The Myth of Ike and Kay Summersby, Part III
In June 1943, shortly before they were to have been married, Kay Summersby’s fiancé, Colonel Dick Arnold, was killed instantly in Tunisia when another officer set off a trip wire during a minefield clearing operation. Eisenhower broke the news personally. It left her devastated, a fact confirmed in the diary kept by Eisenhower’s naval aide and confidant, Captain Harry Butcher.
Eisenhower’s correspondence with Kay’s mother paints a similar picture; “none of us can do much,” he wrote. “She is crushed and hurt to the point where nothing seems important and where she does not even realize that her best friends are trying to help.” Pledging that he would “stand by as one to whom she can to turn to for assistance,” Eisenhower said, “I desperately hope that her work and possibly, in time, even other interests, will convince her that she has a real sphere of usefulness in this world.”
Ike informed Mamie that he thought Kay far too grief-stricken to continue driving for him and that he had offered to send her back to England but that she had refused.
It was during the summer of 1943 that Kay Summersby alleges that love grew between them and they engaged in discreet “stolen moments of privacy,” exchanged their first kisses and Eisenhower is said to have declared his love for her, saying. “I’ve loved you for a long time.” In breathless prose on her deathbed, she allegedly recounted a romance that included everything but sex.
The problem with all this is that none of what Kay is supposed to have written can be verified. She was paid an exceptionally large six-figure advance by Simon & Schuster to write the memoir called Past Forgetting: My Love Affair With Dwight D. Eisenhower, but before she could complete it, Kay was diagnosed with cancer and died in January 1975. On her deathbed, she dictated at least some of the book on a wire recording that was used by Barbara Wyden, a one-time writer and editor, who actually ghosted the book. How much of it was based on Summersby’s recordings, and how much was either inferred or made-up to protect Simon & Schuster’s substantial investment, cannot be verified.
While it can be legitimately argued that Eisenhower’s reputation was being protected by those who served him, each has vehemently denied an affair between the two ever existed. Both his enlisted aide, Sgt. Mickey McKeogh, and Captain Sue Sarafian Jehl, Kay’s wartime friend and roommate, have rejected any notion of an affair.
Of those in a position to know, the person closest to Kay Summersby was Anthea Gordon Saxe, an Englishwoman who was also a civilian driver in the Motor Transport Corps when they first met after Pearl Harbor. The two remained lifelong friends and after Kay’s death Saxe was named the executor of her estate. Kay Summersby left no love letters from Eisenhower, and no evidence exists beyond the fanciful allegations in a memoir she never lived to see. In Past Forgetting, Kay dismisses Arnold’s death as a wartime romance with a man she barely knew and had trouble even mourning.
However, according to Saxe, Dick Arnold was no mere fling but a man with whom she was deeply in love. “After Dick died, she went into a deep depression. She felt dreadful. Everything was bleak and black.” With Eisenhower’s encouragement, Kay gradually overcame her grief but “Richard Arnold remained forever in her memory.” To the end of her life, recounted Mrs. Saxe, Kay “never forgot Dick. To the day she died, she kept all the letters he ever wrote, all his pictures, everything.”
That Eisenhower was extremely fond of Kay Summersby, and valued, even treasured her company is beyond dispute. Whether that affinity translated into something deeper is shrouded in improbability. Certainly, Kay’s presence was both reassuring and comforting to a man beset with endless problems and heavy responsibilities. Nor did Eisenhower attempt to conceal his desire for her company, whether driving him, horseback riding or relaxing in the informality of his quarters. Kay filled a role of hostess, confidant and adviser, the very role Mamie herself would have fulfilled had she been present during the war years. Eisenhower called her “Irish” and at times would scribble brief notes asking her to share tea or a meal but never anything of an intimate nature.
Whether defensive about Kay Summersby or not, what is indisputable is the extent of how badly Ike missed Mamie. Long-term separations are painful in many respects, among them a loved one’s memories of the other. In one letter Mamie had referred to her husband as “a dream out of the past.” “My Lord,” an appalled Eisenhower replied, “the reason I work so hard is so I can come home to you more quickly!” Although he would never admit it, Eisenhower’s lonely job required considerable daily doses of reassurance that Mamie’s quiet presence had been there to provide for him virtually all of his adult life. Men like Marshall and MacArthur may or may not have required such emotional support but Eisenhower clearly did; “like many another strong man with a weakness for which there is neither armor nor cure; he needed to see the sustaining reflection of himself that shines only in a woman’s eyes,” observes noted historian and biographer Geoffrey Perret in his biography of Eisenhower.
After Eisenhower left his post as occupation commander in Germany in October 1945, Kay Summersby had hoped to accompany him to the United States and serve in some capacity in Washington. Instead, she received a “Dear Kay” letter from Eisenhower informing her there was no place for her in his future entourage. After serving for a short time in Berlin under General Lucius D. Clay, Capt. Summersby was reassigned to duties in the United States before leaving the army in July 1947.
By late 1947, Kay Summersby was jobless, nearly broke, and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. When Eisenhower learned of her condition through a mutual friend his reaction was revealing, writing in his diary that it was, “a clear case of a fine person going to pieces over the death of a loved one.” Convinced Kay’s troubles stemmed from continued grief over the death of Dick Arnold, Eisenhower wrote, rather cynically, “Too bad, she was loyal and efficient and the favorite of everyone in the organization. Makes one wonder whether any human ever dares become so wrapped up in another that all happiness and desire to live is determined by the actions, desires – or life – of the second. I trust she pulls herself together, but she is Irish and tragic.”
The remainder of Kay Summersby’s life was equally unhappy. Her marriage to a Wall Street stockbroker named Reginald Morgan in 1952 seemed more of convenience and less of love and lasted a mere six years. Summersby attained American citizenship and in her later years became a Broadway theater costume and stage designer. Other than a brief meeting when Eisenhower was president of Columbia University, Kay Summersby and Dwight Eisenhower never saw one another again.
However, that is not quite the end of the story. The real controversy over their alleged affair had yet to surface and the final installment of this article reveals how Dwight Eisenhower’s reputation has been unfairly tainted.