Mamie Doud Eisenhower
Military Wife and First Lady
“I’ve just had the first good night’s sleep I’ve had since we’ve been in the White House… … now I can reach over and pat Ike on his old bald head any time I want to!”
So said Mamie Eisenhower to a friend in her first few days as First Lady, as described by White House Chief Usher J.B. West in his book Upstairs at the White House (p. 129). While Mrs. Eisenhower’s delight in being so close to her husband might be heartwarming to any couple who have a long-term marriage, for Mrs. Eisenhower it had special meaning. It was based on the fact that she could do it – that he was right beside her. Also, it was something she had not always been able to always do since her military officer husband had previously been gone so often. However, there would be no more absences since her military husband was now President.
When Mamie Geneva Doud was born in Boone, Iowa in November 1896, she was the second presidential wife to be born in the west, the first being Lou Hoover, who was also born in Iowa. Mamie was the second daughter of four, and her father was a businessman from Chicago and her mother an Iowa girl. Mr. Doud was successful enough to retire in 1904 when he settled his family in Denver where Mamie attended school. Eventually he acquired a winter home in San Antonio, Texas and since he was an automobile devotee each fall he drove his family (and 2 servants) from Denver to Texas, and then returned in the spring. The trip took three weeks and when bad roads or breakdowns halted their progress, Mrs. Doud lifted their spirits by playing popular songs on her harmonica.
In the autumn of 1915 once in San Antonio, the Doud family drove to nearby Fort Sam Houston to visit friends, who in turn introduced 19-year-old Mamie to the newly arrived Lt. Dwight D. Eisenhower. He was completely smitten by the smiling, petite and pretty Miss Doud, yet at first Mamie saw Eisenhower as only one beau among many. However, he persisted and soon was visiting the Doud home to both court Mamie and become closer to her family. Eventually as the winter passed, Mamie began to take his attention more seriously and they soon announced their engagement. Though Mamie would have preferred to wait to marry in the fall of 1916, because Ike could have been called to military action she advanced the wedding date. They were married at the Doud home in Denver in July, 1916.
Mamie soon learned that a military family was frequently on the move. They first lived in a small apartment at Fort Sam Houston, then over the years they would occupy a variety of residences of various sizes and conditions as Ike’s military assignments took them to such places as Pennsylvania, Georgia, Maryland, the Panama Canal Zone, Colorado and Kansas. However, as Eisenhower advanced in rank they resided in better quarters in Washington, New York, and later in Paris. In fact, Mamie once guessed that in her thirty-seven as a military wife she had unpacked and set up a new home 27 times.
Besides the frequent moves, Mamie learned to live on a lieutenant’s pay, which was probably a great change from her family’s affluence, as well as how to operate the home, and deal with family expenses. However, when it came to the cooking, Ike was the family chef. Since life for military families could be routine and even monotonous Mamie soon learned to play card games with the other wives, as well as with Ike and other couples. She also occupied herself or entertained with her piano skills
As World War I continued and Ike was assigned where Mamie could not always accompany him, she remained at Fort Sam Houston. There she gave birth to her first son Dwight Doud, in September, 1917 – a baby quickly nicknamed Icky.
Soon promoted to the rank of major, Ike was assigned to stateside posts during the war then three years later they moved to Ft. Meade, Maryland. There Icky was stricken with scarlet fever and with Mamie bedridden at home with a serious respiratory affection following pneumonia, it was Ike who stayed by the child’s sick bed. Icky’s death in January, 1921 flung Mamie into a sense of shocked grief so serious that her family and Ike were greatly concerned.Their next assignment was in the Panama Canal Zone and since Mamie knew such a post would mean a great deal to Ike and his career she coped with the heat and humidity of a tropical climate. In 1923 she returned to Denver for the birth of her second child and after John Sheldon Doud Eisenhower was born in August. Several months later with the baby and his nurse, Mamie returned to the Canal Zone. A year later, Ike completed his tour of duty there and when the Eisenhowers returned to the U.S., Mamie was wearing her hair short and bobbed with a fringe of bangs crossing her forehead. It was a hairstyle that was to become her trademark.
After several years in Washington, in 1935 Major Eisenhower was asked by General Douglas Macarthur to join his command in the Philippines. While Mamie did not relish returning to a tropical climate, she found she had to delay joining Ike till John had finished junior high school. Once mother and son arrived in the Philippines, John went to boarding school, and Mamie took up residence in a hotel to cope with the dislike of the climate as well as poor health. After a few years when Ike was promoted again they moved to more comfortable housing at Fort Sam Houston.
The Second World War brought new promotions and resulting assignments for Ike but more loneliness for Mamie. While he served in Europe, Mamie remained in Washington. Despite Ike’s concern for her health and provision of a companion, Mamie continued to be apprehensive about his safety. Her nervousness caused insomnia and a general decline in health, and there was more anxiety when John Eisenhower graduated from West Point and was then assigned to overseas duty. However, Ike did manage a brief low profile return for a short vacation with Mamie before returning to Europe.
When he finally returned home in 1945, Mamie’s health broke down, but as she recovered, she began to enjoy the fact that her husband had become very popular because of his war service. They lived in New York for a while when he was the president of Columbia University, then moved to Paris as Ike assumed a command post with the newly organized North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It was this last residence in Paris where she was often complimented for her cordial good manners, hospitality and cheerfulness.
Even before Ike had assumed his European command post the Eisenhowers had acquired a farm property near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Here Mamie began supervising the remodeling of what would be the first home of their own after 34 years of marriage. She continued the supervision throughout the White House years as they demolished a great portion of the original farmhouse and built a new house around what was left.
When Ike decided to leave his European command and run for President Mamie continued her loving support at the new challenge. When campaigning by the “whistle stop” train tour she stood on the rear platform of the train while Ike addressed the crowd but was ready to step forward when he introduced her with …” and now I want you to meet my Mamie.” At that point Mamie, enjoying the whole experience, stepped forward with a smile and a wave.
Once the Eisenhowers entered the White house Mamie proved a gracious First Lady, and those who knew her both publicly and privately found the same charming and composed personality. J.B. West described a well equipped First Lady: “Yet underneath the buoyant spirit, there was a spine of steel forged by years of military discipline. As the 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 was accustomed to operating a large home with a complete staff and Ike’s previous commands had also given her great experience. Since she had managed Quarters Number One at Ft. Myers, Virginia as Ike had served as U.S. Army Chief of Staff, as well as a French estate when he was Supreme Commander, Headquarters of Allied Powers in Europe the White House was nothing new. Yet the experienced house manager was also very human. West continued: “In Mamie Doud Eisenhower, the public saw a friendly outgoing lady…a closer looked showed a vivacious, fun-loving grandmother, an uninhibited belle who adored her Ike.” (p. 130-131).
The Eisenhowers continued to spend frequent summer vacations at the Doud home in Denver and there in 1955 Ike suffered a heart attack and when he was hospitalized Mamie stayed with him. A second attack in 1957 was not as serious and he recovered to finish his second term.
After Ike left office he and Mamie began their retirement at Gettysburg and winters at Palm Springs. Ike’s heart attack early in 1968 brought them back to Washington and the Walter Reed Army Hospital. She remained with him through successive attacks as a comforting and composed companion till he died in March, 1969.
After Ike’s death, Mamie remained in the Gettysburg home, but once a year she made the trip back to Abilene to the Eisenhower library where she visited Ike’s grave, as well as that of Icky. Finally in September, 1979 Mamie suffered a stroke and moved to Walter Reed Army Hospital where Ike had died just ten years before. There she passed away on November 1, 1979.
By Anne Adams