As a boy John Eisenhower saw his father as a “terrifying figure.” Later, as a young infantry officer, he felt “a certain military wall between us.” Now 54, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s only son has grown to be a quiet, taut, intensely private man. And so, when gossip about Ike’s rumored wartime affair with Kay Summersby, his blue-eyed Irish driver-secretary, first broke into print three years ago, John chose to suffer in silence.
Then Summersby herself fueled the fire. In a memoir published early this year, after her death from cancer, she wrote that she and Ike had tried to have a baby, but implied that the general was impotent. Furious, John still declined to comment.
Now, finally, Eisenhower’s son has risen angrily to his father’s—and his mother’s—defense. The provocation: a report that ABC planned to put I’affaire Eisenhower on television as a two-part, six-hour special. John obtained a first draft of the script and was appalled to discover that the opening scene was based on what he regards as a scurrilous falsehood: former President Harry Truman’s claim that Ike had written to U.S. Chief of Staff George C. Marshall announcing that he planned to divorce his wife, Mamie, to marry Summersby. “I am absolutely convinced that Dad never wrote this letter,” snaps Eisenhower. “There were a lot of things faulty in Mr. Truman’s memory.”
John, now living in Valley Forge, Pa., just 60 miles from his mother at Gettysburg, was further antagonized when he came across a crudely fictionalized conversation between Ike and Mamie. According to the TV script, Ike observes despondently at one point: “Generals die in bed.” Mamie then pipes up: “So did our marriage, Ike. So did our marriage.” John quickly called in his friend Robert Donovan of the Los Angeles Times and released excerpts of 319 wartime letters from Ike to Mamie that John had been preparing for publication next winter.
The letters reveal a lonely, loving, sometimes contrite Ike, showering the absent Mamie with reassuring endearments. Though Mrs. Eisenhower was obviously aware of the Summersby rumors, and Ike knew it, divorce hardly seemed to be on his mind. “It’s true we have been apart for two and a half years,” he wrote Mamie at one point, “but you should not forget that I do miss you and do love you. Try to see me in something besides a despicable light. I know you don’t really think of me as such a black-hearted creature as your language implies.”
(Meanwhile, in New York, Sigrid Hedin, who was one of Summersby’s ghost writers, said confidently last week: “Kay’s affair with Eisenhower lasted for several years, much longer than was stated in the book. It started in London right after she met him. Everybody knew that Ike was crazy about Kay. I said, ‘Kay, were you in love with Ike?’ She wouldn’t answer, she just said, ‘He was the catch of the world.’ Eisenhower was not impotent. They actually had an affair, but they didn’t really have that much time to be alone. They were living in a goldfish bowl. I think Kay probably felt she was going to marry him, you know. But he went back to the Pentagon and wrote her a letter, obviously formal, saying that he no longer needed her.”)
Dismissing the Summersby memoir as “trash,” John admits that until its publication he had always thought of Kay as “a very fine person.” But the question lingers. Does Ike’s son believe his father did not have an affair with Summersby? “Well, everybody has to make their own judgment on things like that,” he says. “I’m not in the moralist business. The thing I am concerned with, however, is Mother’s feelings. If it were not for her, we might have buried these letters for years.”