Samuel Kingston studied history at NUI Galway and has a keen interest in oral and local history. He is also interested in the Irish historical experience abroad especially in Canada and South America. The aim of this column is to tell the stories of West Cork people both famous and forgotten who, through their lives at home or abroad, made an impact on their time.
Above: Kay Summersby in 1944
During World War II, a West Cork woman became a figure of scandal in US military circles. It was believed that she was having an affair with a high ranking US officer; an officer that one day would become leader of the most powerful country in the world. Even today, historians are intrigued by the relationship and the ‘did they, didn’t they’ appeal of the story. Here we examine the gossip and rumours that surrounded the pair.
In 1943 during the second World War, Dwight D Eisenhower, future President of the United States, became Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force. His chauffeur at this time was Kay Summersby. Kay was born Kathleen Helen MacCarthy-Morrogh. She was born in Inish Beg House, Baltimore, Co. Cork on November 23, 1908.
Kay, a noted beauty, moved to London with her mother following her parent’s separation. She married a British army officer Gordon Thomas Summersby in 1936. By the outbreak of war in 1939 she was a fashion model for Worth, but on hearing Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war on the wireless on September 3, she signed up the following day with the Motor Transport Corps. In May 1942, she was assigned as driver to the then Major General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Later she became his secretary and spent the rest of the war with him. During this time he was made a five star general and the Supreme Commander. Kay had by this time divorced Summersby. She became engaged to Colonel Richard Arnold with whom she had being having an affair while with Summersby. Arnold was a US Army officer based in North Africa and he was killed while mine clearing in Tunisia in June 1943. His death overlapped with her time as Eisenhower’s chauffeur. It is this relationship with Eisenhower that has caused the most controversy over the years. Speculation over their relationship began from the start. Around the Army Headquarters there were rumours that they were involved in an affair. It is clear that they were very close but how close is a matter of debate.
Evidence suggests that Eisenhower enjoyed spending time with Kay but did the relationship go further? Eisenhower was married to Maime Genena Doud. It seems Maime and Kay had a mutual dislike for one another. Maime clearly distrusted Kay, seeing her as a potential husband snatcher. According to Harry Truman, at one point Eisenhower discussed divorcing Maime and marrying Kay with General George Marshall. Marshall advised that it would probably cost him any chance of a political career. Truman’s version of events may be purposefully misleading as Eisenhower was a political opponent. The contradictions in the story are fascinating, many who worked close to him deny that he was ever involved with Kay yet General Omar Bradley in his autobiography was of the opinion that the two were having an affair and it is noted that President Roosevelt told his daughter Anna that he believed Eisenhower was having an affair with Kay.
The story has many conflicting opinions, not helped by Kay herself. She wrote two books about her life. The first in 1948 made no mention of an affair. Later in 1975 a much more incendiary book was released, this book was ghost written by Barbara Wyden. This book gave a detailed account of the affair. Kay at this stage was dying of Cancer and Eisenhower himself had passed in 1969. Critics of this book claim the details of the affair were merely a fabrication by the ghost writer in an attempt to create a juicy story and boost sales. Eisenhower for his part only mentions Kay once in his own autobiography and that was in a list of his aides. It seems strange that for two people who spent so much time together that she would not receive more mentions but I guess the book served a different agenda. It is clear from the many press photographs that they were close and even Eisenhower’s staunchest supporter will admit that the two were close.
In 1979, the relationship got a new lease of life in the TV min-series – ‘Ike: The War Years’ – this drama focused on the relationship between Eisenhower and Summersby showing how popular the story was in the public imagination. Again, how much of the story was true is impossible to know but no doubt this drama lead to many popular misconceptions about the pair’s relationship. In the drama, Robert Duvall played Eisenhower and Lee Remick played Summersby.
What is true is that Eisenhower helped her become a US citizen and a commissioned officer in the US Women’s Army Corps, which she left in 1947. It also appears that after the war the two never saw each other again. Eisenhower went on to become the 34th President of the United States in 1953. He stayed in office for two terms, being replaced by John F. Kennedy in 1961. He died in 1969. In November 1952, Kay married Reginald Herber Morgan, a stockbroker. They divorced in 1958. She died of cancer at Southampton, Long Island, NY on January 20, 1975 and her ashes brought back to County Cork. Her military awards included the Legion of Merit, Women’s Army Corps Service Medal, European Campaign Medal, World War Two Victory Medal and Army of Occupation Medal.