Mamie Doud Eisenhower presided as First Lady of the United States from 1953 to 1961. She and Ike had been married for a quarter of a century when they were thrust into the public eye in 1942. There they would remain, on the world's center stage, for the next twenty years. Through it all, Ike and Mamie were life-long partners, well suited to the challenges they faced together.
Mamie Geneva Doud was born in 1896 in Boone, Iowa, the second of four daughters of John, "Pupah" Sheldon and Elvira Mathilda "Nana" Carlson Doud. When Mamie was just nine months old, in August 1897, the family moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. By 1905, John Doud had made a fortune in the meat-packing business and, for his wife's well-being, was determined to semi-retire and move his family to Pueblo, Colorado, and later, Colorado Springs. The altitude there aggravated daughter Eleanor's fragile heart condition, so the Douds relocated, once more, to Denver.
The Doud family was fun-loving, demonstrative, and close-knit. Pupah indulged Mamie, whom he called "Puddy," and her sisters with an affluent lifestyle that included luxuries like jewelry, clothes, recreation, and travel. Mamie attended Denver's public schools and, then, completed her education at Miss Wolcott's, a prestigious, private finish school for the daughters of prominent Denver families. Comments about and photographs of the popular "Miss Doud" appeared frequently in the Denver Post's society pages.
Beginning in 1910, each winter the Douds migrated to the milder climate of San Antonio, Texas. It was at nearby Fort Sam Houston, in October 1915, where Ike and Mamie were introduced by a mutual friend. There was an instant spark of attraction, and the handsome, Second Lieutenant Dwight D. Eisenhower began an earnest courtship of the attractive and vivacious Miss Doud.
On Valentine's Day 1916, Ike and Mamie announced their engagement. The ring he placed on her finger was a miniature copy of his West Point ring, an amethyst set in gold. The entire Doud family was very fond of Ike; but, just the same, John had a frank and fatherly talk with his 19-year-old daughter about life's prospects as an Army wife. By her own admission, Mamie was a spoiled, naïve young woman who knew more about managing servants than cooking, sewing, and making a home herself. None of that mattered; Mamie wanted her Ike, and she was willing to accept whatever would come.
Dwight D. Eisenhower and Mamie Geneva Doud were married at noon on July 1, 1916, in the Doud family home in Denver-the same day Ike received his first promotion. They had a ten-day honeymoon, spending the first days in Colorado. They, then, boarded a train to Abilene for a brief, and sweltering, visit with the Ike's parents before leaving for Manhattan, Kansas, to see younger brother, Milton Eisenhower.
From 1916 until the eve of World War II, Mamie made a home for her family in various army posts across the United States and abroad. Whenever she was unable to accompany her husband, she moved back to 750 Lafayette Street, in Denver, to stay with her parents. In the 1920s and 1930s, Ike's assignments took them far and wide; to Panama, France, and the Philippines. Through it all, Mamie's determination to create a comfortable refuge for her family matched her husband's own devotion to duty. In a span of 37 years, Mamie packed up and moved her household nearly as many times.
Two sons were born to the Eisenhowers. The first, Doud Dwight, was born on September 24, 1917. "Little Icky," as he was affectionately nicknamed, contracted scarlet fever when he was three, and died within a week, on January 2, 1921. It was a devastating grief from which Mamie and Ike never fully recovered. Although they felt their lives shattered, the Eisenhowers were determined to move forward. A second son, John "Johnny" Sheldon Doud Eisenhower, was born in Denver on August 3, 1922. John, coincidentally, graduated from West Point on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and was married to Barbara Jean Thompson in a June wedding in 1947. John and Barbara had four children: Dwight David II, Barbara Ann, Susan Elaine, and Mary Jean. Mamie--or "Mimi" as she was called by her grandchildren--was always happiest at home, surrounded by her family.
The war years were difficult for Mamie Eisenhower. She lived alone in an apartment in Washington, D.C., like any other soldier's wife, waiting for her husband to return home to her safely. John was a student at West Point, and she was hesitant to interfere in his life with too frequent visits. To pass the long wait, Mamie involved herself in charity work, war fundraisers, and volunteer activities. During the course of World War II, she did not see Ike for three years; however, a flurry of letters and cables crossed the Atlantic both ways.
Mamie Eisenhower was always a charming and gracious hostess, renown for her striking china-blue eyes and creamy complexion. In fact, during their Army years, the Eisenhowers earned a reputation for fine hospitality, and their military quarters, known as "Club Eisenhower," was a popular destination. With family, friends, and staff, Mamie was especially affectionate and sentimental. Birthday celebrations were a specialty that dated back to the elaborate birthday fetes Pupah staged for his precious girls. Those who met Mamie Eisenhower for the first time often remarked on her genuine warmth and sincere concern for others; she simply made them feel special. When the Eisenhowers moved into the White House, Mamie brought these personal qualities and her considerable social experience to her new position.
A very popular First Lady, Mamie Eisenhower regularly appeared on the "Most Admired Women" list until her death. She was the essence of femininity and the ideal of American womanhood in the 1950s, determined to project a youthful and stylish image despite being a grandmother in her fifties. American women loved her because they identified with her. Mamie was "one of them"--the woman next door. Her famous bangs, styled by Elizabeth Arden in Paris, completed what became the "Mamie Look," a modified version of the revolutionary, postwar "New Look." Mamie Eisenhower had a natural sense of style that she personalized with her well loved accessories: a pearl choker and button earrings, a charm bracelet, glittery pins, little fitted hats, and a mink stole or full-length fur coat. Throughout her life, Mamie cultivated a fascination with clothes and fashion, and appeared, consistently, on the "Best Dressed" lists during her White House years. One way to nearly guarantee Mamie Eisenhower's attendance at any event was to hold a fashion show.
As First Lady, Mamie Eisenhower kept up a demanding daily schedule and grueling pace. Mornings she organized White House staff and household with a military precision equal to her husband's. Afternoons were filled with a wide array of never-ending appearances with various groups and causes. Mamie had a Victorian sense of propriety, reasoning that if someone had taken the time to write a letter or send a card, that the least she could do was to return a gracious thank you. Consequently, she spent countless hours, with a staff of secretaries, carrying on a prolific and very personal correspondence with the American public.
For eight years, until Ike's death in 1969, the Eisenhowers reveled in their retirement at their beloved Gettysburg farm. Happily, John, Barbara, and the grandchildren lived close by. In 1950, Ike and Mamie had purchased an old, Pennsylvania farmhouse--their first real home--and 190 acres. Most of the original house had to be razed, and a new house built around what could be salvaged. Throughout the White House years, Mamie devoted as much time as she could to overseeing its restoration. When the project was complete, the entire White House staff was invited to Gettysburg to join in the housewarming. Whenever their schedules allowed it, Ike and Mamie escaped Washington, D.C. for the peace and tranquility of their dream home in the country.
Mamie stayed on, alone, at Gettysburg, after Ike's death. Once a year, she made the trek back to Abilene to visit Ike's grave, where Doud Dwight had been previously interred. Mamie referred to it as her "Journey of Love." Most days at Gettysburg were quiet and uneventful in the last years of her life. On September 25, 1979, Mamie Eisenhower suffered a stroke and was rushed to Walter Reed Hospital, the same place where Ike had died a decade before. Mamie never left the hospital, and on October 31, announced to her granddaughter, Mary, that she would die tomorrow. Indeed, very early, on the morning of November 1, 1979, Mamie Doud Eisenhower died quietly in her sleep.