Updated date:

Mamie Eisenhower: First Lady of the United States

Author:

My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and “how-to” topics. I have written over sixty books.

Mamie Eisenhower, 1953.

Mamie Eisenhower, 1953.

Early Years

Mary Geneva, or “Mamie” as she was called, was the second of four daughters. Born on November 14, 1896, in Boone, Iowa, Mamie was the daughter of a prosperous meatpacking executive, John Shelton Doud, and his wife Elivera Mathilda. Elivera’s family, the Carlsons, had recently immigrated to America from Sweden and Swedish was spoken in the Doud house while Mamie was a child. When Mamie was around eight years old, the family moved to Colorado in hopes of improving the fragile health of her oldest sibling, Eleanor. John had become wealthy in the meatpacking business, allowing the family to summer in Colorado and spend the winters in San Antonio, Texas. Mamie’s comfortable upbringing allowed her to experience travel and the finer things in life. Her education was at public and private schools, though she was not an exceptional student. Rather than the study of the classics, she preferred to learn about managing money and business from her father. She was well-liked, fun-loving, and an outgoing young woman.

Marriage to Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower

With Mamie’s charm and popular personality, she had many young men who wanted to court her. At a chance meeting in 1915 while her family was visiting a friend at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, she met a very serious second lieutenant from Kansas named Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower. Mamie was sitting and visiting with a group of ladies outside the Officer’s Club. One of the ladies, Lulu Harris, the wife of Major Hunter Harris, spotted Ike coming out of his quarters and summoned him over for introductions. As Officer of the Day, Ike was on duty and only reluctantly came to greet Mrs. Hunter and her friends. Eisenhower, a West Point graduate, was all business, but Miss Doud caught his eye. He recalled she was “a vivacious and attractive girl, smaller than average, saucy in the look about her face and in her whole attitude.” According to their recounting of the meeting, their personal chemistry was immediate. She recalled the first introduction: “He was a bruiser…He’s about the handsomest male I have ever seen.” After the introduction, Ike asked her to make rounds about the base with him; as they walked the two talked and got to know each other. From then on, the young second lieutenant was a regular fixture at the Doud household.

Eisenhower, who had grown up rather poor in a working-class family in Abilene, Kansas, admired Mamie’s father’s success in business and enjoyed spending time at the Doud house. On Valentine’s Day 1916, Eisenhower proposed marriage to 19-year-old Mamie, and she accepted. John Doud liked Ike but withheld his blessing of the marriage until Ike agreed not to pursue a career in the Air Corps—it was just too dangerous according to Mr. Doud. Ike agreed, and the couple were married at her parent’s house in Denver on July 1, 1916. After the wedding, the couple had a brief honeymoon in Eldorado Springs, in the mountains west of Denver. Next the newlyweds boarded a train bound for Abilene, Kansas, for a visit with Ike’s family.

Mr. and Mrs. Dwight Eisenhower in 1916.

Mr. and Mrs. Dwight Eisenhower in 1916.

Life as an Army Officer’s Wife

On their wedding day, Ike was promoted to lieutenant. Mamie learned quickly that her husband took his military career very seriously. Early on, he told her in no uncertain terms, “Mamie, there’s one thing you must understand. My country comes first and always will. You come second.” Years later when her husband was famous, she told a reporter, “I knew from the day I married Ike that he would be a great soldier…He was always dedicated, serious and purposeful about his job. Nothing came before his duty. I was forced to match his spirit of personal sacrifice as best I could. Being his wife meant I must leave him free from personal worries to conduct his career as he saw fit.” Mrs. Eisenhower faithfully supported her husband’s career, enduring long separations and bouts of loneliness. As an ambitious army officer, Ike was on the move and so was she, with the couple living in over 30 homes in several states as well as Panama, France, and the Philippines. Many of the homes were small, as the pay of an army officer was too little to support the lifestyle she had grown accustomed in her youth. The frequent moves and extended absences from her husband and family took a toll on her as she suffered from the seclusion. Her husband proved too often to be unsupportive, preferring to spend his time off with his buddies gambling late into the night. Mamie dealt with the isolation the best she could, finding solace in other military wives and making extended trips back to her parent’s house for the comfort and support she needed.

