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A compelling story of love, betrayal, and ambition by New York Times bestselling author Susan Wittig Albert, The General’s Women tells the story of two women–Kay Summersby and Mamie Eisenhower—in love with the same man: General Dwight Eisenhower…
What drew me in….
“…Now he was thinking about Mamie. He had been married to her–and faithful, except for that brief flirtation in Manila–for twenty-five years. But she wasn’t the lively, curious, vivacious girl he had married. She suffered from claustrophobia and wouldn’t fly. She rarely walked more than a block or two , stayed in bed till noon, was prostrated by heat and cold, and had stomach problems. …her disinclination to sex had diminished desire, and he thought of her not with passion but with a protective brotherly fondness…. He didn’t want to hurt Mamie….He knew how greatly his wife depended on him, how firmly her identity was tied to his, how much he owed her for twenty-five years of marriage.” (pp. 204-205).
Susan Wittig Albert does a great job of bringing to life real figures from history. This IS how I imagine Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower to have been. The language he used, though likely a touch saltier when with men only, the chain smoking that nearly killed him in the 1950’s, the adherence to duty (for the most part) all are exactly as I expected Ike to be. His struggle against the morals he believed in is the hallmark of his character. In the end he showed himself to be merely human, not a saint.
I liked the vivid way his guilt and angst came out in his attempts at intimacy with Kay. No man wants to be caught having that problem! But, for Ike it was for the right reasons—he knew he was crossing a line. He knew what it could do to his career. But…. but… she was so willing…. Even just the stolen kisses caused him to think.
Mamie has always bugged me. She has always struck me as even sillier than she is portrayed here. A society girl, not at all “up” for the hardship of real Army life, she was a whining drag in her private role, but a good hostess in her public role. In the book, just as in life, she kept her husband on a near choke-collar, let alone a short lease. A strong man–an Army officer if you please, was supposed to content himself with never telling his wife a thing about work–that had to stay at the office by her command. No having a wife as a sounding board like so many of his brother officers enjoyed at home. Nor would his wife give him an intimate outlet for his stress. A goodnight kiss and a junior high school cuddle was the best he could have. He was expected to agree with her that they were past the “kid stuff” of marriage (as she called it)–sex. Yet he was also expected to sleep beside her every night. There’s a name for women like that and it isn’t flattering. She set the stage for a very, very predictable affair.
Sorry, but I felt Mamie got what she deserved. She got it when Ike was at home to see FDR and more than once called her “Kay.” I think Mamie deserved a slap in the face for the way she treated her husband. I’m not sure Kay was the slap she deserved though. Ike, well, we all know the line about letting the little head do the thinking …. Ike got what he deserved too. A dressing-down by his staff and then the long flight home at the end of the war with only cold-hearted Mamie for company in his last years. Only this time her permafrost was well earned.
Kay–there’s a name for women like Kay, too, and it isn’t flattering either. Oh she patted herself on the back for “deciding” to stay true to her fiance–until he died. But, let’s get real–she loved the life Ike’s presence provided, loved the focused attention of one very powerful man. Many, many women would adore that as well. She clearly understood just what Mamie had done to Ike–and there’s an ugly name for that, too. She offered the opposite. In the end, Kay, too got what she deserved.
Hardest for me to take was Kay’s show-boating–going to dinners with Churchill and other luminaries when a male enlisted man driving a General Officer would have been given tea and sandwiches in the kitchen. She put at risk so much of what women were fighting for in the military–the chance to serve. She was exactly what was feared would happen if women were given jobs overseas. No matter that numberless other couples formed overseas–she was the one making a fool of the Supreme Allied Commander–Eisenhower. As Truman would say, “The Buck Stopped” with Ike. MacArthur had his wife and little son along, albeit due to the war starting where they were stationed. Imagine, though, if Ike had suggested Mamie come to London!
Eisenhower wasn’t old, but he was an old fool in the most proverbial way. “Everybody’s doing it.” So, he took her along to North Africa. Oh, he tried to cover it up, but that backfired spectacularly. Never mind that his staff had their women along–he was the guy responsible for everything. He should have known better. And, unlike his staff, his girl wasn’t an American, but was looking at his correspondence, hearing him talk of his day in great detail and was privy to overhearing top secret conversations from the back seat of the car she drove for him. The other men had more sense and knew it.
It’s simple, isn’t it? A man must live as his wife dictates, right? Ike knew from childhood that lusting after a woman in his heart was just as bad as sleeping with her. Well, right or wrong, infidelity is wrong. Period.
