Post, Undaunted

On Edith Evans Asbury and Her Profile of Bess Truman, One Opaque First Lady

July 27, 2023

Bess Truman, First Lady (1945-53) and wife of President Harry Truman

The online chatter generated by a New York Times profile of former First Lady Melania Trump brought to mind a much longer ago examination of First Lady Bess Truman that appears in Undaunted: How Women Changed American Journalism. Mrs. Truman declined to be interviewed by members of the national press, not as the wife of Senator or Vice President Harry S. Truman, not when her husband succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt to the presidency at Roosevelt’s death in 1945, and not when Truman won his own election to the office in 1948. After the inauguration in 1949, profiles of Bess Truman appeared almost simultaneously in Collier’s by the little known Edith Evans Asbury and in Cosmopolitan, by the popular nationally syndicated columnist Inez Robb.Edith Evans Asbury (center)

Asbury is one of my favorite figures in the history of journalism’s women. Three years after her Bess Truman profile appeared, she would realize her dream of a full-time job on the city desk of The New York Times. The road till then had been long and bumpy with stops at the Cincinnati Star-Times, the Knoxville News Sentinel, the New York Post, the Associated Press, the New York World-Telegram, and too many depressing PR-filler jobs in between. That was Asbury’s story until 1952, when, in a stroke of luck and uncharacteristic good timing, The New York Times hired her as a city reporter—at 39, and at a time when 40 was not the new 30. For the next three decades, in years where women largely remained an anomaly when in hard-core reporter guise, she was prized. In 1957, the Times featured her in a full-page ad in the New Yorker, extolling her “sense of human.” Arthur Gelb in his memoir, City Editor, devoted pages to how much he admired and respected her. He quoted a toast Anthony Lukas gave at a party in which he recited his list of the Times‘s greatest treasures: the “pure gold of Homer Bigart, the “solid silver of Peter Kihss,” “Joe Lelyveld, the imperial purple of future greatness,” and “Edith Evans Asbury, the dazzling white of dignity and style.” Dan Barry profiled this “queen of the pointed question” in 2005. The headline read, “‘Sweet She Ain’t and She’s Got the Stories to Prove It.”At the time Asbury, long retired, was still performing with The Inner Circle, a troupe of metro reporters who put on an annual show. She died three years later at 98. 

About the Bess Truman profile: As Asbury later told the story to her oral  historian, Collier’s knew the chance for direct access to Mrs. Truman was nil and Asbury got the assignment only after a more celebrated woman journalist failed at it. She did not mention Robb, whose piece Katharine Graham, in her “The Magazine Rack” column in The Washington Post, described as a “superenthusiastic rave.” Mrs. Graham, incidentally. did not mentioning Asbury’s.

Here’s how I handled this episode in Undaunted:

And here are the Asbury and Robb profiles so you can judge for yourself.

Asbury in Collier’s:

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Robb in Cosmopolitan:

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The interviews Asbury gave to the Washington Press Club, sealed for a couple of decades after her death at 98 in 2008, are now possible to read and are especially good.