The Myth of Ike and Kay Summersby Part II
Behind all the rhetoric about Ike and Kay Summersby is this question: when, where or how, one can reasonably ask, could they have carried on an affair had they so chosen? Except when asleep, Eisenhower was constantly surrounded by a retinue of aides, friends, cooks, valets, drivers, WACs, visitors, hangers-on and others from whom such a relationship could not possibly have been hidden. During his time in England Eisenhower shared his suite in London’s Dorchester Hotel with his naval aide, Capt. Harry Butcher, and Ike’s retreat, Telegraph Cottage, just outside London, was simply not the place where one could carry on an affair, discreetly or otherwise. Ike’s friend, Major General Everett S. Hughes, kept a detailed wartime diary in which he made disparaging references to the behavior of both in 1943, but never actually claimed an affair occurred. In any case, Hughes was a notorious and unreliable gossip who carried on a long-running liaison of his own during the war.
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One of Eisenhower’s early visitors to his suite at the Dorchester was Kay’s mother who, according to her daughter’s own account, found a kindred soul in the American general’s love of military history. The two, she said, “hit it off beautifully,” and spent hours discussing the Civil War as Eisenhower diagrammed its battles on the dinner table using coins as the two chain smoked.
When Eisenhower took command in North Africa in late 1942, Kay accompanied him. Before long her frequent presence with Eisenhower became the object of considerable gossip. By early 1943, Ike’s wife Mamie was already hearing the name Kay Summersby all too regularly. Before long it had become a cross Mamie was obliged to bear. Photographs of her husband sometimes contained Kay in the background, and the mention of her name became like an angry sore. Rumors about the two that began circulating in Washington proliferated Mamie’s growing and profound sense of isolation. Whenever Kay was mentioned in one of Mamie’s letters, Ike was quick to pour cold water on any suggestion of impropriety.
Washington thrives on scandal and malicious gossip, the juicer the better. “Army cats of the worst sort, I know,” wrote Eisenhower’s postwar aide, Kevin McCann, “surrounded her, each of them intent on sinking their teeth into … [Mamie’s] heart.” While Mamie fully understood her husband’s perpetual need for off-duty social diversion as a means of relieving the immense pressures placed upon him, and had enough faith in their love to realize that it was unlikely there was a dalliance between the two, Mamie’s pride and her lonely exile in Washington as a “war widow” made Kay’s growing presence in Ike’s life, however innocent, all the more hurtful. Nor could she even acknowledge her critics, much less refute the gossip. As her granddaughter points out, “there is no doubt that she felt twinges of jealousy for everyone associated with Ike’s ‘official family.’ But whatever her feelings, she kept her own counsel.”
When Life magazine reported that Kay had been assigned to Eisenhower’s HQ in Algiers, he felt obliged to acknowledge to Mamie the reasons for her presence and to deny anything untoward between them, pointing out that her principal motivation in serving in the Mediterranean was to be near to her lover, Dick Arnold, who was commanding an engineer battalion in Tunisia. “She is terribly in love with a young American Colonel and is to be married to him come June – assuming both are alive. I doubt Life told that. But I tell you only so that if anyone is banal and foolish enough to lift an eyebrow at an old duffer such as I am … you will know that I’ve no emotional involvements and will have none.” Although it was meant to reassure her, in his final letter to Mamie in 1942 Eisenhower had remarked, “In my time I’ve been intrigued momentarily – I’ve never been in love with anyone but you! I never will.”
Mamie was not gladdened by her husband’s frankness and the long distance debate continued, with Ike assuring her that Kay Summersby was nothing more than an important cog in his official life, and Mamie restraining her growing feelings of hurt. Throughout the remainder of the war both put a brave face on what had clearly become an arrow of dissent between them. Although Eisenhower’s devotion to his family, and his enormous emotional dependence on both Mamie and his son John was unquestioned, the specter of Kay Summersby remained a troubling presence.
While there is no evidence the two ever consummated a physical relationship, there was also no doubt that Eisenhower’s attraction went beyond mere friendship. Kay gave him a peace of mind no one else, including Mamie, had she been present, was capable of providing. As for the widely held belief of an affair between Ike and Kay, his enlisted aide, Sergeant Mickey McKeogh, scoffed at the notion. “I put him to bed every night and I woke him every morning. He was in bed by himself and he was still in bed by himself when I awoke him.”
Kay not only became Eisenhower’s regular driver in Algiers but in his trips to the front as well. The 250-mile journey from Algiers to Ike’s forward HQ at Constantine usually took eight hours. She found these occasions “sheer, unadulterated torture” and bluntly warned her VIP passenger, “if we’re ever attacked, don’t wait for me to open the door for you. It’s every man for himself, then!”
The price of having a woman drive Eisenhower around North Africa along the narrow, crowded highways of Algeria and Tunisia were the inevitable whistles, catcalls and lewd proposals. Kay was amused; Eisenhower was livid. In an attempt to look more manly, Kay began wearing battle dress and a steel helmet that Eisenhower jokingly said made her look like Patton. But, the biggest trouble with his fondness for Kay was that it was common knowledge and their public appearances together merely fueled the rumors. Eisenhower privately complained to Patton that one day when the two were out riding, “a soldier yahooed at them. He told me,” wrote Patton to his wife, “he glared at them.” Rude remarks about the two began appearing in Everett Hughes’s gossipy diary. Before his death Bradley opined that he thought Eisenhower protested far too much over Kay Summersby in response to Mamie’s searching questions about her husband’s driver and her role in his life.
The third installment of the saga of Ike and Kay Summersby will appear at the end of April.