Wednesday 18 July 2018

The Cork woman who helped Ike win the war

Kay Summersby never stopped loving US General Eisenhower, writes James MacManus, the author of a fictionalised account of the affair between the Irish divorcee and the head of the Allied Forces

Kay Summersby ,from Co Cork, first met Dwight D Eisenhower when assigned to chauffeur him during a wartime visit to London
Kay Summersby ,from Co Cork, first met Dwight D Eisenhower when assigned to chauffeur him during a wartime visit to London
Kay Summersby with Dwight D Eisenhower
Ike and Kay by James MacManus

She called him the boss and his nickname for her was "Irish". General Dwight Eisenhower had many reasons to fall for his driver and personal assistant Kay Summersby, who was at his side in the momentous years of World Word II. Her Irish background, born and bred as she was in West Cork, was certainly one of them.

Summersby was an attractive divorcee 17 years younger than Eisenhower. She was a good driver, an efficient assistant, a charming hostess at social occasions and above all, she was the woman he could turn to at the end of the day to take the weight of the war off his sagging shoulders.

She would mix his favourite drink, a tall whiskey with ice and water, and Eisenhower would begin to unwind. She would join him in a game of bridge or sit back and give him time to read one of his favourite westerns. Often, as she recounts in her memoir, Past Forgetting, the Supreme Commander would ask for "one of your Irish stories".

The woman who was the centre of scandalous gossip at the heart of the Allied command would then talk about her wild upbringing on a rundown country estate in Co Cork.

She was born Kathleen MacCarthy-Morrogh, and took the name Summersby after a brief failed marriage. As a child, she was allowed to run free with her brother Seamus and three sisters in the stone-walled fields around the family home, Inish Beg.

The house was on a small island down river from the market town of Skibbereen. The children's favourite pastime was to sail four miles down the estuary to where the river met the Atlantic - but no further. There were also the usual recreations in the now obsolete world of the landed Anglo Irish - hunt balls, riding, garden parties and shooting.

Eisenhower was charmed by such stories, probably because they contrasted so sharply with his own hardscrabble background across the tracks in the cattle town of Denison, Texas.

They had met in May 1942, when Eisenhower arrived in London to begin the planning for a cross-Channel invasion. After the nightmare of driving an ambulance in the Blitz, Summersby had become a government driver and was ordered to chauffeur the unknown two-star general with a strangely Germanic name around the rubble-strewn streets of the city.

After 10 days, Ike returned to Washington and gave Kay a box of chocolates, a rare wartime gift. Two weeks later he was back again, this time as a three-star general in charge of Allied forces.

Kay was not at the airport to drive him. She had been assigned to another American general. Eisenhower pulled rank. Kay resumed her role and found a large basket of fruit on her desk, another unheard of luxury. The affair between the 53-year-old general and the 34-year-old divorcee from West Cork had begun.

From that moment until the bitter aftermath of the war in the autumn of 1945, Kay rarely left Eisenhower's side. He rode roughshod over etiquette to include her at social occasions and broke regulations to transfer her to North Africa, where she drove him night and day after the Torch landings in 1942.

When Roosevelt and Churchill separately visited Eisenhower in the desert, Summersby was seated beside them at picnic lunches. Roosevelt, confined as usual to his wheelchair (which was concealed by a table flap), called Kay "child" and wanted to know about the horrors of driving an ambulance during the Blitz. Churchill took her aside afterwards, telling her: "Make sure you look after our general."

The assumption behind Roosevelt's charm and Churchill's words was shared by those in the high command; Eisenhower was having an affair with Kay and if that is what it took to keep him sane under the crushing burden of supreme command, then so be it.

Critics who dared raise the propriety of the relationship were dismissed in words which undoubtedly echoed opinion in the White House and No 10 Downing Street.

"Leave Kay alone, she's helping Ike win the war." It was Ike's deputy chief of staff, General Everett Hughes, who said this - but it might just as well have been Churchill or Roosevelt.

Although Eisenhower and Kay were "as close as two coats of paint" (in the words of an aide), it took some time before, as Kay said memorably: "We found ourselves in each other's arms… Our ties came off, our buttons were unbuttoned, it was as if we were frantic. And we were."

Crucially, Kay admits that while sexual, the affair was never fully consummated, the explanation lying in the exhaustion of her war-weary general.

The admission is important because it makes nonsense of the suggestions by several historians that Summersby invented the romantic relationship when dictating her book while dying. A woman fantasising about an affair is hardy likely to have revealed such a personal insight.

More telling still is the fact that at the height of the war, Ike arranged for Summersby to have American citizenship, thus allowing her to join the US army as a second lieutenant. Roosevelt himself signed the order in October 1944. These two great men broke through coils of red tape to grant her this honour. The intention was obvious. As an American citizen and member of the US army, Kay would have every right and reason to join him in the Washington after the war.

Kay did indeed go to America but not to join Eisenhower. Ambition trumped lust, love, obsession, whatever it was that had bound Eisenhower to the woman with whom he had spent almost every day of his war. He broke off the relationship with a brutally phrased typewritten letter of which one historian has said: "Patton would not have said goodbye to his horse like that".

Kay Summersby settled in New York and married again. But as her memoir makes movingly clear, she never stopped loving the man who used to call her "Irish".

James MacManus's historical novel Ike and Kay has just been published by Duckworth

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