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The Hidden-Hand Style of Mamie Eisenhower

Speculating on what sort of first lady Mamie Eisenhower would be, a 1952 Life magazine article decided that Mrs. Eisenhower would have “the highly commendable dignity of Bess Truman, with a touch of Ethel Merman on the side.” Intended or not, the description aptly captured the woman who cared about appearances and doing things “properly,” but was also fun loving with a gift for putting people at their ease. Mrs. Eisenhower could “charm the socks off anybody she met,” observed a White House usher.

Mamie’s contemporaries painted a picture of a woman that was vivacious, charming, the darling of the fashion industry, and completely in charge of her White House responsibilities. “She knew what she wanted, every moment, and exactly how it should be done,” noted one observer. The first lady cared about the details, whether they involved dinner menus, flower arrangements, or the protocol for greeting dignitaries to the White House. Yet, these images of Mrs. Eisenhower bear little resemblance to the general attitude among more recent writers and historians that dismiss her as an aged grandmother who was as either too ill or socially inept to offer anything positive in her role as first lady. While a reappraisal of Ike’s presidency has seen an increased appreciation for the president and his policies, Mamie has not shared in the upswing. It has been common to suggest, for example, that while Mrs. Eisenhower was more engaged than her immediate predecessor Bess Truman, she was not as involved or stylish as her immediate successor Jacqueline Kennedy. Certainly, Mrs. Kennedy holds a phenomenal place in American memory and culture, but it seems to me that there is more to the question of why Mamie has been discounted or inaccurately portrayed than any debate about who was more glamorous or sophisticated.

Social attitudes of a time period change our perceptions of a first lady and what her role should include. While Mamie Eisenhower was a perfect fit for the 1950s, she did not translate well in the latter part of the twentieth century when the new women’s movement had its impact on social thinking and behavior. The movement that emerged in the late 1960s stressed total equality at home and in the workplace, and when the movement looked for a first lady as inspiration, the independent, out-spoken Eleanor Roosevelt was a good role model. (It was not by chance that first lady Hillary Clinton, who came of age during the late Sixties, identified with Eleanor.) In the context of the women’s movement, the 1950s was a wasteland of domesticity, and Mamie Eisenhower, who proudly and repeatedly described herself as a homemaker, was dismissed as just another example of the social pressures exerted on women to stay at home.

In writing about Mamie Eisenhower, my intention was not to somehow make her into a pioneer in the new women’s movement. She wasn’t, although she did believe that women should make their own decisions about working outside the home and pursuing interests for personal fulfillment. Rather, my goal was to consider her within the landscape of her times. She did not seek a public forum, saying that the country had elected her husband, not her. She reserved her opinions for family and close friends, and in terms of taking a position, she used the same hidden-hand approach now credited to President Eisenhower’s style of handling situations. When, for instance, Mamie reinstated the White House Easter Egg Roll in 1953 (it was discontinued during World War II), the event was integrated without fanfare. During the early days of the Eisenhower Administration, the president and his staff immediately began to address integration of restaurants, theaters, and schools in Washington, D.C. The Easter Egg Roll conveyed the same policy. When asked, at her one and only press conference held in March 1953, her plans for the Easter Egg Roll, Mamie did not take the opportunity to talk about integration. Rather, she sidestepped the issue, eliciting a laugh from reporters with her simple answer: “Well, as I understand it, the children take care of that pretty much themselves.” Another instance of the first lady’s hidden-hand approach came when she invited Lucille Ball to the White House not long after the actress was accused of being a communist and called before Senator McCarthy’s hearings on un-American activities. Subtlety, rather than confrontation, was Mamie’s mode of operation. She was not an activist in the style of first ladies Lou Hoover or Eleanor Roosevelt. She was not a Rosalyn Carter or Hillary Clinton sitting in on cabinet meetings or formulating domestic policy. Yet, she acted in partnership with Ike quietly, even gingerly, confronting contentious matters.

Although historians have, as a rule, ignored or misrepresented Mamie Eisenhower, she was a popular first lady. The New York Times declared that she was worth a least fifty electoral votes, while another noted that during the 1952 presidential campaign there was a “flash of communication” between Mamie and the crowds that congregated to catch a glimpse of the Eisenhowers. A reporter watching this instant connection between Mamie and the public wrote that Mrs. Eisenhower invited a “feeling that makes strangers feel her life must have been very much like their own.” She seemed like “Mrs. Average America.” 

In many ways Mamie Eisenhower was Mrs. Average America. She watched television soap operas and I Love Lucy. She wanted a house that she and her husband actually owned (until the couple purchased their Gettysburg farm, all of her married life had been spent in military housing, apartments, or houses that were essentially on loan). She enjoyed socializing and playing cards with her “gang” of friends, and she sat by while Ike took on the role of chef at the barbeque grill. On the other hand, Mamie Eisenhower’s life was anything but average. Raised in a well-to-do Denver household, she completed her education with a year at Miss Wolcott’s, a finishing school for “ladies of refinement,” and then made her debut into society in San Antonio, Texas, where her family wintered each year. As the wife of an army officer (she and Ike were married in 1916), Mamie went with Ike when he was posted to Panama, the Philippines, and Paris. (They first went to Paris in the late 1920s when Ike was assigned to the American Battle Monuments Commission; they lived there again in the late 1940s when Eisenhower was Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, at NATO.) By the time she came to the White House, she had met and mingled with heads of state and royalty. Despite her unique life experiences, Mamie Eisenhower seemed to reflect back to the American public of the 1950s their own hopes, dreams, and expectations. She seemed like the friend next door, and on some level Mamie understood that relationship for when Barbara Walters asked her in a 1979 interview how she would like to be remembered her simple answer was “Just as a good friend.” She had not thought about her legacy, nor do I think that she cared what it would be. For Mamie Eisenhower, knowing that she gave all she could to the job of first lady was enough.

More than once, I’ve been asked “Why a book about Mamie?” The simple answer is that it might be time to have another look at a woman who, on the one hand, ran the executive mansion as if she had been the five-star general, and who, on the other, was a dynamic, yet calming, personality during an era that---despite the popular of culture of hula-hoops, Elvis, and entertaining television---saw growing social unrest, the threat of nuclear attack, and the Cold War.