I just finished the new biography of Mamie Eisenhower by Marilyn Holt and I was very impressed! Mamie Eisenhower often gets written off as just a housewife (most biographies up to this point have not been very useful), but this book really highlights her contributions and her perfect fit for the American people of the 1950s. It also discusses her early life as a military wife and how that prepared her for her role of First Lady.
I especially liked how the author brought out the ways that Mamie is typically stereotyped and then talked about how she cultivated some of that image and what she was really doing in the background. Mamie was a huge influence on Ike, but she was a big believer in stepping back and staying in her own sphere, although she certainly had opinions and could often be very strong-willed! Mamie in the 50s was a huge change for the White House as entertainment had been very subdued under the Roosevelts and the Trumans (and it makes sense for subdued entertainments during depression and war). She went back to a full schedule of entertainment and strove to serve the people – to the extent that she responded to all letters to her personally (at least signing them herself although she wrote or dictated many personally as well).This book relies on almost all primary sources – the huge amount of letters that Mamie Eisenhower wrote over the years is the mainstay. The letters give this book a really personal feel of Mamie – you can really hear and see her in the pages. You can also really feel the devotion the Eisenhowers felt for each other throughout their marriage. I feel like I got to know Mamie as I read this book.
Now I want to point out some fun excerpts/facts from the book:
- Mamie loved card games and one of her favorite one was canasta.
- Mamie hated flying. Ike wrote that "Mamie...never completely convinced herself that an airplane flies." (95)
- Mamie was devoted to As the World Turns and White House staff, like J.B. West, learned to avoid her room when it was on or they'd be stuck watching it with her. As West said, "You can't just say, 'I'm sorry, I have more important things to do,' to a First Lady - especially Mrs. Eisenhower." (119)
- Mamie got along really well with Pat Nixon (although there are stories to the contrary), but she wasn't that impressed with Jackie Kennedy's work on the White House. Jackie, of course, did a huge restoration of the White House, and she gilded what was a silver chandelier in the State Dining Room. Whenever Mamie visited the Johnson or Nixon White House, she always asked, "How did you ever let that woman [Mrs. Kennedy] ruin that beautiful chandelier?" (132)
Holt ends with this great quote about Mamie from Marian Christy. I think the quote really sums up Mamie, so I'm including as my end as well:
There are very few originals in the world. And when one leaves it there is a void. Mamie Eisenhower was an original. She had the courage to define herself rather than have outsiders tell her who she was and what she should be...She set an image for the role of the classic wife, the classic mother, the classic non-political President's wife. She had the guts to be her classic self. She was 'Mamie.' (143)