Mamie Eisenhower’s experiences as a military officer’s wife had taught her important lessons which she implemented during her time as First Lady. With extraordinary creativity, commitment to her husband, and genuine love of “pretty, feminine” things, Mamie Eisenhower was “liked” (almost as much as Ike) and charmed America in the 1950’s.
Born on November 4, 1896, Mamie Geneva Doud grew up with three sisters in a loving family. Her father was a successful businessman, and, when Mamie was eight, the family moved to Denver, Colorado. Mamie spent her childhood and youth in Denver and San Antonio; she attended a girls’ finishing school and didn’t learn many housekeeping skills.
With her family’s position in society, Mamie expected to attend fabulous parties and live in comfortable ease. She anticipated her debut in 1915 when she would officially start her role in Denver society. However, her plans suddenly changed when a family visit took her to a military base. At Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, Mamie met West Point graduate Dwight Eisenhower. He invited her to go walking with him and later claimed he fell in love when she disobeyed his orders.
When she returned to Denver, Mamie and Dwight corresponded. The following year, Dwight asked to marry Mamie. When she responded, she had made a decision which would change her plans for an easy society life to the challenging role of military wife.
Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower married on July 1, 1916 – the day he promoted to First Lieutenant (and got a pay-raise). Their move to Fort Sam Houston marked the beginning of their travels for the U.S. Army. Mamie Eisenhower would spend 45 years of her life in or supporting her husband’s public service; for her that meant setting up housekeeping in 37 different homes!
In the beginning, Mamie struggled to settle into her new role. She missed her parents and sisters, and learning to run a house, cook, and clean for the first time proved challenging. She capably budgeted, avoided debt, and excelled at hosting gatherings for other military couples – all skills which allowed Dwight’s influence and reputation to grow.
The Eisenhowers had two sons: Doud Dwight (nicknamed “Icky”) and John Sheldon. Sadly, “Icky” died before his fifth birthday. Mamie struggled with health challenges throughout her life and battled depression after her son’s death.
Mamie traveled international with her husband. She lived on military bases in Panama and the Philippines, continue her role as wife, mom, and friend.
During World War II, Mamie lived in a small apartment in Washington D.C. while Dwight served as Allied commander in Europe. Rumors plagued the couple, but they kept their relationship strong through correspondence. Mamie disliked the press and carefully avoided any actions which could lead to bad impressions for herself, for her husband, and other military wives. By the end of the conflict in 1945, Dwight Eisenhower was famous; he continued military service, then served briefly as president of Columbia University.
When Dwight considered running for president in 1952 on the Republican ticket, Mamie supported his decision, but dreaded the “hoopla” that they would endure from the press. She actively campaigned for her husband, touring the country with him and winning votes for her candidate through her good-natured charm and fun. When the election results were in, Ike and Mamie were “liked” and had won.
First Lady @ The White House
Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower set a new precedent: just seconds after taking the oath of office, the president kissed the first lady. They also created a new tradition when the president and first lady rode together in the inaugural parade (previously, the president and vice president had traveled down Pennsylvania Avenue together.)
As Mamie settled into the White House, she decided to redecorate first family’s living quarters. She chose a pink and green color scheme, famously filling her own bedroom with pink pillows, sheets, curtains, bathrobes, etc. etc. From her pink room, Mamie Eisenhower ran the White House like a military base. She was used to structure and instructed her staff to meet standards of perfection.
In her style, Mamie Eisenhower epitomized the fun of the 1950’s. Her clothing was flattering and feminine (often pink – her favorite color!). She worked to create a true-to-life-image for her role as first lady: she was just like other American homemakers.
Throughout her life, Mamie had understood and maintained “spheres of influence.” She managed the house and social obligations, leaving Dwight free to excel in the military or political arena. In fact, she visited the Oval Office less than ten times during her eight years in the White House; she made a point of entering “the man’s world” only when invited. She didn’t want publicity and usually worked behind the scenes, answering correspondence and making social gatherings and entertainments at the Executive Mansion an art form. Mamie quietly worked in support of the Civil Rights Movement and supported five charity events every week.
After eight years in the White House, Mamie Eisenhower finally got to “settle down” and she built her “dream house” in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (You can visit the Eisenhower National Historic Site today and see her home!) Dwight passed away in 1969. Mamie spent the next ten years with family, friends, and keeping up with American politics. She passed away in 1979.
Mrs. Eisenhower’s Legacy
Mamie Eisenhower wasn’t afraid to define how she would be First Lady. Her life experiences shaped how she handled her role. She knew what she wanted, loved traditionalism, had years of experience in entertaining, and was never afraid to “be herself.”
That very idea of never changing and being true to who and what she loved endeared Mamie to Americans. She may not have had the incredibly far-reaching influence of other First Ladies, but she left important lessons for all Americans: be kind, be charming, be dedicated, be yourself.