When Harry Met Pablo
Author Matthew Algeo delves into the unlikely friendship between former president Harry Truman and a modern art master, Pablo Picasso
Where were you in the summer of 1958? Former president Harry Truman and his wife Bess were taking a grand European tour with their friends Sam and Dorothy Rosenman. The touring party made a stop in Cannes, France, at the home of the world's best-known artist, Pablo Picasso.
In a meeting set up by Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) curator Alfred Barr, Truman, a virulent anti-communist and family man with conventional cultural tastes, made the acquaintance of Pablo Picasso, a Communist and serial philanderer who was the leading figure in modern art.
Despite their evident differences, Truman and Picasso became fast friends. The Americans visited a number of other Mediterranean sites together with Picasso serving as tour guide.
In his fascinating new microhistory, "When Harry Met Pablo: Truman, Picasso, and the Cold War Politics of Modern Art," author Matthew Algeo employs this unlikely 50+ friendship to discuss the lives of two of the world's then-most famous men, the place of art in the Cold War and the history of modern art.
Exploring Hidden Corners of History
Taking on such a unique subject is nothing new for Algeo. The Arlington, Virginia-based author has written some of the most offbeat and enlightening history books of the 21st century.
In "The President Is a Sick Man," he details President Grover Cleveland's secret cancer surgery aboard a friend's yacht in 1893. In "Last Team Standing," he examines the temporary merger of the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers into the "Steagles" during World War II.
"You can learn a lot about people by looking at the little stories."
His previous book on the 33rd president, "Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure," considers Bess and Harry Truman's 1953 road trip across the United States, where the former president found out just how famous (and well-liked) he was from coast to coast.
"I think you can learn a lot about people by looking at the little stories," Algeo said when asked why he chose to write again about Truman, a man who led a simultaneously modest and extraordinary life. "A lot of the little stories in his life get overlooked that reveal a lot about him and his character."
The former president found himself a part of so many large stories — the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the dropping of atomic bombs on Japanese cities, the end of World War II and the ultimate stalemate in the Korean War, to name a few. Algeo had known of the meeting between Truman and Picasso for some time and finally decided it was simply too rich a story to leave buried eight decades in the past.
"Truman had to figure it out on his own," Algeo said of his post-presidency. "He wasn't a little corporation like former presidents are now." At the time Truman left office in 1953, the only other living president was the fabulously wealthy Herbert Hoover, who spent most of his time at his residence, the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York.
Modest Life, Many Friends
Truman, 68 at the time he left Washington, lacked riches, a clear vocation, or even a pension. He returned to Missouri and lived modestly, spending large amounts of time involved in Democratic Party politics and raising money for the Truman Library.
One thing Truman did have in his post-presidency, as he did throughout his life, was a lot of friends. According to a heaping helping of recent commentary and research, this is becoming increasingly uncommon for men, particularly as they age. It is not uncommon to see headlines in a wide range of publications bemoaning the epidemic of loneliness, particularly among men, even before the social restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Harry had a number of really good male friends," Algeo said, including his compatriot on the trip, Rosenman, who served as White House Counsel under Roosevelt and befriended Truman during his brief vice presidency. Truman expressed his concern that he would become the "striped mule of Missouri," an object of fascination rather than an everyday person after he left Washington. The fear proved unfounded. Truman's ability to make close male friends persisted even after his seven years in the Oval Office.
"Truman was able to separate 'the president' from Harry. He was very social and enjoyed spending time with people. It was important to Truman that he have close male friends, people that he could relax with and unwind with," Algeo said.
Picasso Was a Polar Opposite
"I think the COVID isolation would have driven Harry insane," Algeo added. "I don't think Harry could have stood being cooped up in his house and not be able to take his walks and chat with his friends or be able to meet up with people. It was very difficult for him later in life when his mobility became limited."
Picasso, on the other hand, had few friends and kept his distance.
"With Picasso, you never really could forget that this was Picasso," this larger-than-life figure who was 77 when he met Truman. "I think he was a little bit wary of people, a little paranoid," Algeo said. While the whole world wanted a piece of Picasso, that was certainly not the case with the former president.
"Picasso didn't meet many people that were more famous than him and neither did Truman."
"There was nothing that Truman wanted from Picasso. He could sort of let his guard down with him. This wasn't someone seeking out the reflected glow of Picasso's fame," Algeo said. "That made them more accessible to each other.
"Picasso didn't meet many people that were more famous than him and neither did Truman. In a way, they had this bond, this ready-made thing in common," Algeo said. In their time together, Picasso and Truman enjoyed a lot of good-natured give-and-take.
In an era when many 50+ adults lacked mobility, both men, then in their 70s, were strikingly robust figures who enjoyed a long walk. Much of the time they spent together involved touring spaces familiar to Picasso by foot. Both men lived another 15 years and died within six months of each other in 1973.
"Meeting when they did, they had both reached the stage in their lives where they were comfortable enough with themselves, with their politics, their personalities that they were comfortable meeting each other despite their different viewpoints and attitudes," Algeo said. "Some of the sharper edges had been worn smooth for both men."
Algeo wrote and researched much of this book at the height of the pandemic, a time when writers were entirely at the mercy of online archives. Thankfully, the Truman Presidential Library and MoMA, two significant resources for the book, had significant online holdings.
"I was kind of amazed by the amount of material online. There was enough there that I could do the proposal," Algeo said.
Research on the Riviera
The author lived in Sarajevo (his wife is in the U.S. Foreign Service) at the time he wrote and researched "When Harry Met Pablo." That made it easier, once COVID restrictions eased, for him to get his family in the car and drive to the south of France and visit the Mediterranean sites where Truman and Picasso had ventured.
Algeo also needed to learn about the history of modern art, a subject in which he had little background. To learn about Picasso and his milieu, Algeo read extensively on art history, relying on a friend with a background on the subject to guide him in the right direction. Like Truman, Algeo ended up learning a great deal about the topic.
"Truman didn't like modern art but opposed the people that were trying to ban or censor or defund modern art. It was really refreshing, in our polarized political situation today, to find somebody like Truman who really could see the value in things he didn't enjoy," Algeo said.