Nothing pained Ike and Mamie Eisenhower more than the death of their firstborn son.
The Parents Eisenhower
Mamie Doud became “Mrs. Dwight Eisenhower” on July 1, 1916. She was nineteen.
Surprising everyone, including herself, Mamie adapted well to army living. Both bride and groom were sociable people, with easy smiles and good natures that fit well anywhere. Ergo, they were popular. And since military brass has a responsibility to scout for potential leadership, Ike’s superiors had their eye on him. They liked Mamie, too.
In September, 1917, their first son was born. He was named Doud Dwight, but from the start he was nicknamed Ikkie (pronounced Icky and sometimes spelled Ikky), and he was the joy of their lives.
Despite Ike’s disappointment at not being deployed overseas during WWI, the young couple made the best of it, with Ike assigned the interesting new challenge of becoming a tank maven. It would stand him in excellent stead.
Meanwhile, along with being new parents, they became part of a socially active army base with dozens of friends who entertained each other at frequent parties and dinners and assorted come-on-overs. Their friends doted on their “Little Mascot” almost as much as they did.
But perhaps Ike doted most. He couldn’t wait to come home to play with his new son. He brought the toys and treats that dads everywhere love to give their offspring. He even had a pint-sized uniform made for the baby, and showed him off proudly.
When Ike was traveling with a convoy, he called Mamie often, and the story goes that most of the conversation was about the baby. Mamie, somewhat miffed at not getting enough attention, said that maybe Ike might like to ask about his wife… A contrite Ike immediately changed the subject, asked Mamie about her day, but within a few minutes was back talking about Little Ikkie, who was growing like a weed: strong, straight, smart, and everything a little boy should be.
But in late December, 1920, (and there are a few versions of the story), Ike had received a promotion and engaged a maid to help around the house.
The Tragedy Part 1:
Unbeknownst to everyone, the maid had been exposed to scarlet fever, then a contagious and potentially fatal disease. The girl had neither symptoms nor knowledge that she had been exposed and had become a carrier. It was Christmas. Ikkie became sick. The doctor had him admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital, but nothing could save the three-year-old. He died on January 2, 1921 in Ike’s arms.
To say that Ike and Mamie were devastated is an understatement.
An honor guard escorted Ike, Mamie and the baby’s coffin to the train for Ikky’s burial in the Doud family plot in Denver. Whether they blamed each other or blamed themselves, or blamed the maid or an unkind fate or whatever people flail at during crises is unknown. But both Ike and Mamie responded differently, and it nearly ruined their marriage. According to Julie Nixon Eisenhower, “Ikky’s death closed a chapter.”
Twenty-four-year-old Mamie, despite her determination to be cheerful, needed to be comforted, to be held and loved and have a strong shoulder to cry on.
But thirty-year-old Ike, for all his broad smile and sociability, was a very private person, and his pain was unbearable. He stayed on duty hours longer than was assigned, he was morose when he returned home, barely approachable. He needed to be alone with his grief.
The Tragedy Part 2:
The pain of their loss, and the pain of their growing distance did not go away, despite the birth of their second son John, less than two years later. Now stationed in Panama, Ike worked long hours, and far away from her own loving family, Mamie turned to a motherly Virginia Connor, their neighbor and wife of Ike’s commanding officer General Fox Connor, for the comfort she needed.
The Eisenhower marriage finally became so strained, that Mamie couldn’t sleep and lost weight (and she was always petite). She practically fled back to Denver to see her own parents, and suggest that she and Ike might be headed toward a divorce. (There are a few versions of this story as well). One version says she planned to remain in Denver indefinitely, but her parents (who adored Ike) insisted she return and put her marriage in order.
The story continues that Mrs. Fox Connor had been saying the same thing – and even suggested that Mamie use her “womanly wiles” to achieve that end. “You mean I should vamp Ike?” Mamie asked. The response was affirmative.
The story further continues that Mamie bought a new nightie, and got her hair done. Some sources claim it was the first time she had it styled with the bangs that would become her trademark. Maybe… But it obviously worked, since they both worked harder at accommodating to each other’s needs.
The Tragedy: Part 3
Ike seldom spoke about his firstborn, who he had loved with his whole heart. According to Mamie herself, “For a long time, it was as if a shining light had gone out in Ike’s life…Throughout all the years that followed, the memory of those bleak days was a deep inner pain that never seemed to diminish much.”
Ike no doubt loved his son John, but not to the depth he had loved Ikkie. That part was sealed forever. From that point on, he always sent Mamie flowers on Ikkie’s birthday.
When the Eisenhower Presidential Center was built, the retired General-President made a private flight to Denver, had Ikkie’s small coffin disinterred and brought it to Abiline, KS, where he was laid to rest, waiting for his parents to join him.
In one of the rare comments he made on the subject, Eisenhower called Ikkie’s death as “the greatest disappointment and disaster of my life, the one I have never been able to forget completely”.
Eisenhower, Susan – Mrs. Ike: Memories and Reflections on the Life of Mamie Eisenhower – Farrar, Straus and Giraux – 1996
Lester, David and Lester, Irene – Ike and Mamie – G.P. Putnam, 1981