Some Literary Skeptics Are Asking of Margaret Truman's New Mystery: 'whodunit?'
With a first printing of 55,000 copies, a TV movie in the works and a six-figure payoff, author Margaret Truman may well have a best-seller with her first mystery, Murder in the White House (Arbor House, $9.95). The trouble is, when publishing insiders ask "Whodunit?" they don't mean the homicide. These cynics have been searching for the spectral hand of a ghostwriter.
Truman, of course, would be in good company even if Murder had been committed by another author. Richard Nixon (Six Crises) and Charlotte Ford (Book of Modern Manners) have both lent their names to books they never had the time to write. Margaret herself acknowledged the assistance of historian Thomas Fleming in her 1973 best-selling biography of her presidential father (Harry S. Truman), and Fleming got a share of the royalties. This time Truman's agent, Scott Meredith, insists his 56-year-old client bears sole responsibility for her tale about a corrupt Secretary of State who is strangled to death in the Lincoln Sitting Room. "Her publisher, Don Fine, was a kind of unofficial collaborator," says Meredith, "and she had a lot of help from various editors in my office. But she wrote the book."
Truman emphatically agrees. "I love mysteries," she says. "I have read them most of my life, starting with Nancy Drew. My mother and father loved them. We used to trade them off." Whatever its genesis, Murder is her fifth book, and writing is her fourth career. Previously she has worked as an opera coloratura, summer-stock actress and radio-TV personality. On her 1955 radio show Weekday, co-hosted by Mike Wallace, producer Allen Ludden would sometimes do interviews for both his stars. "Very often I would get the answers I wanted, and cut my voice out of the tape," he says. "Margaret and Mike would then dub in the questions. She was a joy to work with, a nice, dignified, kind of square lady who was very good on the show."
Truman left Weekday after six months to marry Clifton Daniel, then a New York Times editor. They bought a comfortable Park Avenue triplex with her earnings, and went on to raise four boys, ages 14 to 23, all of whom are now in private school or college. "I hadn't anticipated having four sons," admits Margaret. "I was naive. But Clifton wanted children. I never thought about it until the first one was on the way." Each year she left her growing family with a nurse and did summer stock. "It wasn't just a question of feeling that I had to get out and act," she says. "It brought money in for the family, which was a great consideration. My parents and Clifton's set up trust funds for the boys' education, so most of what I make goes into a bank account. It's in my name. I let my husband have money whenever he wants."
Daniel, now 67 and retired, lectures and occasionally writes. He is adamant about not getting involved in his wife's work. "He has his and I have mine," says Margaret. "I'm way ahead of women's lib." After 24 years, the marriage seems remarkably solid. "I don't think I've beaten her once," jokes Daniel. "Have I? Sometimes I've wanted to." Good-naturedly, Margaret replies, "Sometimes I wanted to take up arms and hit you. There is no such thing as a perfect marriage."
To be sure, the sophisticated Margaret is no longer Harry's little girl. As a young woman, she rarely drank, but now she takes her martinis straight up and is very much a Park Avenue matron. Still, she travels to Independence, Mo. four times a year to visit her mother, Bess, now 95. "Her mind is clear as a bell," says Margaret, "although she is quite deaf. She has bursitis in her knees, which is very painful, but she gets out. We sit and read mysteries together. I left Murder in the White House with her, but I don't know whether she's read it."
Surprised by the whispers that challenge her authorship, Margaret is waiting to see how her book does while tentatively planning more mysteries. She concedes that for her the act of writing is drudgery. "I have no discipline," she says. "In television, concerts, theater, I'm there with my lines learned. But when it comes to putting pencil on paper, I turn into Scarlett O'Hara—I go to bed and think about it tomorrow."
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