Dwight Eisenhower’s First Lady

Mamie was Dwight Eisenhower’s wife. He was the thirty-fourth president of the United States, and she served as the United States’ first lady from 1953 to 1961. Ike’s military service had the pair on the run all the time; in particular, they didn’t purchase their first home until they were married for more than thirty years. When Mamie became the first lady, she had decades of experience hosting at the military and political levels. She earned a reputation as a generous and professional White House hostess.

Mamie Geneva Doud was the second of four daughters born to John Sheldon Doud and Elvira Mathilde Carlson Doud on November 14, 1896, in Boone, Iowa. When Mamie was seven years old, John made his money in the meatpacking business and left at the age of 36, bringing the family to Colorado. Her life in Denver and San Antonio, Texas, was a luxury, with servants and big homes.

They spent the winter in San Antonio, Texas, where Mamie Doud met Dwight D. Eisenhower, a young second lieutenant, at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, shortly after graduation. Dwight Eisenhower described Mamie as “saucy in the look about her face and her whole attitude,” He invited her to accompany him on his assigned rounds. She attracted his attention instantly, and on St. Valentine’s Day, 1916, he proposed to her with a miniature of his West Point class ring. Mamie was nineteen years old when she married on July 1, 1916, at the Doud’s home in Denver.

Life as a Military Wife

Mamie and Dwight started their married life in military housing in San Antonio, where she learned about budgeting and household management. These topics had escaped her notice during her privileged childhood.

Mamie Eisenhower’s life changed dramatically as a military wife stationed in the United States, the Panama Canal Zone, France, and the Philippines. Mamie reported that she relocated the entire family twenty-seven times during their thirty-seven years of military service. At each step, her husband’s career advanced, and she was given more responsibilities.

The Eisenhowers’ first son, Doud Dwight, died of scarlet fever when he was three years old. In 1922, a second son, John Sheldon Doud, was born. Mamie started styling her hair in a style known as “Mamie bangs” at that time. When her husband’s military duties divided them during World War II, she wrote to him nearly every day. To dispel rumors of a wartime relationship between General Eisenhower and his pretty young driver, Kay Summersby, his letters to her were later written by their son as “Letters to Mamie” in 1978.

Life as a First Lady

She embarked on a new position as First Lady of the United States in 1953, for which she was thoroughly trained. She described the job in a way that mirrored both her interests and goals and a lot of 1950s gender role thinking.

Mamie thrived in her capacity as the first lady, and she was known for gracious entertaining. She was incredibly popular with audiences and at home with essential people. Employees at the White House said Mamie maintained a close watch on them and was constantly looking out for mistakes. She hated delivering interviews, and in news conferences, she confined herself to a list of social activities—”tea by inexorable tea,” as one writer called it. Mamie, adamantly anti-partisan, wrote an essay for Good Housekeeping in 1952 titled, “Vote for My Husband or Governor Stevenson, but Please Vote.”

She was outwardly social, but she guarded her anonymity and avoided taking public stances on most topics. During Eisenhower’s presidency, the family faced several medical issues, prompting Mamie to keep a close eye on Ike’s recovery. However, she endured her share of physical problems as well. Mamie spent long hours in bed due to a heart condition instigated by a childhood case of rheumatic fever. She suffered from an inner-ear infliction called Ménière’s disease, which affected her balance. The first lady’s occasional sight stumbling and grasping to steady herself fueled a nasty and unfounded rumor that she had a drinking problem.

She backed Ellen Harris, a Republican nominee for Congress, in a period where more women were voting than ever before but were largely uninvolved in politics. In the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, she also accepted the National Council of Negro Women’s honorary membership. Mamie encouraged African American children to join in the annual Easter Egg Roll and ensured that the 4-H Club Camp for Negro Boys and Girls was included in special tours of the White House. Mamie has served as the first honorary chair of the Girls Clubs of America, now Girls Inc.

Dwight had a major heart attack in 1955. Despite his family’s worries over his wellbeing, Mamie persuaded him to run for re-election in 1956, fearing that retirement would be fatal.

The Eisenhowers moved to a farm near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, after leaving the White House in January 1961. Mamie outlived her husband by ten years, dying in Washington, D.C.’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 1979 in Abilene, Kansas; she is buried next to him.