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Sunday, May 28, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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When Gunfire Ended, So Did Ike's War Romance

AP

DELETED FROM a picture of Dwight D. Eisenhower, dismissed with a mere mention in the general's war diary, Kay Summersby was one of the tragic figures of World War II. She was Eisenhower's chauffeur and companion and perhaps more.

The end of World War II in Europe signaled the end of the road for chauffeur Kay Summersby's three-year relationship with her boss, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Her face was censored from the official photo taken by Technical Sgt. Al Meserlin, Ike's personal photographer, on that May morning in 1945 when the Germans surrendered at the red-brick schoolhouse in Reims, France.

In a print of the original picture, which Meserlin has kept in his scrapbook for 50 years, Summersby is in the background as Eisenhower holds aloft in a V-for-victory gesture the two pens used by the high-ranking German officers to sign the surrender.

When Eisenhower left Europe for a Pentagon assignment some months later, Summersby's name was dropped from the travel orders of SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) staffers joining him. She was the only member of what he fondly called his "immediate wartime family" to be left behind.

She was devastated, as she recorded in a bittersweet autobiography, "Past Forgetting: My Love Affair With Dwight D. Eisenhower," written after Eisenhower's death and during her final illness. It depicted a passionate but unconsummated love affair that consisted mostly of "stolen kisses" along a woodland path or aboard "a darkened plane to Cairo."

She wrote of holding hands, sitting before the fire in his quarters listening to favorite records while sharing cocktails for two, "almost telepathic" bridge partners, golfing together, horseback riding in the countryside or the desert, romping with "Telek," the coal-black Scottish terrier he bought for her.

Ike's London chauffeur

Eisenhower mentions her only once in his diary, "Crusade in Europe," just a name on a list of aides.

Kathleen McCarthy Summersby, a perky, coquettish Irish divorcee and former fashion model for the House of Worth in Paris, was 33 when as a civilian volunteer with the British Motor Transport Corps she was assigned to drive Eisenhower around London. He was 20 years older.

As a staff driver Kay preferred "the breezy easygoing Yanks to the stiff-upper-lip, swagger stick-carrying British officers" she usually saluted and opened the door for. For his part, Eisenhower liked her sparkling smile and ready wit, even when the buzz bombs began falling, and was amused that she kept her compact and lipstick in her gas mask. He called her "Skib," because she was from Skibbereen in County Cork and "stubborn as an Army mule."

Summersby writes of falling in love with the face in the rearview mirror: "I succumbed immediately to that grin which was to become famous."

SHAEF staffers noticed that her bubbly presence relaxed Eisenhower as the pressures of planning the D-Day invasion mounted. Harry Butcher, the general's naval aide, rated her "better than any man at driving that big Packard in a total blackout and through London's pea soupers with those pinpoint headlights."

Lunch at 10 Downing Street

Soon she was more than a chauffeur: sitting in on top-secret meetings, going to 10 Downing Street with the general for lunch with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, dining with President Franklin Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull and key advisers such as Averell Harriman, Harry Hopkins, and Bernard Baruch.

She accompanied Eisenhower to combat areas and shared GI rations and "liberated champagne" with Gens. Omar Bradley and George S. Patton. Often she presided as hostess at his formal dinners. "We have no secrets from Kay," Eisenhower told Churchill, who was charmed to sit on her right at table and later awarded her the British Empire Medal.

It was Summersby who got Eisenhower hooked on the English habit of 4 o'clock tea. The joke at the American officers mess was that "Eisenhower is the best general the British have."

Bradley was shocked to see Summersby turn up in Algeria after the landings in North Africa, but was less surprised when she twice accompanied Eisenhower on brief holidays at a villa on the Riviera.

Rumors, innuendoes and bawdy barracks jokes were rife in the ranks about their friendship. Eisenhower once complained to Patton that he was speechless with rage when "the other day Kay and I were out riding and a soldier yoo-hooed at us."

Technical Sgt. Barkev Sagatelian, the senior mapmaker in Eisenhower's headquarters, saw Summersby "quite often, but she never came into the war room." Sagatelian, retired as an architect in Ormond Beach, Fla. still asks himself: "Was she his girlfriend? Who knows for sure? High-ranking officers had their own lives. Probably they had love affairs, but we didn't know about those things."

Eisenhower's son, John, who briefly served as his aide after graduating from West Point on D-Day, later described her as "the Mary Tyler Moore of headquarters. She was perky and she was cute. Whether she had any designs on the Old Man and the extent to which he succumbed, I just don't know."

Tokens of affection

On a number of occasions Eisenhower demonstrated his affection for his winsome lieutenant. They sometimes went dancing together after a movie or the theater. He gave her a Beretta automatic and taught her how to shoot at tin cans.

Eisenhower had his tailor measure her for two uniforms after the troopship she boarded to join him in Algeria was torpedoed and she escaped without any luggage into a lifeboat.

In her autobiography, Summersby tells of one attempt at intimacy that failed when "we both came to our senses . . . there were eyes and ears everywhere" and another because Eisenhower was too exhausted after a long airplane journey.

Pictures of them together in newspapers, magazines and newsreels made Eisenhower's wife, Mamie, increasingly suspicious. She was furious when her husband, on a brief home leave at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, kept calling her Kay.

Ike may have considered divorce

In "Plain Talking," an oral biography of President Truman, Merle Miller recounted that "right after the war was over" Eisenhower informed Army Chief of Staff George Marshall he wanted to return to the States, divorce Mamie and marry Kay. The biographer quotes Truman: "Marshall wrote him back a letter the like of which I never have seen. He said if Eisenhower ever came close to doing such a thing he'd not only bust him out of the Army but see to it that never for the rest of his life would he be able to draw a peaceful breath."

Miller wrote that Truman then revealed: "One of the last things I did as president I got those letters from Ike's file in the Pentagon and I destroyed them."

Historian Stephen Ambrose, an editor of the Eisenhower papers, labels the story "completely untrue," maintaining that Truman spoke with Miller long after "he had broken with Eisenhower and was approaching senility."

Kay Summersby became a U.S. citizen and settled in the United States after the war, but never found happiness. She was mugged in a San Rafael, Calif., parking lot, broke off an engagement to a San Francisco man who thought she had money, went through a divorce with a New York stockbroker and had trouble finding a job. She once called on President Eisenhower at the White House and was graciously received but afterward told by an aide not to call again.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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