Thursday, November 3, 2016

Past Forgetting, My Love Affair With Dwight D. Eisenhower, Kay Summersby Morgan (1975)

Like The Groucho Letters in my previous post, this was another hardback amid a hidden stack of books in a box in the closet of my garage. I decided to read it not in anticipation of the sensationalism – the idea of a love story between Eisenhower and his mistress – but rather because I expected to learn something of that period: the war, the decision makers involved, maybe even a few facts I hadn't come across in the history books. I wasn't disappointed.

As the publishing date makes explicit, Summersby wrote this decades after the facts. Eisenhower had since died; Summersby herself  partly to quail the rekindled media gossip at the time and partly because she'd been diagnosed with terminal cancer and given six months to live  decided to set the record straight as to what really happened.

Chronicling her experiences during the second world war as an officers' driver, she doesn't even begin discussing her love affair until midway into the book. Even then she treats the illicit encounters tastefully by avoiding details. She writes briefly about some of the more secret operations too – Torch (the invasion of North Africa), Overlord, and, of course, D-Day. Not all of her war experiences happened safely away from the front lines either. She and Eisenhower's staff were often forced to race to an underground bunker to avoid German shelling. Though her style and approach is dramatic at times, she's unassuming and quite modest about her accounts as a potential casualty during these bombing raids.

She began driving for the fairly unknown two star General Eisenhower roughly three years before the war would end. During that time, he would be promoted from two stars to three, to four, to eventually the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, and ultimately, of course, the President of the United States.

She also provides some intriguing accounts of some of the brass and celebrities she encountered and regularly worked with. Her personal accounts of some of the icons of that era are particularly telling, icons such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Patton, Churchill, and of course Eisenhower. Eisenhower, a chain smoking workaholic, loved the troops and made it a point to interact with the lowest ranking soldier frequently. Roosevelt was capricious but kind and personable. Patton, quite chivalrous regarding the fairer sex, spoke in a high pitched womanly voice and was socially unpredictable; once, when giving a tour to a couple of friends, he abruptly fell to his knees and prayed out loud for a number of people, after which he rose, unabashed, and resumed the tour. But my favorite character of the cast is easily Churchill, whom I've admired for years, at least ever since I discovered some of his famous quotes and other writings. Turns out he was quite a slob at the dinner table.

He would slurp his soup, spill things, pick up food with his fingers. He would pick his nose while he listened to the rare person who managed to get a word in edgewise and would quite uninhibitedly unzip his siren suit to scratch his crotch. I remember once at dinner he interrupted himself in mid-anecdote, banged his fist on the table and demanded, “What happened, General [Eisenhower]? Did you run out of claret?” Mickey [Eisenhower's batman of sorts] rushed to fill his glass. At that moment the P.M., engrossed in his story again, made a sweeping gesture and knocked the glass to the floor. He paid no attention to what he had done. … Mr. Churchhill, you really had to acknowledge it, was adorable – but his manners were horrifying. The truth was that it did not matter. He was absolutely brilliant, and all these possibly purposeful gaucheries seemed trivial when he started talking. He had the most fabulous command of the English language. I could have listened to him forever.

The book contains nearly 40 black and white photos of the characters involved and a few of the events. Worth reading if you're curious about the European theater at that period in history. Four out of five stars. Rated R

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