The end of World War II in Europe signaled the end of the road for chauffeur Kay Summersby’s three-year relationship with her boss, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Her face was censored from the official photo taken by Technical Sgt. Al Meserlin, Ike’s personal photographer, on that May morning in 1945 when the Germans surrendered at the red-brick schoolhouse in Reims, France.
In a print of the original picture, which Meserlin has kept in his scrapbook for 50 years, Summersby is in the background as Eisenhower holds aloft, in a V-for-victory gesture, the two pens used by the high-ranking German officers to sign the surrender.
Meserlin, now living in Sea Girt, N.J., has no idea why the photo was altered after he shipped off his film to the Army Pictorial Service laboratory in Paris. “All our stuff went through the wartime censors,” he said. “Usually they just cropped out identifying terrain details so as not to reveal Eisenhower’s whereabouts, like when he went to Bastogne.”
When Eisenhower left Europe for a Pentagon assignment some months later, Summersby’s name was dropped from the travel orders of SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) staffers joining him. She was the only member of what he fondly called his “immediate wartime family” to be left behind.
She was devastated, as she recorded in a bittersweet autobiography, “Past Forgetting: My Love Affair With Dwight D. Eisenhower,” written after Eisenhower’s death and during her final illness. It depicted a passionate but unconsummated love affair that consisted mostly of “stolen kisses” along a woodland path or aboard “a darkened plane to Cairo.”
She wrote of holding hands, sitting before the fire in his quarters listening to favorite records while sharing cocktails for two, “almost telepathic” bridge partners, golfing together, horseback riding in the countryside or the desert, romping with “Telek,” the coal-black Scotch terrier he bought for her.
Eisenhower mentions her only once in his diary, “Crusade in Europe,” just a name on a list of aides.
Kathleen McCarthy Summersby, a perky, coquettish Irish divorcee and former fashion model for the House of Worth in Paris, was 33 when as a civilian volunteer with the British Motor Transport Corps she was assigned to drive Eisenhower around London. He was 20 years older.
One of her earlier assignments was driving an ambulance in the heavily blitzed East End dock area, picking up bodies and delivering them to the morgue. Twice she had to drive around all night searching for a morgue that had room for more corpses.
As a staff driver Kay preferred “the breezy easy-going Yanks to the stiff-upper-lip, swagger stick-carrying British officers” she usually saluted and opened the door for. For his part, Eisenhower liked her sparkling smile and ready wit, even when the buzz bombs began falling, and was amused that she kept her compact and lipstick in her gas mask. He called her “Skib,” because she was from Skibbereen in County Cork, and “stubborn as an Army mule.”
Summersby wrote of falling in love with the face in the rearview mirror: “I succumbed immediately to that grin which was to become famous.”
SHAEF staffers noticed that her bubbly presence relaxed Eisenhower as the pressures of planning the D-Day invasion mounted. Harry Butcher, the general’s naval aide, rated her “better than any man at driving that big Packard in a total blackout and through London’s pea-soupers with those pinpoint headlights.”
Soon she was more than a chauffeur: sitting in on top-secret meetings, going to 10 Downing Street with the general for lunch with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, dining with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull and key advisers such as Averell Harriman, Harry Hopkins and Bernard Baruch.
She accompanied Eisenhower to combat areas and shared GI rations and “liberated champagne” with Gens. Omar Bradley and George S. Patton. Often she presided as hostess at his formal dinners. “We have no secrets from Kay,” Eisenhower told Churchill, who was charmed to sit on her right at table and later awarded her the British Empire Medal.
Eisenhower recommended her for the Legion of Merit, but Chief of Staff George Marshall turned that down. But Eisenhower was successful in wrangling her a lieutenant’s commission in the WACs and promoted her to secretary in charge of his “unofficial mail.”
When another driver took over, Kay still went everywhere with the supreme commander, often joining him in the back seat. On the eve of D-Day, she was at his side at an airfield in Newbury in Berkshire, England. From the roof of a hangar they watched U.S. paratroopers with blackened faces filing aboard transport planes for the night drop behind enemy lines. She saw his eyes brim with tears as the C-47s lifted off under a full moon.
Patton often saw them together and found Eisenhower “very nasty and showoffish in her presence.”
Bradley, Eisenhower’s West Point classmate and favorite field commander, called her “Ike’s shadow.”
