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The First Lady of a Great War Hero and American President - A Guest Post



A Guest Post by M. B. Zucker


Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower were married for over half-a-century. Theirs was one of the great love stories of the American presidency. They travelled the world, were successful parents, and acted as the nation’s grandparents-in-chief in the 1950s. Their marriage had challenges, as all do. But Ike said that of all the decisions he made, including the Normandy invasion and running for President, marrying Mamie was the best one of his life.


Mamie was comfortable with who she was and had little internal conflict. She deeply respected Ike and valued her marriage more than anything else. This seemed outdated to the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s but she relished in her femininity and old-fashioned values. When asked what she thought of the women’s liberation movement she replied, “I never knew what a woman would want to be liberated from.”


In 1915, America and Mexico were on the brink of war. Lieutenant Dwight Eisenhower, a recent West Point graduate, was transferred to Fort Sam Houston. He was known as the “woman hater” of the post, reflecting his bitterness of being rejected by Gladys Harding, a schoolmate from Abilene. He met Mamie when she and her friend visited the fort. Ike was busy with his daily duties but invited Mamie to accompany him. She accepted.



Mamie was attracted to his reputation as a “woman hater” and by his Midwestern ruggedness. He was attracted to her looks, describing her as “vivacious, attractive, and saucy about the face.” They were an attraction of opposites. She came from a wealthy family of all girls. He came from a poor family of all boys. He called her the next day but she was busy with another man. He remained persistent for the next weeks until her father told her to give Ike attention. Ike paid for their dates with his poker winnings. Mamie’s parents were fond of Ike. Ike and Mamie spent more time with her family, in Denver, than they did with his family, in Abilene. He called Mamie’s mom “Mother.”


He proposed to her on Valentines Day, 1916. He told her “the country will always come first. You will come second.” They agreed to wait to get married, per her father’s request. But America was on the brink of entering World War I and Ike suspected he would be deployed overseas, so they married on July 20, 1916. The war dominated the first years of their marriage. Ike did not go overseas but spent the war training tank units in Gettysburg. He feared for her safety on the army post. He showed her how to use a .45 caliber for protection, but realized she wouldn’t be able to.


Their first son, Doud Dwight (nicknamed Icky) was born on September 24, 1917. This brought happiness to both parents. Ike showed Icky off to his fellow soldiers at every opportunity. He became Camp Meade’s private mascot. 1920 became a golden period for the new family. The war was over and they were together. But the tranquility was shattered when Icky came down with Scarlet Fever later in the year. Ike was at his bedside when Icky died on January 2, 1921. Ike described it as “the greatest disaster and disappointment of my life.” The marriage lost its innocence. Ike threw himself into his work. They recovered from this crisis, partially through having a second son, John, on August 3, 1922. Ike sent Mamie yellow flowers (Icky’s favorite color) on the anniversary of Icky’s birthday every year for the duration of his life. They only spoke of Icky in positive terms. Throughout Ike's life, “he regularly expressed grief over the loss of Icky as if it were still fresh, even many decades later. Ann Whitman recalled walking into the Oval Office one day to find him staring into space. He told her he was thinking about his little boy.”


Ike and Mamie’s marriage faced additional crises when he was posted in Panama in the early 1920s and the Philippines in the mid-1930s. She was uncomfortable in both countries’ environments. She left Panama for a few months and did not go to the Philippines for a year. But in both cases she ultimately returned to Ike and remained committed to their marriage. In Panama, she led an effort of army wives to care for the sick. Mamie disliked the Philippines’ paternalistic culture, despite her Victorian values.


Jealousy raised its ugly head on several occasions. She had socialized in the year while she and John were in DC and Ike was in the Philippines. Ike said, “I gather I have grounds for a divorce if I want one,” once they reconciled, showing his jealousy. She, in turn, disliked that Ike played golf with Marian Huff, the wife of a naval officer on MacArthur’s staff. Mamie also distressed over rumors of Ike’s affair with Kay Summersby, his driver during World War II. Finally, Mamie was distrustful of Ann Whitman, Ike’s personal secretary as president. There is no evidence of unfaithfulness in their marriage, despite these mutual suspicions.


Ike, Mamie, and John went to Paris as Ike worked for General Pershing in the late 1920s. Mamie enjoyed this experience, despite a scary episode while driving through the Swiss Alps.


Mamie spent World War II with a group of Army wives in Washington, DC. Her husband’s new fame brought her a flood of fan letters. She responded to every letter she received. She and Ike wrote to each other throughout the war. After their deaths, John published Ike’s letters in a volume titled Letters to Mamie. Ike told Mamie not to worry about his personal safety during the war. He was doing his duty. He wrote a letter for her in the case of his death:



“Darling girl —

I hope you never have to read this note - because it’s kept in an envelope that is to be opened only in case of accident to me. But if such should happen you will receive, this way, at least one more assurance that I love you only - that I have been the most fortunate of men in having you for my wife, and that I’m proud of our son. I love him so much that I follow every word he writes to me with curious intensity. He is what he is, only because he had you for a mother. So do not grieve - if I go out in this war, I hope I will have left a name of which you need not be ashamed, and that it will be universally acknowledged that I did my duty to the best of my ability. Spend no time in mourning - you can still make a number of people happy in this world - and that’s the surest road to your own happiness. With all my love always - your lover for all these years.”


They reunited in 1945. The photographers missed their kiss, but Ike refused to pose for another. The years of separation and command made Ike emotionally independent. It took time to meld back into a couple. Mamie said that letting Ike get his way was the easiest way to avoid problems.


Mamie advised him during his presidential campaign. She was politically more conservative than him and she told him when his speeches were out of character. The New York Times said Mamie was worth fifty electoral votes. Mamie spoke at the Black Republican Club as First Lady. She strongly supported Ike’s decision to intervene at Little Rock and refused to attend exclusively white clubs.


One aid explained their marriage as “openly affectionate. He always knew the right sentimental touch. It was perfectly natural for President Eisenhower to reach over and put his arm around Mrs. Ike as he called her. Having shared their home with staff for so many years, they didn't seem to mind if we observed them holding hands or exchanging a goodbye kiss. They simply ignored us.”


They retired to Gettysburg. She loved the farm. Ike said, “Well, Mamie, if you like it, buy it.” Mamie never interfered in Ike’s work or talked to him about politics. He left his work at the office so they could enjoy their time together. They enjoyed each other’s company. Mamie said she liked to reach out and “pat Ike on his old bald head anytime I want to.”


Ike wrote Mamie of his ideal lifestyle: “I always picture a little place away from the cities (but with someone near enough for occasional bridge) and the two of us just getting brown in the sun (and possibly thick in the middle). A dozen cats and dogs, with a horse or two, maybe a place to fish (not too strenuously) and a field in which to shoot a few birds once in a while - I think that's roughly my idea of a good life.”


Mamie outlived him by ten years. She supported the Nixon family during the Watergate scandal and remained popular until her death in 1979.


 


Get M. B. Zucker's book "The Eisenhower Chronicles" today!

 

Sources:


Eisenhower: In War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith


Mrs. Ike by Susan Eisenhower

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