The Myth of Ike and Kay Summersby: Part 1
The recent revelation of an extramarital affair between retired general and now former CIA director, David Petraeus and his biographer, Paula Broadwell, has predictably led to references to similar affairs by other famous generals.
The usual example cited in various media is the alleged affair during World War II between Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and his Irish-born driver and supposed paramour, Kay Summersby. An essay about Petraeus in the December 17, 2012 New Yorker by Dexter Filkins responsibly refers to Ike’s “long-alleged affair with his World War II chauffeur, Kay Summersby.” However, this is the exception: most writers take for granted that the affair existed and do not hesitate to assert the allegation.
Scandals involving famous people are the fodder that newspapers, TV, magazines and (particularly) scandal rags subsist on. In the case of Dwight Eisenhower, who was not only one of World War II’s most famous figures, but also our 34th president, the revelation of any new scandal involving a military officer almost immediately draws comparisons with Ike and Kay. It would be a fair contrast only if it were true.
Once unleashed, myths are difficult if not impossible to shatter. The lingering controversy over the alleged affair between Ike and Kay Summersby has evolved from juicy gossip into folklore.
The circumstances surrounding how they even met are as obscure as the truth behind their wartime relationship.
By the spring of 1942, Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall had become increasingly concerned about the inertia of the U.S. observer group in London. Created in 1941 to liaise with the British, and re-designated U.S. Army Forces in the British Isles after Pearl Harbor, it was commanded by an Air Corps officer, Major General James E. Chaney.
Marshall returned from attending a conference in London in April 1942 disturbed by the fact that there seemed to be a complete lack of understanding of the mission of the U.S. in the United Kingdom. It was time for action, not apathy. Marshall summoned Eisenhower, the chief of the War Plans Division, and instructed him to visit London and report back on the situation.
Eisenhower’s journey the following month required flying a tortuous, roundabout route via Montreal, Gander, Newfoundland and Prestwick, Scotland, where he spent a day inspecting a fleet of various new amphibious landing craft and conferring with a British division commander. The following evening Eisenhower’s party completed the final leg by train to London’s Paddington Station. They arrived in a dense fog, where a half-dozen staff cars awaited their arrival at one end of the platform. Each was driven by one of a group of civilian drivers engaged by Chaney’s observer group to chauffeur members of his organization and visiting officers. Driving duties were randomly assigned by the motor pool and one of the drivers that day was a pretty young Irishwoman named Kay Summersby who was disappointed to be handed a dispatch to drive an obscure major general named Eisenhower.
To be assigned an officer of high rank was considered a mark of prestige (and snobbery) among the drivers. Thanks to the foul weather, Kay and the other drivers had been waiting for nearly three days for the visiting Americans to arrive. As Kay and the others awaited them, the visitors suddenly all piled into U.S. Ambassador John G. Winant’s limousine, leaving five tired and angry drivers with empty vehicles to follow them to the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square.
The last in line after returning to Grosvenor Square later that day, Summersby noticed two American generals walking away from the Embassy. She rushed over and asked if one of them was General Eisenhower. When Eisenhower and his companion, Major General Mark Clark, introduced themselves, Kay announced she was their assigned driver for the duration of their visit. They asked to be driven to their quarters in Claridge’s Hotel. Upon their arrival, Eisenhower politely thanked her and requested she present herself again at nine A.M. the following morning.
Exhausted, steaming and convinced that as a mere two-star, Eisenhower was merely another flunky general of no importance, Kay drove away muttering to herself that she had driven them “exactly two blocks, after waiting three days for that trip.” It had been her first innocuous and unremarkable introduction to a man whose name would be notoriously, but wrongly linked with hers throughout the remainder of both their lives.
Kay Summersby drove Ike throughout his first brief visit to London but when he returned to Washington prior to his eventual permanent assignment to England by Marshall she became the driver for Major General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, the commanding general of the newly formed U.S. Eighth Air Force.
Upon Eisenhower’s return to London in June he put pressure on Spaatz to have Summersby assigned as his driver. Indeed, Spaatz was dismayed when Eisenhower threatened to take Kay Summersby away from him. “She’s the only driver I’ve found who really knows London,” Spaatz complained, to no avail. Nor was Kay particularly enthused about giving up her job driving Spaatz and the congeniality of air force life, in no small part because it afforded her ample free time for dalliances in London with her lover, a married American army officer. Spaatz soon lost the battle to retain Summersby who was transferred to become the latest member of Eisenhower’s unofficial “family at his headquarters at No. 20 Grosvenor Square.”
A vivacious redhead, Mrs. Kathleen Summersby was a member of the Auxiliary Transport Corps (ATC), British civilians hired to drive Americans in Britain. Born Kathleen McCarthy-Morrogh in Ireland’s County Cork to a self-described “sheltered life” of privilege as one the four daughters of a retired cavalry officer who had spent most of his career in West Africa before returning home to marry a convent-educated young Englishwoman. “The only tragedy which could becloud life in those days was a sudden Irish thunderstorm – because it might spoil my lovely tennis party,” she recalled.
Her parents separated when Kathleen was a teenager and she moved to London with her mother. A model in London in 1939 for Worth’s of Paris, Kay, as she was called, had held a variety of jobs, including bit roles in films. She was a self-described dilettante qualified to do little more than pour tea correctly and ride a horse. With the advent of war, Kay did what many proper young women of her social status did; she joined the Motor Transport Corps, a group of volunteer drivers. Their lives changed dramatically with the coming of the Blitz in 1940. Kay drove an ambulance in the borough of Lambeth, a prime target of the Luftwaffe. The Blitz was a horrific wake-up call where death and destruction became as commonplace “as a cigarette.”
Almost nothing is known of Kay’s marriage to a British army officer named Gordon Summersby. She claims only that she had tried and failed at marriage, (“All play and no work turned out to be a very dull way of life”), not bothering to mention that her husband was serving with the British Army in India and had filed for divorce because of her affair with Richard Roberts Arnold, a 1932 graduate of West Point and a major in the Corps of Engineers, serving in the observer group. The two had met and fallen in love when Kay became a driver for Major Arnold.
Their affair had commenced well before Eisenhower arrived in London. At the time she began driving for Eisenhower, Kay was still married to Major Summersby and seeing her American lover whenever circumstances permitted. According to Kay, Arnold’s wife had agreed to a divorce so he could marry her, and she had eagerly accepted.
One of the persistent rumors that has dogged Eisenhower’s reputation since his death was the unproven but lingering allegation of a wartime affair with Kay Summersby. However, as will be seen, the foundation of their so-called affair is a house of cards that relies solely on an improbable Missouri tale related by an aging and increasingly senile former President, Harry S. Truman, to a gullible journalist, and on a posthumous memoir purported to have been written by Kay Summersby before her death from cancer in January 1976.
Part II will reveal more about the wartime relationship between Eisenhower and Kay Summersby.