On Sunday my family and I marked the 125th anniversary of the birth of our grandmother, Mamie Eisenhower. She lived to the age of eighty-three, and during her life she assumed her roles with dignity, humor and originality. Though a child of the nineteenth century, she was also thoroughly modern.
Sometimes compared to her successor, Jacqueline Kennedy, Mamie was thirty-three years older than Jackie. (In other words, Jackie was even younger than Ike and Mamie’s son John). For her time and her age, Mamie was a trendsetter.
During the Eisenhower presidency, Mamie started the arts and antiques program in the White House, kept a tight watch on spending at the Executive Mansion and supervised the entertaining of more heads of state than any presidential couple before them. She also redefined style for anyone old enough to be a grandmother. “I hate old lady shoes, and I will never wear them,” she told us. In fact, she never did. She wore stylish high heels that matched her frocks and cocktail dresses—until the end of her life. Earlier, when a columnist suggested that she should rethink her hairdo, Mamie replied that she was not there to be “made over.” When another reporter asked her if American women should cut their hair to emulate her “Mamie bangs,” the First Lady replied: “Certainly not.” (As if to say, “They should wear their hair any way they like.”)
Mamie was a headstrong young woman, and always knew what she wanted. In fact, she married Ike over the advice of her parents. “You don’t want a soldier’s life,” they warned her. “As wonderful as he is, he will never make anything of himself,” they said. Well, as it turned out, Ike did do a few things with his life, and he knew Mamie would always be there for him just as she would always be quintessentially herself.
It didn’t matter who Ike got along with; Mamie loved who she loved. She was a close friend of Bess Truman, for instance, and Jean MacArthur—even when their husbands clashed. She once told me that her favorite houseguest over all the years was Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, a sometime military rival of her husband. Mamie and Monty would carry on the British-style banter like long-time friends. Mamie’s determination to make and keep friends without taking sides was a big help, too, in smoothing over differences.
Mamie also offered perspective on how to survive the ups and downs of public life. She would counsel us that harsh criticism is something to keep in perspective. One must never let such attacks hurt, she would say. “Just let them roll off your back,” Or sometimes: “Just toss them over your shoulder.”
Once when someone told Mamie that a mutual friend was using her, the First Lady replied, “Oh, I don’t believe that! Anyway, if she is, I guess I am using her—she makes me laugh!”
In 1996, I wrote a book, Mrs. Ike: Memories and Reflections on the Life of Mamie Eisenhower. It gave me the opportunity to tell her brave story, including the hardships of Army life, the loneliness of wartime separation and her role in keeping the other wives optimistic and productive, as well as the special rigors of helping and supporting a man of Eisenhower’s standing. Although I had chosen a very different path in life (I was a professional woman and I had been divorced), I admired the relationship my grandparents had. Through it all, Mamie had no qualms about her life’s choice. She was stunningly successful at the “job” she laid out for herself: “…to make a strong man stronger,” as their pastor, Rev. Edward Elson, said after her passing.
Mamie was not only a support to her husband, but a considerable political asset. During the 1952 and 1956 presidential race, popular campaign buttons declared: “I Like Ike but I LOVE Mamie.” Columnist James Reston reckoned that Mamie’s campaign style was worth 50 electoral votes. All of it was genuine. She had an interest in everybody, where they came from and the challenges they faced. In keeping with that, she carried on an extensive correspondence with the American people over many years of answering letters, often in longhand, from total strangers. After Ike’s heart attack in 1955, she personally responded to more than 10,000 letters that poured in. She would tell me: “If people take the time to write you, you should write them back.”
Like her husband, Mamie always remained modest and well-grounded. That’s why her answer was not surprising when reporter Barbara Walters asked her, toward the end of her life, how she wanted to be remembered. Mamie looked surprised: “Hmm, I hadn’t even thought about such a thing,” she said. And then, waving her hand as if it was of no importance, she replied, “Just a good friend.”
Mamie Eisenhower was that and so very much more.
This Thanksgiving I will be reminded of my gratitude for her life. I hope you too have a wonderful, memorable holiday.
[I will be taking next week off to mark the Thanksgiving holiday.]