“She often slept at Eisenhower’s country house in England, known as Telegraph Cottage, and according to local folklore, the two even shared ‘love nests.’”
By Kieron Wood
The gossip was that the American general – the driving force behind Operation Torch, the invasion of Sicily and Italy and the planning for D-Day – was having an affair with his driver, 18 years his junior.
The speculation was understandable. One wartime journalist was shocked to catch Kay giving her illustrious passenger a peck on the cheek. She often slept at Eisenhower’s country house in England, known as Telegraph Cottage, and according to local folklore, the two even shared ‘love nests’.
The two first met in May 1942. The 51-year-old general had just arrived in England to assist with the growing U.S. military mission in Europe. Summersby, 33, had been with the all-female Mechanised Transport Corps (MTC) since 1939. The native of Cork knew London like the back of her hand, having driven an ambulance through the East End during the Blitz. Her experience made her the ideal candidate for the American commander.Their professional relationship soon blossomed into friendship.
Kay rode horseback in the nearby park with Ike and played bridge with him in the evenings; he taught her to target shoot. Eventually she became his official dinner-party hostess. Ike’s own personal notes to her show a closeness not normally seen between a chauffeur and her boss.
“How about lunch, tea & dinner today?,” read one note. “If yes: Who else do you want, if any? At which time? How are you?”
Eventually, Kay agreed to follow Ike from England to Algiers. It was a stormy sea voyage, cut short the night of Dec. 21, 1942 by a U-boat’s torpedo off the coast of Algeria. Kay managed to scramble into a lifeboat before the vessel, SS Strathallan, sank. She arrived in North Africa with little more than the clothes she stood up in. Ike had his own problems – namely the fallout from the assassination of the Vichy French leader Admiral Francois Darlan, which had taken place while Ike was out of town. Reunited, the two spent the Christmas of 1942 cuddled up together, and all but ignored the outside world.
In 1943, Ike appointed Kay his private secretary – despite the fact that she had problems spelling, typing or writing. Kay continued to host Ike’s dinner parties for VIPs like wartime leaders Winston Churchill and FDR, and to drive Ike the long distances to his forward HQ, but their relationship wasn’t just professional. According to Kay, they kissed and held hands on a night flight to Cairo. They then went sightseeing in the Valley of the Kings and flew to Palestine, where Ike took her to the (closed) Garden of Gethsemane and then wrote her another note: “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 at the age of 66.)
The trouble was they were both married – him to Mamie and her to British army officer Gordon Summersby. (She was also having an affair with another American officer, Dick Arnold, but he died while clearing mines in North Africa.)
It didn’t help that Ike called his wife ‘Kay’ several times while he was on furlough in Washington. And, despite his protestations of love for his wife, he omitted to refer to his holidays with Kay in Italy, the south of France or Austria. Ike also ‘forgot’ to mention that he was taking Summersby to the theatre in London at the end of the war, but a picture of the cozy couple appeared on the front page of the British newspapers the following day.
Mamie was furious. She often chided her husband over his particular interest in “Ireland” – a scathing reference to Kay. Mrs. Eisenhower spent much of the war living in the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington D.C. with Ruth Butcher, the wife of Ike’s right-hand man, U.S.Navy officer Harry Butcher. But Butch, as he was known, met a Red Cross girl while serving in Algiers. He divorced his wife in 1945 and married the young woman, Mollie Forde.
Ike, it was said, contacted the U.S. chief of staff, General George Marshall, and suggested he wanted to divorce Mamie and marry the now-divorced Kay. Marshall was reportedly not impressed; indeed, he threatened that Ike would never have another quiet moment if he went through with his plans.
Eisenhower eventually made Kay an officer in the American Women’s Army Corps (WAC) – the only foreigner to be so honored – and pulled strings to get her U.S. citizenship.
Ike (who was by 1945 chief of staff) eventually decided to ship her to California, 3,000 miles away from his office at the Pentagon. Kay left the army shortly after being the victim of an attempted rape — her attacker got 15 years.
Even then, the Summersby-Eisenhower relationship was not over. She continued to write to Ike and to ‘bump into’ him. Fifteen newspaper editors put up $1,000 each to bug her phone on the assumption that she was still seeing him. But by the time Ike became the 34th president of the United States in 1952, it was all over.
Kay married a Wall Street broker; the union lasted just six years.
She later became fashion coordinator for the CBS network but, following the death of Ike in 1969, she was diagnosed with liver cancer. She died in a Long Island hospital in January 1975. Her last wish was that her ashes should be scattered on the family grave where it all began, in west Cork.