Son, Husband, Father
“The proudest thing I can say is that I am from Abilene.”
The Eisenhauers, of Mennonite descent, moved to Pennsylvania in 1741. Mennonites were pacifists but the family strongly opposed slavery and fought for the Union during the Civil War, settling in Kansas afterward. One of Ike’s uncles, Abraham Lincoln Eisenhower, was named for the family’s hero. (Korda, Ike: An American Hero)
David Eisenhower and Ida Elizabeth Stover met at Lane University, an evangelical college in Kansas. They married and had seven sons: Arthur, Edgar, David Dwight (later Dwight David, the future statesman), Roy, Paul (died in infancy), Earl, and Milton. (Korda, Ike: An American Hero)
Ike was born during a thunderstorm in Denison, Texas, on October 14, 1890. Lightning struck the ground the moment he was born. Ida, a pacifist, took this to mean that her son would become a great warrior. The family returned to Abilene, Kansas, when Ike was one year old. (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
David, Ike’s father, was stoic, humorless, and quick to take offense. Little affection was passed between David and his sons. Arthur said David was absent even when he was home. Ike inherited his father’s stubbornness and temper. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
Ida, Ike’s mother, was more outgoing. She was the central figure of Ike’s early life.
Religion was important for the family. David began every morning reading scripture to his sons. They prayed before every meal. Every son had to read a Bible passage in the evening. None of the sons maintained their parents’ strict faith as adults. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
The family visited Ida’s relatives in Topeka when Ike was five years old. He wandered to a nearby barn but was blocked by a large goose. He cried until his uncle tossed him a broom. Ike wiped away the tears, smacked the goose, which ran away, and advanced into the barn. Ike said the incident taught him to “negotiate from a position of strength.” (Eisenhower, At Ease)
Ike was playing with a knife as a child. He placed it on a windowsill, out of reach of Earl, his three-year-old brother. But Earl reached for the knife and dropped it onto his eye. Ike never forgave himself for not being more careful and remained nervous around sharp objects, especially around children. (Eisenhower, At Ease)
David died a few weeks after Pearl Harbor. Ike was working for Army Chief George Marshall in the War Plans Division. He took half an hour to quietly reflect on his father and wrote a short eulogy. He did not attend the funeral. (Korda, Ike: An American Hero)
Ida died in 1946. When asked after the war if she was proud of her son she replied, “Which one?” (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
Ike disapproved of his home in Abilene being called “Childhood Home of Dwight Eisenhower” after the war. He had the name changed to “Home of the Eisenhower Brothers.”
She 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.” (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike)
The US and Mexico went to the brink of war in 1915. Lieutenant Dwight Eisenhower, a recent West Point graduate, was transferred to Fort Sam Houston in case of war. 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. (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike)
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.” (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike)
They were an attraction of opposites. She came from a wealthy family of all girls. He came from a poor family of all boys. (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike)
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. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
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.” (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike)
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. (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike)
World War I 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. (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike)
Their first son, Doud Dwight (nicknamed Icky) was born on September 24, 1917. This brought great 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. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
Ike and Mamie 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 take care of the sick. Mamie disliked the Philippines’ paternalistic culture, despite her Victorian values. (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike)
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. (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike)
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 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:
They reunited in 1945. The photographers missed their kiss, but Ike refused to pose for another. (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike)
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. (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike)
Mamie was politically more conservative than Ike and helped him campaign for the presidency. She told him when his speeches were out of character. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
The New York Times said Mamie was worth fifty electoral votes. (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike)
Mamie spoke at the Black Republican Club. She strongly supported Ike’s decision to intervene at Little Rock and refused to attend exclusively white clubs. (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike)
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.” (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike)
Mamie’s time in Panama, France, and the Philippines meant she was one of the best-traveled First Ladies in American history. She entertained more heads of state than any previous administration. (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike)
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.” (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike)
Mamie outlived him by ten years. She supported the Nixon family during the Watergate scandal and remained popular until her death in 1979. (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike)
When Mamie went into labor with John, Ike was so excited that he stepped on the gas and nothing happened. Mamie, in the back seat, said, “Ike, you have to start the ignition.” (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike) John’s birth helped heal some of the wounds left by Icky’s death.
