Friday 23 March 2018

General Ike and his Irish wartime lover

Kieron Wood on his new book about the affair between the Allied commander and his Cork driver

Kay Summersby: Everyone from lowly privates to the US President gossiped about the affair.
Kay Summersby: Everyone from lowly privates to the US President gossiped about the affair.

Everyone was talking about the relationship between West Cork-born Kay Summersby and General Dwight Eisenhower. The rumour was that the American general - in command of the World War II Allied invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Italy and later D-Day - was having an affair with his Irish driver, 18 years his junior.

The newspapers in neutral Ireland ignored the scandalous gossip, but everybody in the Allied forces - from the lowliest private to the President of the United States - was gossiping about Ike and Kay.

The locals in England knew about the love nests they shared and it was no secret they slept in the same tent in North Africa. Kay often went riding with the general or played bridge with him - both talents she'd learned while growing up as a MacCarthy-Morrogh in Inish Beg, an island near Baltimore in West Cork. Her Irish upbringing also made her the perfect hostess for Ike's dinner parties, with guests ranging from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to US President Franklin D Roosevelt.

Ike's personal notes to her also displayed a closeness not normally seen between a chauffeur and her employer: "How about lunch, tea & dinner today?" read one note. "If yes: Who else do you want, if any? At which time? How are you?" Another note given to Kay by Ike in 1943 read: "Good night! There are lots of things I could wish to say - you know them. Good night." (The note was still in Kay's wallet when she died in the US at the age of 66.) By this stage, Kay - who had moved permanently to London - was in love with her boss.

She agreed to continue to work for him in North Africa but, after a stormy voyage, her ship was torpedoed by a U-boat just before Christmas in 1942. Kay managed to clamber into a lifeboat and arrived with little more than the clothes she stood up in. Ike had his own problems - the fallout from the assassination of the Vichy French leader Admiral Darlan while Ike was out of town.

In 1943, Ike appointed Kay his secretary, despite the fact that she had problems writing, spelling and typing. Kay continued to drive Ike, but their relationship wasn't just professional. According to Kay, they kissed and held hands on a night flight to Egypt. They then went sightseeing and flew on to Palestine, where Ike took her to the (closed) Garden of Gethsemane and then wrote her another love note. Kay said the relationship was not consummated - but Ike had already had two sons, so there's no doubt he was physically capable.

The trouble was they were both already married, him to Mamie and her to British army officer Gordon Summersby. (She was also having an affair with another American officer, but he died while mine-clearing in North Africa.)

It didn't help that Ike called his wife "Kay" several times while he was on leave in Washington. And, despite regular protestations of love for his wife, he never referred to his holidays with Kay in the south of France, Italy or Austria. He also 'forgot' to mention that he was taking Kay to the theatre in London at the end of the war, but a picture of Ike and Kay together appeared on the front page of papers the following day.

Mamie was furious. She accused Ike of taking a particular interest in "Ireland", as she scathingly referred to Kay. (Ike called Kay "Irish" or "Skibbereen".) Mamie had cause to worry. She had stayed in a hotel in Washington throughout the war with Ruth Butcher, the wife of Ike's close comrade Commander Harry Butcher. But Butch, as he was known, met Mollie Forde, a Red Cross girl, in Algiers, divorced his wife at the war's end and married his new love.

Ike was likewise said to have contacted the US Chief of Staff, General George Marshall, and asked to divorce Mamie and marry the now-divorced Kay.

Marshall was not impressed; indeed, he threatened that Ike would never have another quiet moment if he went through with his plans. On reflection, Ike seemed to agree.

Although Ike had appointed Kay a WAC officer - the only foreigner to be so elevated - and although she later became a US citizen, Ike (who was appointed US Chief of Staff in 1945) decided she should be based in California, 3,000 miles away from his Pentagon office.

There, she decided to leave the army, following an attempt to rape and strangle her. Her attacker got 15 years in jail.

Even then, the relationship was not over. Kay continued to write to Ike and to 'bump into' him, and 15 US editors who believed she was still seeing him put up $1,000 each to bug her phone. But by the time Ike became President of the United States in 1952 (he served for two terms, followed by Democrat John F Kennedy), the affair was over.

Kay married a Wall Street broker, but the marriage lasted just six years before they divorced. Following the death of Ike in 1969, she was diagnosed with liver cancer. She died in a Long Island hospital in 1975.

Her last wish was that her ashes should be scattered on the family grave where it all began, in west Cork.

Ike's Irish Lover - The Echo of a Sigh by Kieron Wood is available from

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