Or is it? Ike was at the perfect age–mid-fifties–to have his head turned by an opportunistic, much younger woman, who sized-up his marriage and made herself into the dream assistant, the mistress always happy to see him and the no-strings attached good sport. But, Kay took very calculated steps to insinuate herself into more than his office life, more than his evenings, she did her best to become part of his very being. She even spent evenings with him when his son was present. That was a lapse in Ike’s judgement that Mamie did NOT deserve. Nor did newly minted 2nd Lieutenant John Eisenhower deserve that for his West Point graduation gift. That struck me as more like Joe Kennedy than Dwight Eisenhower.
We tend to ascribe the highest of morals to the so-called Greatest Generation while forgetting they were the greatest in terms of what today are called Sexually Transmitted Diseases, too!
Am I saying Ike was right to be unfaithful? I suppose yes and no. I do not approve of infidelity, but I can understand why he did it. Too bad he didn’t just pick a quiet young woman not on his staff or, better yet, a London society wife close to his age and well used to being discreet. Too bad he wasn’t discreet!
Does that make it better? Of course not. But have you overseen a D-Day Invasion? No. The stress had to be at near-death force. From the sound of things, it was. Ike also took more appropriate measures to relax, but let’s face it. When men name their choice of relaxations you-know-what is generally top of the list. Even when you-know-what is rarely the full you-know-what and mostly illicit kisses and the like. Of all the wartime leaders, only Churchill stayed faithful to his wife and that was for very different reasons.
It is to his credit that he tried to just stay with what he could enjoy of Kay–her calming way of listening to him–something else he didn’t get at home. The shared pursuits they enjoyed–horseback riding and high-level bridge games. He enjoyed the home she helped make for him–even when she didn’t sleep either with him or in the same house.
Kay, though, was such a flawed person that I don’t know what to say. I read her book back in high school in the 1970s–her second book, actually, Past Forgetting, in which she claimed an affair with Ike. I also saw the movie with Lee Remick as Kay. There was total moral outrage at the revelations, but also a lot of wink-wink, nudge-nudge. No man or woman who had served in the Army in Europe was even a little surprised. Comfort was found where it could be found. Death could come in an instant. After the war, yes, some marriages fell apart. But most just got on with life as Ike and Mamie did. And, no, all the wives on the home front weren’t saints either.
What Surprised Me:
- I shouldn’t have been, of course, but I was shocked to learn that Walter Bedell “Beetle” Smith and George Patton, among others, were openly living with women not their wives during the war. Very cozy, taking the girlfriends along to the war in North Africa, then heading back “home” to Britain with them again to prepare for D-Day.
- I was also taken aback to read anorexia applied to Mamie. I knew she was controlling–I’ve read scholarly and popular Eisenhower biographies. There were always rumors about her drinking, but not eating? Wow. In this book it even reveals she held the purse strings and kept Ike on an allowance. Hiding in her apartment with the press hounding her, I could understand. Hiding in other times, maybe not. Today I’d assume she’d be diagnosed as bipolar or something similar.
- I was so surprised I laughed when Kay was “offended” that King George VI didn’t welcome her with open arms! What an opinion of herself! The General’s mistress, an Irish woman, serving as a civilian, voluntary driver, who gets taken along to a war zone and she thinks the King is going to adore her? When she barely curtsied? Wow, lady. Just Wow.
My Grandfather’s Ike jacket–and the day he gave it to me back in ’68.
Susan Wittig Albert has given us Eisenhower the MAN–not the General or the President, but just the man. She’s shown us what he went through and how he failed to uphold his own moral standard. She’s shown us two very flawed women vying for the same very flawed man. And she’s done it beautifully.
I hope she goes on to write about Douglas MacArthur–his early Washington affair (fodder for a book on its own) and his marriage to Jean. That would be just as fascinating as this book was.
My Review of Susan Wittig Albert’s last book
See my review of the author’s previous book, Loving Eleanor,
About the Author
A NYT bestselling author, Susan’s books include biographical fiction (A Wilder Rose 2013, currently under film option; Loving Eleanor 2016; and The General’s Women 2017). Her mystery fiction includes the bestselling China Bayles mysteries; The Darling Dahlias; the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter; and the Robin Paige Victorian/Edwardian mysteries written with her husband, Bill Albert. Working together, the Alberts have also written over 60 young adult novels.
Susan’s most recent nonfiction work includes two memoirs: An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days and Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place. Her earlier nonfiction work includes Work of Her Own, a study of women who left their careers, and Writing From Life: Telling Your Soul’s Story, a guidebook for women memoirists. That book led to the founding of the Story Circle Network in 1997. She has edited two anthologies for the Story Circle Network: With Courage and Common Sense (2004) and What Wildness Is This: Women Write about the Southwest (2007). She currently serves as editor of StoryCircleBookReviews and co-coordinator of SCN’s Sarton Women’s Book Awards.
She and Bill live in the Texas Hill Country, where she writes, gardens, and tends a varying assortment of barnyard creatures.