At 71, Starzmann is the age HST was in 1955, two years after leaving the White House. Here, he holds the famous "Dewey Defeats Truman" issue of the "Chicago Daily Tribune," which was published before all the votes were counted.(Photo: John Bordsen for USA TODAY)
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – In a recent interview, the late Harry S. Truman took a dim of Donald J. Trump. Truman, the winner in the 1948 presidential election upset, said, “All readers cannot be leaders; all leaders have to be readers. I made decisions the only way I knew how. I did what I thought was right, based on my knowledge and appreciation of history.” And Trump “has no historical perspective."
But Ray Starzmann has.
He is a Kansas City-based Truman tribute actor whom the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum, in nearby Independence, Mo., often turns to when audiences there or elsewhere need someone to "Give 'em hell, Harry."
Truman, who died at age 88, is buried at the library/museum.
The library/museum’s long-time resident “Truman” — former staff archivist Niel Johnson, now in his mid-80s — plans to hang up his hat this year.
At 71, Starzmann is the age HST was in 1955, two years after leaving the White House. While Starzmann says he plans to shed a few pounds to achieve a more accurate post-presidential physique, the Truman garb he wears to the podium is spot-on: a vintage Panama hat, one of eight or nine 1940s wide-lapel suits, bow-tie and two-tone shoes. The vintage wire-rim eyeglasses are the same model the nearsighted chief executive wore in the famous 1945 portrait by photographer Yousuf Karsh. The impersonator’s lapel pin? A VFW button: Truman usually wore one of those or a Masonic pin.
Their heights? Both 5 feet 8 inches or so.
“In fact,” Starzmann says, “the first time I met Mr. Truman, he said, ‘You know, Raymond, you remind me of me at that age.’ It was how I looked, and my interest in history.”
That would have been in the early 1960s, after Starzmann moved to the Kansas City area to attend Park University. It was the first of six meetings with the former president — but they were already acquainted.
When Starzmann was a 10-year-old in Philadelphia, a teacher instilled in him a love of history. “I learned that when you’re no longer in the limelight, you become available — so I wrote hundreds of letters to people who made history.”
Many statesmen and scholars responded. Many still do.
The avowed political junkie lives in a brownstone in Kansas City’s Midtown area. Most walls in his large apartment are lined with filled bookshelves; by his count, he owns 2,000 to 5,000 titles that deal with the presidency. Some of his collection is stored off-site.
Where the buck stops
The most-famous faux Truman was the late actor James Whitmore, who starred in the Give ‘em Hell, Harry stage play and 1975 Oscar-nominated film adaptation.
A key difference: Starzmann terms himself “a historian who happens to also be an interpreter.”
His morph into an onstage HST began around 1990, when a woman who did a solo show about first lady Bess Truman was looking for a partner to play second fiddle. But his role grew when “people started asking me questions ... and I could answer them.” That led to Starzmann-Truman throwing his own hat in the ring: “It’s amazing how many people like Harry Truman.”
These days, he does appearances at the Truman library/museum and presentations at Kansas City-area schools. He has performed from Vermont to California, and addressed the Mount Rushmore Memorial Society, the Smithsonian Associates and the Mount Vernon Society. Corporate gigs have included speaking at a convention of Deloitte Touche, the international accounting/consulting giant.
When groups or firms call the Truman library/museum seeking a flesh-and-blood Truman for an event, they’re likely to be referred to raymondstarzmann.com.
The performances — 90 minutes or so — are extemporaneous, heavy with audience give-and-take. His approach varies. “For kids, you have to answer very comfortably; you don’t talk about the Marshall Plan, you talk about when Truman was young.”
For adults? “It varies. For the most part, I don’t get stupid questions.”
Given Starzmann’s knowledge of Trumaniana, answers includes quotes — those in books (including the bestselling Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman) or via after-show recollections shared by audience members. “In Independence, always, someone will tell me about their experiences with Truman. For the first four years back here (after leaving office), he drove himself — by himself, with no staff and no bodyguards — every day to his office in downtown Kansas City.” They pass along anecdotes about encountering the straight-talking, wry-humored senior in parking lots, on elevators or in restaurants.
Truman was known to have a temper and, when angered, a salty tongue. He repeatedly clashed with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who Truman found arrogant and insubordinate and who he fired during the Korean War.
How does Starzmann handle that? With restraint when women and children are present: HST was always careful with his Ps and Qs when his wife — always called “Mrs. Truman” — was around.
Otherwise, Starzmann gives a version of HST’s famous quote: “I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the president ... I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.”
Informally, the president and tribute actor occasionally merge: Ask Starzmann a question about Truman and the answer might be in the presidential first-person.
Knowing Truman and what that president said on a range of subjects, it was easy for the costumed re-enactor to comment on Trump. But asked a time-tripping question in an audience setting, the answer is apt to be a plain-spoken “I don’t know.”
Starzmann’s day job is in the bookstore of Kansas City’s Nelson Atkins Art Museum. For that institution, he has created Picturing History: Art and the American Presidency, a multimedia show.
Starzmann’s interest in high-level politics spans centuries and parties. He got to know Alf Landon, the Republican governor of Kansas who lost in a landslide to Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1936 presidential election. A grouping of items from Starzmann’s massive collection of political pins was featured on the cover of a program for the 1976 Republican National Convention, held in Kansas City.
Meanwhile, in Independence
Permanent exhibits at The Truman Library & Museum include Truman: The Presidential Years and the personal Harry S. Truman: His Life and Times. Other programs are scheduled throughout the year.
Offered March 10-Dec. 31 is Saving the White House, which concerns the $5.7 million re-do of the Executive Mansion between 1949 and 1952. The venerable building had not been renovated since 1902 and structurally was severely damaged. The building remained operational during the 22 months of work.
The restoration followed the most enduring Truman tweak to 1900 Pennsylvania Avenue: The 1948 addition of the second-floor balcony overlooking the South Lawn. Though the balcony was aesthetically controversial at the time, the White House Museum (whitehousemuseum.org) notes that it “was an improvement in both form and function.”
More information: raymondstarzmann.com,trumanlibrary.org
Presidential libraries in 2017
There are 13 presidential libraries/museums in operation, for each president from Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) to George W. Bush (2001-2009). Those that have announced special exhibitions in 2017 include:
• Herbert Hoover, West Branch, Iowa.America’s Road: The Journey of Route 66 (Jan. 28-March 26). hoover.archives.gov
• Dwight D. Eisenhower, Abiline, Kan.Eisenhower and the Great War (about Ike’s experiences in World War I, March 2017 - March 2018); Chisholm Trail 150th: The Cowtown that Raised a President (April 2017 - May 2018). eisenhower.archives.gov
• John F. Kennedy, Boston. Centennial of JFK’s birth includes JFK at 100: Milestones and Mementos (May 2017-May 2018). jfklibrary.org
• Gerald R. Ford, Grand Rapids, Mich.SPACE: A Journey to Our Future is about the past, present and future of space exploration (through May 29). fordlibrarymuseum.gov
• Jimmy Carter, Atlanta.Countdown to Zero: Defeating Disease delves into efforts to eradicate diseases worldwide (through Oct. 9). jimmycarterlibrary.gov
• Ronald Reagan, Simi Valley, Calif.Interactive! The Exhibition – How Pop Culture Reshapes Technology (through April 16). reaganlibrary.gov/museum
• William J. Clinton, Little Rock, Ark.Ladies and Gentlemen: The Beatles! (through April 2). clintonlibrary.gov