Bookscapes: Brushed Out of the Picture







Last week was the 75th anniversary of V-E Day, the day when Nazi Germany formally surrendered to the Allies. It  reminded me of a telling pair of photographs that I dug up when I was doing the research for one of my favorite writing projects: a biographical novel called The General’s Women, about the woman behind General Dwight Eisenhower during World War II. Kay Summersby, Ike’s driver and aide.

Take a good look at the photo above, of Eisenhower holding the two pens used to sign the German surrender. It’s the one that has been published for the past 75 years as the official commemorative photo of the surrender. See that blurred “shadow” just visible behind the head of  Walter Bedell (Beetle) Smith, the general’s chief of staff, second from left? Looks a little odd, doesn’t it?

The explanation for that “shadow” is simple. It’s what was left of Kay Summersby, who was airbrushed out of the picture by the Office of War Information (OWI), which jealously guarded images of the war. As you can see in this unofficial AP photo, she is actually standing behind Beetle Smith in the second row, second from the left:










The two photos are a metaphor for Kay. She was an important part of Ike’s life during the war. In fact, as one general put it when confronting gossip about their affair, “Leave Kay and Ike alone. She’s helping him win the war.”

But after the war it was a different matter. Kay was diligently airbrushed out of Ike’s life because she threatened his reputation. She even became a problem in the 1952 presidential campaign, both in the runup to the GOP nominating convention (when Ike was competing with Robert A. Taft for the nomination) and again in the general election campaign. President Truman later revealed the issue: Eisenhower’s letter to his boss, Army Chief of Staff General Marshall, saying he wanted to divorce Mamie and marry Kay, and Marshall’s blistering reply. Ike changed his mind–and changed history.

When I was doing the research on Kay’s story, I found out how that happened and when and why, and what it all meant. I built a fiction around those fascinating facts. More here. 

Reading note: Deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.Oscar Wilde

9 comments on “Bookscapes: Brushed Out of the Picture

  1. Just finished your book and really enjoyed it! Also, appreciated your notes at the end, just as interesting as the story!

  2. Just found your book at the library. Loved it! Thanks for making Ike human and for giving us a glimpse of what life must have been like for him during and directly after his war years.

  3. Wasn’t there a made-for-tv movie about this way back in the 70s or maybe earlier? I don’t remember much about it other than my dad (always a romantic) was quite taken with the story. The commentary at the time was that of course it wasn’t true, romanticized for the audience, etc. Nice to know my dad was justified in his belief in the story!

    • Yes, there was, starring Robert Duvall and Lee Remick. The movie was originally based on Kay’s second memoir, but the Eisenhower family sued and after production was held up for a year, the network changed the storyline significantly. It finally appeared in 1979 and is available now on a badly-mastered DVD. You can read about the attempts to stop the production in the epilogue of my novel, Ellen.

  4. I wonder whether the “cover up” was done for the reputation of the Women’s Army Corps rather than for Ike. So many soldiers spread the rumor that the women in uniform were the American version of the Comfort Women–and many people in the U.S. believed this–that the WACs may have wanted to squash anything that would fuel the rumors.

    • The WAC command was sensitive to the issue of WAC reputations–especially when Eisenhower insisted on getting Kay (an Irish-born citizen of Great Britain) commissioned as a lieutenant in the WAC. But that furor had died down postwar. It was Kay’s rumored relationship to Ike that was the problem, especially after the marriage gambit, which Kay apparently knew nothing about until Truman later (1973) told the story. The details are in the epilogue of my novel.

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