America’s First Ladies, #34 — Mamie Doud Eisenhower

America’s First Ladies, #34 — Mamie Doud Eisenhower

Mamie Doud Eisenhower was the 34th First Lady of the United States. From a wealthy Iowa family, she became an Army wife to Dwight D. Eisenhower, and then First Lady of the USA, and the 1st First Lady to be a fashion icon, too. Here is her story.

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Marie “Mamie” Geneva Doud was born November 14, 1896, in Boone, Iowa. She would one day marry Dwight D. Eisenhower and become the 34th First Lady of the United States. Before that, she was the second child of John Doud and Elvira Carlson. Mamie’s father was a meat packing executive. He ran a company that was founded by his father, and it was called Doud & Montgomery. With investments in Illinois and Iowa stockyards, John Doud was able to make enough money to retire in his mid-30’s and keep his family well off financially. Mamie’s mother was the daughter of Swedish immigrants and was a housewife. Mamie also had three sisters.

Mamie grew up in Iowa, Colorado, and Texas, where her family had properties. She went to regular public school, then to Miss Wolcott’s finishing school. After completing the finishing school, she was introduced to Dwight D. Eisenhower in San Antonio, Texas in October of 1915, while at Fort Sam Houston. She and Dwight hit it off immediately. Dwight was an officer at Fort Sam Houston, in the military, and he invited Mamie to come with him on his rounds the day they met. He gave her a miniature of his West Point class ring on Valentine’s Day the next year. This ring was to solidify their formal engagement.

Mamie Eisenhower at the age of 17

Mamie Eisenhower at the age of 17. (Wikimedia)

They married on July 1, 1916, at Mamie’s parents’ house in Denver, Colorado. Dwight was twenty-five and Mamie was nineteen. They honeymooned at Eldorado Springs, Colorado for a few days, and then went to visit Dwight’s parents in Abilene, Texas. After their honeymoon, they began living together in Dwight’s lieutenant’s quarters at Fort Sam Houston in Texas.

Mamie and Dwight went on to have two children, both sons, but the oldest one, Doud Dwight Eisenhower, died of scarlet fever when he was only a few months past his third birthday. Their second son, born after little Doud died, was named John Sheldon Doud Eisenhower, and he lived to be 91 years old, becoming a soldier-diplomat, and author.

During the early years of her marriage, Mamie lived like most other wives of Army officers. She and Dwight had a succession of posts in the USA and abroad. Being the daughter of a wealthy man, Mamie was used to more luxurious living standards and comforts than a soldier’s wife’s life allowed, but she adjusted, and eagerly joined Dwight on twenty-eight moves before he retired from the Army and began his tenure as US President.

Mamie Eisenhower, with her husband, Dwight, on the steps of St. Mary's College, San Antonio, Texas, in 1916.

Mamie Eisenhower, with her husband, Dwight, on the steps of St. Mary’s College, San Antonio, Texas, in 1916. (Wikipedia)

During WWII, Dwight gained fame and military promotions and came to be known to the American public as Ike. He and Mamie moved to Washington, D.C. during the war, and he became president of Columbia University in 1948, after the war. Mamie and Dwight bought a farm, which is now the Eisenhower National Historic Site, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania during this time, and it was the first home they ever owned, having lived in military housing prior to that.

However, their work on building their dream home in Gettysburg was delayed for a bit by Dwight having to go to France to help work on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force as its commander, and Mamie acted as hostess at their villa near Paris. Their Gettysburg home was finally completed in 1955.

Upon completion of their house, they had a housewarming party for the staff at the White House. The White House would be their last temporary living quarters, once Dwight was elected president. Once she became First Lady, Mamie entertained more heads of state and leaders of foreign countries than any of her predecessors, thanks to the new and improved air travel that was developed during the war.

Also, as First Lady, Mamie was known for her outgoing nature, her lovely fashion sense (including designer clothes), her fine jewelry collection, and her great pride in and love of her husband and the home she made for him. She was a devoted First Lady.

In fact, she was so known for her fashion, that she was named one of the twelve best-dressed women in the nation by the New York Dress Institute for every year that she was First Lady. She even inspired a fashion trend while she was First Lady, known as the “Mamie Look.” This look included a full-skirted dress, pearls, charm bracelets, small hats, and bobbed hair with bangs. It was a look that came to be associated with the female leads on several 1950’s era TV shows.

Mamie’s love of a particular shade of pink also began a national obsession with what became known as “Mamie pink” or “First Lady pink,” and it was used on plenty of clothes, house goods, and bathroom tiles of the time.

Mamie was a gracious and gentle White House hostess but was careful about protecting her privacy. She had Meniere’s disease, which is a condition of the inner ear that affects balance, so there were rumors that she had a drinking problem. She preferred the public to see her as little as possible to avoid embarrassing Dwight with these rumors.

She was cost conscious, and clipped coupons for the White House staff to use. She was also the 1st First Lady to put up Halloween decorations at the White House.

Dwight and Mamie left the White House in 1961 and retired to their home in Gettysburg. They also bought a retirement house in Palm Desert, California. Dwight died in 1969, and Mamie continued to live in Gettysburg until eventually getting an apartment in Washington, D.C. in the late 1970’s.

Her grandson, David Eisenhower, married Julie Nixon, Richard Nixon’s daughter, which brought the Eisenhowers and Nixons closer together, and they had already been close, with Richard Nixon having been Dwight’s vice-president. After this marriage, Mamie was regularly invited to Nixon family gatherings, both and the White House and at the Nixon family home.

Mamie lived for a decade after Dwight, dying of complications of a stroke in 1979. Her birthplace in Boone, Iowa was dedicated as a historic site the next year, making her only the second First Lady to get such a designation for their birthplace (second First Lady Abigail Adams being the first).