The Children

In late September 1917, the Eisenhowers welcomed their first child into the family, a little boy named Doud Dwight; they called him “Ikey.” The baby greatly boosted her mood and brought the couple closer together, easing some of the frustration she felt with the role of an officer’s wife. Their joy turned to tragedy just after Christmas of 1920 when three-year-old Ikey contracted scarlet fever, possibly from a maid who had just recovered from the disease. A specialist from nearby John Hopkins was consulted, and according to the doctor, “We have no cure for this…Either they get well, or you lose them.” Due to the contagious nature of scarlet fever, Ikey was quarantined in the hospital. Eisenhower recalled that terrible time: “The doctors did not allow me into his room…But there was a porch on which I was allowed to sit, and I could look into the room and wave to him. Occasionally, they would let me come to the door just to speak to Ikey. I haunted the halls of the hospital. Hour after hour, Mamie and I could only hope and pray.” Ikey held on for another ten days before the disease took him in the early morning hours of January 2, 1921.

The couple was devastated, with Ike nearly having a nervous breakdown. Mamie recalled of that dark period, “For a long time, it was as if a shining light had gone out of Ike’s life. Throughout all the years that followed, the memory of those bleak days was a deep inner pain that never seemed to diminish much.” For months afterward, they tormented themselves with questions of what they could have done better to treat their sick child. The death of their son, rather than drawing them closer with their common loss, drove each of them into their own private world of sorrow. Years later, a friend of theirs in Gettysburg lamented, “Neither of them ever forgot, not even a half century later.” For the rest of his life, Ike sent his wife a bouquet of yellow roses, Ikey’s favorite color, each year on the boy’s birthday.

A second son was born to the Eisenhowers in 1922, which did much to calm their anxiety over the loss of their first son and helped to bring them back as a couple. Eisenhower wrote years later, “John did much to fill the gap that we felt so poignantly and so deeply every day of our lives since the death of our first son.” Mamie was naturally very protective of her new son, but Ike could never bring himself to be playful and openly affectionate with John as he had been with Ikey. John would follow in his father’s footsteps and attended West Point Military Academy. He served in the military for 30 years, rising to the rank of Brigadier General. After retirement from the army, he became a noted author of several history books.

Doud “Ikey” with his parents, Mamie and Dwight.

Doud “Ikey” with his parents, Mamie and Dwight.

World War II

During the years after World War I and before the start of World War II, Eisenhower’s military career began to take shape. After extended periods of service in Panama and the Philippines, Ike and Mamie returned to San Antonio where he became the chief of staff of the Third Army. After 25 years of marriage, the couple was back in the place where their relationship began. By now, Eisenhower had risen to the rank of Colonel, which afforded them nicer living quarters and other perks. Since war had broken out in Europe due to the aggression of the Germans under Adolf Hitler, Ike and Mamie were keenly aware that the US would be dragged into the war at any time. That fateful day came as Mamie sat knitting and listening to the radio and the announcer broke in: “Pearl Harbor—Japanese planes attacking.” About that time their phone rang, Ike answered and after he hung up, he excitedly told her, “The Japs have hit us…That’s it—that’s war.” A few days later Eisenhower was summoned to Washington to put America on a war footing with Japan, Germany, and their allies.

The war meant very different things to each of them. For him, it ultimately brought him the highest rank possible, that of five-star general and the title of Commanding General of U.S. Forces in Europe. For her, the war meant three long years of only seeing him once. Mamie spent much of the war years living in Wardman Park Hotel in Washington. There she was lonely, with Ike in Europe leading the war effort and John in school at West Point. Her health suffered, and she spent days in bed with colds, headaches, stomach problems, and dizzy spells brought on by an inner ear problem. She later wrote of the war years, “I came to feel that God was not going to let anything happen to Ike until he had done what he was intended to do.”

There was one bright spot in January 1944 when Eisenhower was able to return to the states on leave. During this short respite, they traveled to West Point to see their son at school, and then vacationed in a cottage in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. When he left to return to the war she told him, “Don’t come back again till it’s over, Ike. I can’t stand losing you again.” She later wrote of their parting, “I said goodbye to him and thought my heart would break.”

Ike’s Affair?

After Eisenhower arrived in London in 1942, rumors about an affair between Ike and an attractive young Englishwoman named Kay Summersby, who was one of his jeep drivers began to circulate. It didn’t take long before Mamie began to hear rumors of the affair in Washington. She wrote her husband with the stories she had heard about him and the young woman. He denied the allegations, answering her that he had “never been in love with anyone but you.” In February 1943 he wrote her, “You must realize that in such a confused life as we lead here all sorts of stories, gossip, lies, etc., can get started without the slightest foundation in fact.” Mamie tried to get the rumors about Miss Summersby out of her mind, telling a friend, “Of course I don’t believe it.”

