Dwight David Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander on June 6, 1944, during the ‘D Day’ embarkation that sent thousands of troops ashore in Normandy, was elected 34th President of the United States in 1952. His inauguration was January 20, 1953. Reelected in November 1956, he served two terms in the White House.
He met Mamie Doud in 1915, in San Antonio, Texas. She was 18 years old. They got married on July 1, 1916. This is Mamie’s story as recounted and performed by Ruthmary McIlhenny. Her portrayals began after Ruthmary served as a volunteer at the Eisenhower farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania beginning in 1990. The farm is now a National Historic Site operated by the National Park Service. The Park Service received a grant to enable portrayals. They had a cub reporter and a Secret Service man.
“I’m a school teacher. Everybody said, ‘You can do Mamie.’ I read everything I could about the Eisenhowers, good, bad and ugly. I learned from the park rangers. The Eisenhowers left the farm to the Park Service before they passed away. I got to look at film outtakes of interviews. The Eisenhower family was the last presidential family allowed to get and keep gifts. A lot of people locally knew the Eisenhowers. There are lots of stories. We don’t always know what is true or not,” Ruthmary recounted.
She was sipping tea dressed in Mamie pink at Ruth Dunlop’s Restaurant across from the Gettysburg Post Office. Her portrayal was part of the Gettysburg Festival. Guests were having a 1950s period luncheon in the restaurant’s private dining room served by Stacy Chavira. Stacy, dressed in black, appeared much as a server of that time would have looked.
There was Jello ambrosia with chunks of canned fruit, deviled eggs and a biscuit topped with creamed chicken. Dessert was Mamie’s recipe chocolate cake with marshmallow icing.
“I worked things up. I did the performance for public schools. There is an organization that brings people together for high tea. I’m a trustee of the Eisenhower Society. The Society was started in 1969 to keep the memory alive. It gives scholarships and raises money to provide things like cell phone programs at the farm,” Ruthmary explained.
“I was born in 1953, the same year he became President. We had green linoleum in the kitchen,” she laughed. Bangs coiffed in the Mamie style, pink hat and dress, the petite performer looked the part of ‘Twinkle-toes,’ as Mamie was code named by the Secret Service.
“I was born and raised in Chicago. My grandparents were immigrants. They came from Germany and Slovenia. My father was 5’3″ tall. He was too short in 1942 to be an officer. He could read the Cyrillic alphabet and grew up in a German neighborhood. He spoke and read Latin as well as Slovenian. Dad became an accountant. He was good in math. He became a cryptographer in the U.S. Army Signal Corps and worked closely with General Eisenhower during the war,” Ruthmary said.
The portrayal followed dessert. Ruthmary’s Mamie began as a first person account of how she met, eventually fell in love with the handsome, dashing Second Lieutenant, married, had their first child they nicknamed ‘Icky,’ “When Ike had to change his diapers.”
Icky died of scarlet fever that he contracted from a mother’s helper Mamie’s father paid for. This happened at Fort Meade. After Armistice in World War I, the Eisenhowers moved from Camp Colt in Gettysburg to Fort Meade. It was at Camp Colt where 172 of Ike’s men died from influenza. The tragedy was compounded by Icky’s death.
That too was a family nickname. Mamie wore a campaign button that bore the legend, ‘I Like Ike.’ “You could send your kid to college if you have a real one of these,” Ruthmary joked before the performance.
Mamie’s father made a fortune in the meat packing business. They wintered in San Antonio, Texas. She was playing croquet on the Army post lawn when Ike rushed down barracks stairs to do his rounds and met her. “He asked me to walk rounds with him,” Mamie, now in character, recounted.
Ike was turned down for dates. After her beaus brought her home she’d find the young Second Lieutenant sitting in the parlor having conversations with her father. This continued until Mamie relented and began dating him steady.
Ruthmary’s stories are both amusing and insightful. On their honeymoon Ike left Mamie with his mother in Abilene, Kansas. This after a three-day long train ride to get there. He went to play poker with his friends. When Ike returned quite late there was a rendering. Ike modified his poker nights somewhat to be with his wife. When duty called, this $161.27 a month Army officer went off with the admonition: “You need to understand my country always comes first. You come second.”
For all of his absences Ike was a good father. “He read bedtime stories to Icky every night. They were history lessons from West Point but to Ike it was a bedtime story. Ike became commander of Camp Colt here in Gettysburg. They were the best of times. I answered the phone on December 7, 1941. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Ike ran out of the house crying ‘Oh my God.'”
In World War II Eisenhower, one of 59 of his West Point classmates that attained the rank of General, was overseas from June 1942 until October 1945. During that time he wrote Mamie 319 letters. They were eventually published in a book by their son John. By the time Ike was elected president the family moved 39 times in 36 years.
When Mamie was asked what bedroom she wanted for herself in the White House, Ruthmary picked up the tale and in perfect character said, “I wanted to roll over and touch that bald head any time I wanted to.”
The family had their farm in Gettysburg and would entertain guests. A special friend, and as Mamie recounts it, his best friend in World War II, Winston Churchill visited. “He could walk down to the show barn but Ike had to get a golf cart to bring him back.”
Mamie Eisenhower’s health was somewhat fragile. Ruthmary explained that, “I had rheumatic fever as child. A disorder of the inner ear that caused me to stumble and I was claustrophobic. In 1955 Ike came back from 27 rounds of golf. He had eaten two hamburgers with onions, went to a party then complained of indigestion pain.”
It wasn’t indigestion. Mamie called the doctors and in the morning Ike was taken to the hospital. He suffered a heart attack. “I spent days holding his hand in the Denver hospital. I knew Gettysburg was the place for him to convalesce. We had to decide if Ike was going to run for a second term. He won by a landslide. He had a stroke in 1957 in the Oval Office. He had two more heart attacks after he left office. He died on September 28, 1969. He was 79 years old. We were married 52 years. Our son John convinced me to stay here in Gettysburg.”
“I was in the Oval Office four times in eight years,” Ruthmary as Mamie recounted. Special insight was coming. “Then it was when my Commander in Chief ordered me present. My job was to make a happy home. To stand by his side through thick and thin.”
A rose named in Mamie’s honor is appropriately called Mamie Pink. Both of her inaugural gowns were pink. Ike grew up with seven brothers. “He was ‘Little Ike’ a brother was ‘Big Ike.’ It finally became just Ike. When he ran for President they said it was great that he had that family nickname. What could they do with Eisenhower.”
Mamie’s chocolate cake and fudge recipes were published in Better Homes and Gardens. Ruthmary offers the secrets to guests at her presentations and on her website.
About his painting, Ruthmary quoted Bob Hope’s quip “Eisenhower’s painting took less strokes than when he played golf.”
The Secret Service had a rifle and telescopic sight they concealed in a golf bag as Ike played on Gettysburg’s public course. He refused to let them shut the course down when he played.
Considerate and thoughtful the Eisenhower family had Christmas eve dinner at the farm but returned to the White House for Christmas so Secret Service agents could take time to be with their families.
The 1950s were in another time, another age, another more gracious period in American history. Eisenhower’s presidency and the context in which they lived is brought to life by Ruthmary McIlhenny’s performances.
“I really enjoy it. I have loving audiences. My real forte is the question and answer time after my presentation. I answer questions about the farm and family. That brings me alive.”
Ruthmary brings Mamie Eisenhower alive with her wonderful insights and portrayal of a loving and devoted first lady whose real life spanned one of the most important eras in American history. Ruthmary shares Mamie’s fudge recipe on her website at www.mamieremembers.com where more information can be found. For information about the festival go to www.gettysburgfestival.org.