The location, just a three-hour flight from Washington proved to be ideal not only as a vacation hideaway, but was also a popular meeting place where staff and dignitaries were eager to visit during cold weather. Truman regularly made visits every November-December and returned each February-March. The "Little White House," as it became known, was the home of many important presidential decisions including the initial crafting of the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, a temporary cease-fire in Korea and the recognition of the State of Israel. It was also here Truman wrote his fourth Civil Rights Executive Order requiring federal contractors to hire minorities.
On a recent trip south, I visited the place and discovered a few more interesting facts and surprises:
The first surprise was visitors are not allowed to photograph anything inside. The guide explained this is a security measure owing to the fact that any Internet search for "White House" also brings up information about the Key West location. I thought the sanction to be a bit overdone, but reluctantly complied – no secret phone shots.
Harry Truman was good at a lot of things. Relaxing and taking his mind off of work was not one of them. It was supposed to be his staff's job to see to it that Truman used the time in Key West to relax. On the other hand, Truman was concerned about his staff members and wanted them to relax and enjoy their stay. On many occasions, the president sat in his living room looking calm while he was busy at work with his presidential duties, writing memos, letters and speeches. Across the room, his staff members tried to look at ease while they were busy managing Truman's schedule and running the show. No one got much relaxing done.
The master bedroom contains two twin beds. It was designated as Mrs. Truman's bedroom. On occasion their daughter Margaret slept in the second bed. The president had separate sleeping quarters. It was, at the time, the policy that, even in the White House in Washington, DC, the president and first lady had separate bedrooms. In other words, you might be the president of the United States, but you can't sleep with your wife. This policy remained in effect until Brother Gerald Ford became president. It wasn't Ford who ended the policy, but his wife Betty, who described the arrangement as… to use a euphemism... bovine excrement.
Truman loved to play poker. One of the changes he made in the furnishings of the Little White House was the addition of a poker table. There, he would sit for hours and play poker with his staff and even national and world leaders who visited. The existence of the poker table was kept secret, the thinking being that the general public would consider poker playing to be scandalous.
On one occasion, the bevy of reporters accompanying the president cooked up a prank to play on Truman. Deciding the president, being a Democrat, must be fond of donkeys, they somehow got past security and smuggled a burro onto the grounds. They hid the animal in the president's detached bath house. The next morning when Truman went to take his shower he was greeted not only by the animal, but also by a large pile of donkey poop. The Secret Service was not at all amused and launched an investigation into the matter. Truman laughed off the incident and stopped the investigation.
The tour made no mention of Truman's Masonic activities. I asked the guide if he knew anything about that and he told me the president did, in fact, visit Masonic lodges in the area and on occasion participated in Masonic events. Knowing about Truman's love for the Craft, that didn't surprise me at all.
Since Truman's presidency, other presidents and leaders have continued to use the Little White House for various purposes. Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Carter all stayed there. The last presidential visit was a 2005 weekend retreat for Bill and Hillary Clinton. In 1987, the house became the property of the State of Florida, which restored it and opened it as a state historic site and museum. Today it is open to the public and offers several daily tours – no photographs, please.