After Ike’s death in 1969, rumors of the affair took on a life of their own. The story was bolstered by remarks made by Harry S. Truman, Eisenhower’s political foe, in the book Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman by Merle Miller. The book, which came out after Truman’s death, was based on a series of interviews with Truman by Miller in 1961 and 1962. Miller claimed, according to Truman, that in June 1945 Eisenhower took steps to divorce Mamie and marry Kay. As the story goes, the Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall caught wind of Ike’s intentions and sent him a very stern letter threatening to “bust him out of the army” if he followed through with the divorce. The supposed letter has never been found. This revelation from the book caught Kay Summersby off guard. In her 1948 book, Ike Was My Boss, she mentions neither romance nor a proposal of marriage. Ultimately, we will never know the truth behind the rumors; the only thing we know for sure is that the Summersby incident created a painful period in the marriage of Mamie and Dwight Eisenhower.

The Presidential Campaign of 1952

After the end of World War II, Eisenhower was one of the best-known men in the world. With such fame came offers from both Democrats and Republicans to support him as a contender in the 1952 presidential election. Mamie didn’t want her husband to enter politics, realizing that if he were elected to the nation’s highest office, he would be under tremendous pressure. As always, however, she supported her husband’s decision, telling him, “Honey, it’s your decision. My job will be the same as always—to take care of you and our home.” Ike had always been conservative in nature and went with the Republican Party, becoming a contender for the party’s nomination as their presidential candidate. Just before the Republican Convention in June, a Committeewoman told Mamie, “You must get into the picture.” Mamie’s natural charm and personality made her a real asset for Eisenhower’s campaign.

After winning the party’s nomination, he launched his campaign tour. Like his predecessor Harry Truman had done, his campaign featured a train tour of the major cities of the country. At each of the whistle stops, after his short speech from the rear platform of the train he would announce, “And now I want you to meet my Mamie.” As the people gathered around, she would sign autographs and shake hands; she fed off the energy of the crowds. The New York Times columnist James Reston wrote of her, “Mamie must be worth at least 50 electoral votes.” Eisenhower, along with his vice-presidential running mate Richard Nixon, handily beat the Democratic ticket, which ran Adlai Stevenson as the presidential candidate.

The First Lady of the United States

After Ike and Mamie moved into the White House in January 1953, many expected the new First Lady to become outspoken and politically active like Eleanor Roosevelt, but they were sorely disappointed. Mamie has been described as one of the least political First Ladies of the 20th century. Though she stayed away from politics, leaving that up to Ike, she ran the White House with steely efficiency. White House Chief Usher J.B. West described Mrs. Eisenhower’s style: “As wife of a career army officer she understood the hierarchy of a large establishment, the division of responsibilities, and how to direct a staff. She knew exactly what she wanted, every moment, and exactly how it should be done. And she could give orders, staccato crisp, and detailed, and final, as if it were she who had been a five-star general. She established her White House command immediately.”

Mamie could be as demanding as a drill sergeant when it came to running the White House, but she also went out of her way to a take a personal interest in the staff. She spent much of her time talking to the staff, knew all their names, and wanted to know about their families, homes, and health. She kept a “birthday calendar,” celebrating each of their birthdays with cake and a present. One White House staffer commented, “She wanted to be everybody’s godmother.” Christmas was always a special time in the White House for the Eisenhowers. The First Lady spent days gathering and wrapping gifts for every one of the staff. She said, “It’s been my desire all my life to be able to give a Christmas gift to everyone who works for me!”

As the wife of the president, Mamie chose not the role of a political advisor, but rather that of a mate who provided a comfortable and loving home for her husband. She often stated she had “only one career, and his name is Ike.” The president himself summed up her role in the White House, writing years later: “I personally think that Mamie’s biggest contribution was to make the White House livable, comfortable, and meaningful for the people who came in. She was always helpful and ready to do anything. She exuded hospitality. She saw that as one of her functions and performed it, no matter how tired she was. In the White House, you need intelligence and charm—to make others glad to be around you. She had that ability.”

