WASHINGTON -- One evening near Christmas in 1955, Harry Truman walked into his Independence, Mo., home to find his wife tossing stacks of old letters into the blazing hearth.
He looked stricken.
A chronicle of the 33rd president's courtship, marriage and daily life in the first half of the 20th century was going up in smoke.
"Bess!" said Truman, who saved every scrap of paper, including 1,300 letters that he had written her. "God! What are you doing? Think of history!"
"Oh, I have," she calmly replied, continuing to feed the flames.
Bess Truman guarded her privacy. But not every letter to her husband wafted up the chimney of 219 N. Delaware St. that night.
She missed 180 others, found after her death in 1982, lost behind desk drawers and peeking out of books.
The Harry S. Truman Library & Museum has had them ever since and plans a public display in four years. But on Wednesday, the National Archives and Clifton Truman Daniel, the Trumans' grandson, offered the media an early glimpse.
"Dear Old Sweetness," began a letter from Bess to the future president on July 17, 1923. "My! But I was glad to get that letter this morning and it sure was a nice one -- about the nicest I ever had."
It was one of several that she wrote during the two weeks that Harry spent in Kansas every summer back then for National Guard training at Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley.
Reading them opens a brief window onto a long-ago era: its language and manners, and shows a down-to-earth couple keen to each other's quirks and clearly smitten with each other.
"They wrote back and forth the way we use email," said Daniel. "Two letters a day sometimes, and they're always complaining that they didn't get a letter, or they're happy they did get a letter. 'Where's my letter? You owe me one. You owe me two!'"
And if the Bess Truman who comes through is at odds with the image of the austere, no-nonsense, tight-lipped former first lady, well, that's fine, said her grandson, the public relations director at Harry S. Truman College, a community college in Chicago.
"The letters to me are wonderfully human," he said. "She could be very stern, but these letters show me the girl inside her."
Like the time she wrote Harry about her spying one morning before dawn on their neighbors as they loudly packed their car for a vacation. You can almost hear her giggle:
"I wouldn't have missed seeing Mrs. Swift in her knickers for a hundred dollars."
Or when she teased her husband about his dinner in Leavenworth with two friends, one of them female:
"How did you like playing around with another lady" -- she underlined "lady" twice -- "today? Did you and the fair Jean have a good time?"
Then there was epic spat over Bess' hair. Harry liked it long, as it had been ever since they met long ago -- the previous century, actually -- in Sunday school. She wanted a bob, the modern fashionable look in 1925.
He came under lobbying more intense than probably any he ever witnessed in Washington.
"I never wanted to do anything as badly in my life," Bess wrote. "Come on, be a sport. Ask all the married men in camp about their wives' heads & I'll bet anything there isn't one under sixty who has long hair."
Her pleas were unrelenting: "What about the haircut?"
When Harry, in a pledge of his undying love, finally caved, Bess seemed caught off guard and movingly wrote:
"I most sincerely hope you'll never feel otherwise . . . for life would be a dreary outlook if you ever ceased to feel just that way."