Ike was a strict disciplinarian with John. John began his memoir saying, “I am certain I was born standing at attention.” (Thomas, Ike’s Bluff)
John often went to church by himself when Ike and Mamie slept in on Sunday mornings. (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike)
John once upset Ike by buying a parrot as a pet. Ike exploded, “There’s nothing I hate worse than parrots and monkeys!” He scowled whenever the parrot made a sound. Mamie resolved the crisis by finding it a new home. (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike)
John went to West Point to follow in his father’s footsteps. He graduated on June 6, 1944, overshadowed by his father.
John served in Europe late in World War II. He fought in the Korean War, was his dad’s aide during the White House years, and served as America’s ambassador to Belgium under President Nixon. John remained a Republican until endorsing John Kerry in 2004.
John married Barbara Thompson in 1947. They had four children. Ike and Mamie were warm to Barbara. Mamie never criticized her as a mother. (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike)
John and Barbara had four children: David, Barbara Ann, Susan, and Mary Jane.
When the second child was a girl, Ike and John strongly voiced their disappointment. Mamie was furious, “Ike and John, quit talking that way, why God will strike you dead! The baby is healthy and beautiful. Shame on you!” Ike agreed but said that he and John had wanted to build a football team and a girl was not part of the plan. (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike)
Ike enjoyed his grandchildren’s company, including while he was president. He once overheard David and Barbara Anne when they were in the Lincoln Bedroom. “This is President Lincoln’s bed,” David said. Barbara Anne protested, “That man isn’t President. Ike is President!” Ike told this story to Edgar, his brother, saying, “by the time they are eight, they will probably be candidates for the Ph.D.’s.” (Newton, Eisenhower: The White House Years)
Ike studied what his grandchildren studied in school so they couldn’t teach him anything. He quizzed them on their schoolwork and financially rewarded them for good grades. (David Eisenhower, Going Home to Glory)
Ike offered David $100 to cut his long hair before his wedding to Julie Nixon. David got it cut, but Ike said it was still too long and refused to pay him. (David Eisenhower, Going Home to Glory)
Ike’s relationship with Kay Summersby, his driver and aid during World War II, is among the most debated topics by Eisenhower biographers.
There is no evidence to be certain about whether they had an affair or not. Ike’s family and Kay’s wartime friends said there was no romance. They said that Ike was friendly with his entire staff, and Kay was no exception, but that they were nothing more. (D’Este, Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life)
John said, “Dad would have made a lousy philanderer because he was so damned Victorian and moral. Sure he was attracted to vital women, but these were friendships, not affairs.” (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike)
Others disagree. This group suggests that they had a physical relationship and that there were two failed attempts to have sex but that Ike was unable to perform either time due to guilt or from normal issues that affect middle-aged men. A main source is Past Forgetting: My Love Affair with Dwight Eisenhower, a memoir published under Kay’s name but ghostwritten by Barbara Wyden. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
A fringe believes a story told by Harry Truman that Ike wrote to George Marshall at the end of World War II asking for permission to divorce Mamie and marry Kay. Marshall refused to give permission. Most Eisenhower biographers say that Truman was mistaken, and believe that Ike had actually asked for Marshall’s permission to bring Mamie to Europe once Germany had surrendered. Marshall refused this request to avoid appearances of favoritism. (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
President Roosevelt believed they were having an affair. General Bradley said Ike and Kay were in love but did not have sex. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
The most likely case is that Ike and Kay had an emotional affair, meaning that she fulfilled his emotional needs during the most stressful years of his life but they never consummated.
Ike curtly ended his relationship with Kay at the end of the war. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
Mamie believed Ike when he denied having an affair, saying she would have left him for doing so. But she was jealous at his entire wartime staff for fulfilling his emotional needs. (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike)