With Ike, Rumors Were Steamier Than Facts
By Gil Troy
Some reporters have blithely included Gen. Eisenhower on their list, citing a wartime affair with his driver, Kay Summersby. In fact, the evidence has always been murky and many historians now doubt that Eisenhower and Summersby had a sexual relationship.
For much of the three years he led the Allied forces during World War II, Eisenhower lived in Telegraph Cottage, a villa south of London, with a colorful cast of characters. The multiethnic crew included a New York Irishman (Mickey McKeogh), a black valet (John Moaney), an Irish driver (Kay Summersby) and a Scotty pup (Telek). Portrayals of Eisenhower's wartime household enhanced the image of the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Western Europe as a father figure protecting millions of GIs. Unfortunately, the more reporters played up the domestic angle in covering Eisenhower's entourage, the more his wife, Mamie, stewed back home in Washington.
Eisenhower clearly took a shine to the wispy Kay Summersby. In correspondence, he talked of his "rather lonely life" abroad and how he yearned for "feminine companionship." The witty, gay, aristocratic Summersby may have reminded Ike of the Mamie he met in 1916. Almost three decades later, Mamie was frail, Kay was vigorous; Mamie was 3,000 miles away, Kay was next door. In her memoirs, Kay would recall Eisenhower saying to her: "Kay, there's nobody . . . I can talk to freely. They all ask to be promoted, or if I talk to the wrong person, what I say is reported all over the world. I know that I can let my thoughts flow with you." There was speculation on both sides of the Atlantic about a sexual relationship, but one general tried to quiet down the gossip by saying, "Leave Kay and Ike alone. She's helping him win the war."
Mrs. Eisenhower always said that nothing untoward happened between her husband and his chauffeur. Reacting years later to gossip about the relationship, she told one friend, "Of course, I don't believe it. I know Ike." But during the war, Ike had to reassure her repeatedly. "I love you all the time," he wrote her in February 1943. "Don't go bothering your pretty head about WAACs -- etc. etc." In another letter, he moped in the age-old lament of husbands, whether innocent or guilty, "apparently you don't choose to believe anything I say."
When the war ended, Eisenhower retreated from Summersby. Kay, who had fallen for her boss after her American fiance died during the war, was shattered. In 1948, she published "Ike Was My Boss," a wholesome account of their relationship that described herself as his friend and colleague but did not intimate a sexual relationship.
The tone of the book fit with the ethos of the time. Throughout the war, the rumors about the general and his driver were relegated to hints in gossip columns or insinuations in articles that placed Kay prominently at his side. But reporters had no inclination to knock down the all-American hero they had created. Besides, talk of sexual affairs was not suitable for mainstream newspapers in the 1940s. America's fragile wartime morale was in no shape to sustain an honest conversation about illicit liaisons on the battle front or the home front.
Only later -- after the sexual revolution of the 1960s undermined many Americans' faith in the private probity of public figures -- did the Eisenhower-Summersby "affair" become a topic of widespread public conversation. In Merle Miller's 1973 bestseller "Plain Speaking," Harry Truman claimed that Ike planned to divorce Mamie to marry Kay. Three years later, desperate for cash as she lay dying, Kay wrote a second book, "Past Forgetting: My Love Affair with Dwight Eisenhower." Published posthumously under her married name, Kay Summersby Morgan, this version was a steamier account of their relationship -- describing a friendship that was more flirtatious, more intense and more intimate.
But significantly, even she said the "love affair" was "unconsummated" and made no mention of any plan for Ike to divorce. Nevertheless, an ABC miniseries in 1979 portrayed her as the general's mistress.
To counter these claims and perceptions, Ike's son John Eisenhower published his father's wartime letters to his mother. Ike's son acknowledged that "no one alive can say that isolated incidents as described by Mrs. Morgan did not happen." Still, he considered Summersby's stories exaggerated. He told his daughter Susan that he compared his father's relation ship with Summersby to Lou Grant's relationship with Mary Richards on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
Most historians, myself included, tend to agree with John Eisenhower. The available evidence makes it hard to believe that a man with Ike's sense of honor and concern about public appearances would court disaster with a wartime romance. He constantly worried about what he called, in his diary entries, "the danger of misapprehension or misunderstanding" of his actions. It is even harder to believe that he would be so cruel as to send his son John (then 22) to be his mistress's escort during Kay's visit to the United States and meeting with Mamie later in the war.
Men in positions of power like Eisenhower often had "surrogate" wives such as Summersby. In the White House, Ike's secretary Ann Whitman also triggered Mamie's jealously. For years, Whitman worked closely with "the boss" at great personal sacrifice, and ended up feeling abandoned by Eisenhower.
One can fault Eisenhower for being insensitive to appearances and for committing a kind of psychological adultery -- that is, for developing a relationship with Summersby that was certainly intense, even if it wasn't sexual. It is easy to imagine Eisenhower's situation in England: Lonely, overworked, in need of the kind of grounding that many men of his generation received only from women, he turned to Summersby for companion ship and support. "Some men are so built that they like to have a different drag for every hop," Ike wrote elliptically to John in 1943. "I think the whole family from which you spring is a bit on the intense side and centers on one thing at a time, be it a girl, a horse, a game or just loafing." This stick-to-itiveness may have explained Ike's concentration on Kay as well as his fidelity to Mamie.
When the Eisenhowers entered the White House in 1953, they -- like all modern presidential couples -- recognized their role as America's leading family. Their desire to preserve this public image, as well as the intimate isolation of White House life, allowed them to repair whatever damage had been done to their relationship during what Mamie often called "my three years without Ike." When it became a matter of public discussion that the president and the first lady often slept in the same bed -- although they formally maintained separate bedrooms -- Mamie explained that she liked to be able to reach over in the middle of the night and "pat Ike on his old bald head anytime I want to."
Of course, reporters in the 1950s preferred to collaborate in building public fictions about the president rather than revealing private failings. The warm domestic image of "Ike and Mamie" laid the rumors of Ike and Kay to rest, and allowed Americans to see marriage as a remarkably resilient institution, able to ebb and flow, heal and thrive. Four decades later, the willingness to turn the uncertainties about Eisenhower and Summersby into fact says more about us than about him, and suggests that when presidents fail to act according to a higher standard, they can indeed damage the nation's moral fabric.
Gil Troy, chairman of the history department at McGill University in Montreal, is the author of "Affairs of State: The Rise and Rejection of the Presidential Couple Since World War II" (Free Press).
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