in Jackpot?
BANKHEAD: Oh, I never listen to those quiz shows, dahling.
TRUMAN: No, it was a dramatic program. I acted a part. That’s what I think you can use on this show. An actress.
BANKHEAD (drops her voice an octave, mock indignance): Let’s not have any of that nonsense here, Maggie.

Mr. Hume, who died in 2001, was equally sporty about dystempered elder parent’s diatribe. “I can only say,” he said in a public statement at the uproar’s crest, “that a man suffering the loss of a friend (Charles Ross, the White House secretary, whose death coincided with the fateful recital, as it happened) and carrying the burden of the present world crisis (the Korean War, which now included Chinese Communists) ought to be indulged in an occasional outburst of temper.”

In due course, the critic called personally on the by-then retired dystempered elder parent, who played both his home office pianos, from which point the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Miss Truman, meanwhile, exchanged show business for a marriage to a New York Timesman and a literary career of her own, mostly as a ghostwritten political potboiled mystery novelist. By that time, dystempered elder parent (whom she biographed, in fact) wasn’t alive to write nastygrams to literary critics he deemed fit for new noses, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps supporters below.


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