Bradley thought she made him “decidedly pro-British.” He and others faulted Eisenhower for summarily busting U.S. officers who criticized British colleagues but patiently suffered the snubs and insults of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.
It was Summersby who got Eisenhower hooked on the English habit of 4 o’clock tea. The joke at the American officers’ mess was that “Eisenhower is the best general the British have.”
Bradley was shocked to see Summersby turn up in Algeria after the landings in North Africa, but was less surprised when she twice accompanied Eisenhower on brief holidays at a villa on the Riviera.
Rumors, innuendoes and bawdy barracks jokes were rife in the ranks about their friendship. Eisenhower once complained to Patton that he was speechless with rage when “the other day Kay and I were out riding and a soldier yoo-hooed at us.”
Passing convoys in combat zones, Summersby was amused and flattered, as she later wrote, when “truck drivers saluted me with whistles, wolf calls and all kinds of interesting proposals” that made “Ike absolutely livid.”
“I took her picture a number of times,” said photographer Meserlin, holding up a snapshot of her playing with the dog, Telek, in the snow at Ike’s quarters in Reims, a chateau belonging to a champagne baron. “But we don’t know what went on at night.”
Technical Sgt. Barkev Sagatelian, the senior map-maker in Eisenhower’s headquarters, saw Summersby “quite often, but she never came into the war room.” Sagatelian, retired as an architect in Ormond Beach, Fla. still asks himself: “Was she his girlfriend? Who knows for sure? High-ranking officers had their own lives. Probably they had love affairs, but we didn’t know about those things.”
Eisenhower’s son, John, who briefly served as his aide after graduating from West Point on D-Day, later described her as “the Mary Tyler Moore of headquarters. She was perky and she was cute. Whether she had any designs on the Old Man and the extent to which he succumbed, I just don’t know.”
On a number of occasions Eisenhower demonstrated his affection for his winsome lieutenant. Although he confessed to being a member of “the awkward squad” for marching out of step at West Point, they sometimes went dancing together after a movie or the theater. He gave her a Beretta automatic and taught her how to shoot at tin cans.
Eisenhower had his tailor measure her for two uniforms after the troopship she boarded to join him in Algeria was torpedoed and she escaped without any luggage into a lifeboat. His aides had to search high and low for the phonograph record of “I’ll See You Again,” her favorite song from Noel Coward’s “Bittersweet.”
In her autobiography, published more than a year after she died in 1974, Summersby tells of one attempt at intimacy that failed when “we both came to our senses . . . there were eyes and ears everywhere,” and another because Eisenhower was too exhausted after a long airplane journey.
Pictures of them together in newspapers, magazines and newsreels made Eisenhower’s wife, Mamie, increasingly suspicious. She was furious when her husband, on a brief home leave at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, kept calling her Kay.
In “Plain Talking,” an oral biography of President Harry S. Truman, Merle Miller recounted that “right after the war was over” Eisenhower informed Marshall that he wanted to return to the States, divorce Mamie and marry Kay. The biographer quotes Truman: “Marshall wrote him back a letter the like of which I never have seen. He said if Eisenhower ever came close to doing such a thing he’d not only bust him out of the Army but see to it that never for the rest of his life would he be able to draw a peaceful breath.”
Miller wrote that Truman then revealed: “One of the last things I did as President, I got those letters from Ike’s file in the Pentagon and I destroyed them.”
Historian Stephen Ambrose, an editor of the Eisenhower papers, labels the story “completely untrue,” maintaining that Truman spoke with Miller long after “he had broken with Eisenhower and was approaching senility.”
Kay Summersby became a U.S. citizen and settled in the United States after the war, but never found happiness. She was mugged in a San Rafael, Calif., parking lot, broke off an engagement to a San Francisco man who thought she had money, went through marriage and divorce with a New York stockbroker and had trouble finding a job. She once called on President Eisenhower at the White House, was graciously received but afterward told by an aide not to call again.
“I heard today that my valued secretary is in dire straits,” Eisenhower wrote one day in his dairy. “I trust she pulls herself together. . . . She is Irish and tragic.”
Looking back now on those benighted wartime years, unilluminated by the scandal-probing spotlights of supermarket tabloids and TV shows like “Hard Copy,” Chicago Tribune war correspondent Jack Thompson may have come the closest to shedding some light on the romantic aspects of driving with Mrs. Summersby:
“You didn’t often see a general kissing his chauffeur.”