Ike’s Health Problems

Like Mamie’s, Ike’s health had always been a bit precarious. He had been a heavy smoker in his early years and that weighed heavily on his health. In September 1955, he suffered a heart attack while they were vacationing in Colorado. The heart attack came near the end of his term in office, at the point where he needed to announce his decision to run for a second term. Mamie was adamant that he not run for a second term; however, he made a rapid recovery and the doctors as well as his key advisors convinced her that it would be better for him to keep busy rather than going into retirement. During his recovery, Mamie cared for her husband, creating a sense of normalcy or “home” in the White House. She worked with his staff to reduce his schedule, improve his diet, and establish a secluded room upstairs for him to enjoy his hobby of painting.

During the presidential election of 1956, the Democrats used his poor health as a key element in their campaign. Mamie told a friend “I just can’t believe that his work is finished,” he “still had a job to do.” He easily won re-election but a year later suffered a mild stroke. Once again Mamie nursed him back to health, allowing him to complete his second term. In the meantime, her own health problems were starting to become more acute. She was frequently weak, leaving her exhausted throughout her second term as First Lady.

The Eisenhower family gathers for a birthday party. From left to right round the table: John Eisenhower, Dwight Eisenhower, Mamie Eisenhower, Barbara Eisenhower, unidentified clown, David Eisenhower with back to camera.

The Eisenhower family gathers for a birthday party. From left to right round the table: John Eisenhower, Dwight Eisenhower, Mamie Eisenhower, Barbara Eisenhower, unidentified clown, David Eisenhower with back to camera.

Retirement

The town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the Civil War battlefield there had always been a special place for both Eisenhowers. In 1950, the couple bought their first home, a farmhouse on 189 acres adjacent to the battlefield. During their years in office, they supervised the renovation of the home and property. On weekends, they would get away to their farm, where they would entertain family and friends. It was here that the Eisenhowers went for retirement. Ike hunted, fished, painted, golfed, oversaw the dairy farm, and worked on his memoirs. While Mamie kept busy overseeing the household in her usual efficient and economical manner. She made a point of taking care of his health, ensuing he had a proper diet, exercise, and rest.

In July 1966, the Eisenhowers celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. Mamie told a reporter her thoughts on having a long and successful marriage: “You must work at it. Young women today want to prove something, but all they have to prove is that they can be a good wife, housekeeper, and mother. There should be only one head of the family—the man.” Just two years later, Ike had another heart attack, putting him in Walter Reed Hospital in Washington. He spent his remaining months in the hospital with Mamie at his side. After his death at age 78 in March 1969, Mamie returned to Gettysburg to live for the next several years. When Ike died, she told a family member, “The light went out of my life.” During her remaining years, she seldom made public appearances. Every year she visited his grave in Abilene, Kansas, to celebrate his birthday. On the campus of Gettysburg College, not far from the farm, Mamie would often venture to see the statue of her husband, where she said, “I always speak to him when I pass it.” Mamie regularly attended graduation exercises at Eisenhower College in Seneca Falls, New York, and helped raise money for the liberal arts college. The college named the main academic building the Mamie Doud Eisenhower Hall in her honor. In late September 1979 she suffered a stroke and was rushed to Walter Reed Hospital. She died quietly in her sleep in the early hours of November 1, 1980, at age 82. Upon her death, President Jimmy Carter issued a statement in which he called her “a warm and gracious lady” who “carried out her public and private duties, despite a lifetime of fragile health, in a way that won her a special place in the hearts of Americans and of people all over the world.” She is buried alongside her husband at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas.

The main house of the Eisenhower Farm, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

The main house of the Eisenhower Farm, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

References

  • Boller, Paul F. Jr., Presidential Wives: An Anecdotal History. Revised Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Smith, Jean Edward. Eisenhower: In War and Peace. New York: Random House, 2012.
  • Smith, J.Y. “Mamie Eisenhower Dies at 82.” The Washington Post. November 2, 1979.
  • Swain, Susan and C-SPAN. First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women. New York: PublicAffairs, 2015.
  • Watson, Robert P. First Ladies of the United States: A Biographical Dictionary. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publications, Inc., 2001.
  • West, Doug. Dwight D. Eisenhower: A Short Biography: 34th President of the United States. Missouri: C&D Publications, 2021.

Comments

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on August 06, 2021:

absolutely!

Doug West (author) from Missouri on August 06, 2021:

I like Ike and Mamie too. We need more people like them in the White House.

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on August 05, 2021:

Dough, such a heartwarming article. They were always one of my special White House residents. Mamie worshipped Ike even through the bad times. Both were kind, generous, and lovable. Thanks for your article.

Related Articles