Eisenhower, Mamie (1896–1979)

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Eisenhower, Mamie (1896–1979)

American first lady from 1953 to 1961. Born Mary Geneva Doud on November 14, 1896, in Boone, Iowa; died on November 1, 1979, in Washington, D.C.; second of four daughters of John Sheldon (a meat packer) and Elivera (Carlson) Doud; married Dwight David Eisenhower (1890–1969, president of the U.S.), on July 1, 1916, in Denver, Colorado; children: Dwight D. Eisenhower (1921–1924); John Seldon Doud Eisenhower (b. 1923, attended West Point, served as ambassador to Belgium, and is now a historian).

Life on the road for Mamie Eisenhower began at the age of nine, when her father moved the family from Boone, Iowa, to Denver, Colorado, then later bought a home in San Antonio, Texas. Mamie, named Mary Geneva for an aunt, was always called by her nickname. She met Lieutenant Dwight D. Eisenhower on a family visit to Fort Sam Houston, where he was Officer of the Day, assigned to escort visitors around the facility. She thought he was "the spiffiest looking man I ever talked to … big, blond, and masterful," and he found her "vivacious" and "saucy in the look about her face." They were married nine months later, just shy of her 20th birthday, and settled into two rooms in the officers' barracks at Fort Houston, the first of 33 homes they would live in during 53 years of marriage. She would later remark that she had lived in "everything but an igloo."

As her husband's military career moved forward, Mamie traveled from post to post whenever possible, learning to pack up and move at a moment's notice. The couple had two sons: Dwight, who died of scarlet fever at age three, and John. In 1922, Mamie sailed with her husband to Camp Faillard in the Panama Canal Zone, where they lived in a house on stilts, sharing occupancy with bats and tarantulas. Convinced her husband would one day be a great soldier, Mamie developed a self-sacrificing attitude, which left her husband "free from personal worries," she said, "to conduct his career as he saw fit."

Mamie described the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor that signaled the start of America's involvement in World War II as one of "the most terrible nights of her life," second only to the night of her son's death. During the war, she lived in Washington at the Wardman Park Hotel, worked for the USO, and did not see her husband for a three-year stretch. After the war, the couple moved to New York, where Dwight Eisenhower served as president of Columbia University for a short time before becoming supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and moving the family to Paris.

Eisenhower's distinguished war record made him a national hero and a natural for a presidential run in 1952. Since he had no political affiliation, and Mamie had never voted, there was a brief skirmish between parties before the GOP won him for their candidate. Though she had no interest in politics, Mamie accompanied him on a 77-stop train tour, appearing beside him on the platform, smiling and silent, once in bathrobe and curlers.

After he took office in 1953, Mamie organized the White House. Everything was planned to the last detail, from the "Mamie pink" table decorations to the entrances for state dinners. A meticulous housekeeper, she made surprise "white glove" inspections and trained the staff to walk around the edges of a room after it was vacuumed because she wanted to avoid footprints on the carpeting. Her flouncy dresses and bob hairstyle, with the trademark bangs, somewhat belied her status. As a general's wife, she had been accustomed to having aides attend to her wishes. As first lady, she demanded the same kind of attention. "When I go out," she ordered, "I am to be escorted to the diplomatic entrance by an usher. And when I return, I am to be met at the door and escorted upstairs."

The first lady suffered with rheumatic heart problems and from Mèniere's disease, an inner-ear disorder that causes dizziness. She often stumbled when walking, which gave rise to rumors of alcoholism. Mamie Eisenhower was also claustrophobic and plagued by headaches and asthma, necessitating a great deal of rest. She once advocated that every woman over 50 should spend one day a week in bed.

As first lady, Mamie did not take on any social or civic causes, preferring to dedicate herself to her husband and making the White House comfortable for those who visited. When the president suffered a heart attack in 1955, she moved into the hospital to be near him and personally answered every one of the letters he received. During his second term, she protected his health by giving state luncheons instead of dinners and by putting visitors up at Blair House, instead of in the White House guest quarters.

The Eisenhowers retired to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where, in 1966, they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. In 1968, they attended their grandson David's marriage to Julie Nixon , the daughter of Eisenhower's vice-president Richard Nixon. During Eisenhower's final illness, Mamie once again took up residence at Walter Reed Hospital to be close to him. After his death in 1969, she continued to work for his causes and promote his name. She attended the dedication of Eisenhower Hall at West Point in 1974, helped christen the super-carrier U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1977, and supported Eisenhower College at Seneca Falls, New York, where she attended graduation ceremonies each year.

Mamie Eisenhower died of cardiac arrest two weeks shy of her 83rd birthday. She is

buried next to her husband and their infant son in the chapel of the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas.


Healy, Diana Dixon. America's First Ladies: Private Lives of the Presidential Wives. NY: Atheneum, 1988.

Melick, Arden Davis. Wives of the Presidents. Maple-wood, NJ: Hammond, 1977.

Paletta, LuAnn. The World Almanac of First Ladies. NY: World Almanac, 1990.

suggested reading:

Eisenhower, Susan. Mrs. Ike: Memories and Reflections on the Life of Mamie Eisenhower. Farrar, Straus, 1996.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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