There are some stories we hear and dismiss as just rumor… and then there are others that are too good to ignore. This is exactly what led critically acclaimed historical fiction author James MacManus to discover the incredible story of the love affair between Dwight Eisenhower and Kay Summersby, his wartime aide and driver.
Ike and Kay (Overlook Press) sees a love story between two people amid the carnage and the horrors of the Second World War in Europe and North Africa. The affair between Eisenhower and Summersby was fragile but passionate, made stronger by the support she offered to him throughout the difficulties of war. Though Eisenhower returned to his wife, there’s no doubting they were genuinely in love. Following Eisenhower’s death, rumors of their affair began to surface but always surrounded by lies and misconceptions of what the truth really was. Here, though, MacManus brings the story of the two to life with masterful talent, in a way that is both heartbreaking and unique.
BookTrib got to talk with MacManus about how he first discovered the story of the affair, the research he had to do, and what he really wants people to know about Eisenhower and Summbersby.
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BookTrib: How did you first discover the story of the affair between Kay Summersby and Eisenhower?
James MacManus: I did a US book tour to promote the first of my World War II themed historical novels, Sleep in Peace Tonight, which was about an affair between Roosevelt’s emissary to London in 1941, Harry Hopkins, and his driver. Twice I was asked about similarities to the Kay Summersby story. I had vaguely heard of her and decided to investigate.
BookTrib: What struck you about the story that made you want to turn it into a novel?
JM: Here was a secret wartime affair at the heart of the wartime Allied command. Eisenhower’s passion for Kay became obvious when I did the research as was the emotional support she gave him. The brutal end of the affair and the later cover up by historians and the way Kay was literally airbrushed from history was intriguing. It had to be a novel. So much that passed between these two people never made the history books. I wanted to tell their story – especially Kay’s.
BookTrib: How much research was involved to make the story accurate?
JM: A huge amount. I read all the big biographies of Eisenhower and the memoirs of his close aides such as Harry Butcher and Tex Lee as well as General Bradley’s fine book, A General’s Life. Kay Summersby’s two books were crucial to the story as were the voluminous memoirs and records on the British side from Churchill down. There was no shortage of material.
BookTrib: What was it like stepping into the shoes of these people, and bringing life and vibrancy to their story?
JM: This is where skill, imagination and research come together. You have to know the people you are writing about, especially the lead characters. Eisenhower and Summersby were complex characters thrown together in a world at war. The pressures dangers and close proximity of their lives stripped away much of the usual social niceties and revealed two people who gradually fell in love with each other. To describe the tangle of emotions, the feelings of guilt and the physical yearning between these two was both a pleasure and a challenge.
BookTrib: Did you run into any obstacles when you were writing this book?
JM: The real problem was to get the balance between describing the history of those times and creating a credible relationship between strong loving characters .After all these people had lived loved and led very real lives. I had to bring them back to life in a way that would appeal to the modern reader. In early drafts I made the book much more a war story than a love story. Big mistake. This changed after much discussion with my editor and agent.
BookTrib: What do you want readers to take away from this book?
JM: Eisenhower turned his back on Kay in a brutal fashion but I don’t want readers to think too ill of him. Ambition trumped love, a world at peace became more important than memories of a world at war, and his wife became more important than his mistress. That is understandable. I would like readers to think of Kay as a strong woman, who made a major contribution to the war in the way she invoked in Ike a deep love which kept him sane, grounded, and physically and psychologically fit enough to lead millions of men to triumph in battle. Kay was not the shallow fantasist, as she has been portrayed by many historians and indeed by members of Ike’s family. She was a woman in love who helped us win the war; she survived the loss of a man she loved with dignity. She led a decent life in the US until her death in 1975. Her deathbed account of her wartime relationship with Eisenhower, Past Forgetting, has the stamp if truth. That is what I want readers to take away.
BookTrib: How did you first get into writing historical fiction?
JM: I have loved the poetry of Charles Baudelaire since schooldays and always wanted to solve the mystery of his relationship with his mistress, his muse, and the woman without whom we not have the great Les Fleurs du Mal, yet who ultimately destroyed him : Jeanne Duval. He called her his Black Venus. I wanted to find out who she really was and how she inspired him. Thus, I went back to 19th century Paris and wrote what I hope is a passionate and gripping account of a great poet in thrall to a woman without whom he could not write, but with whom he could not live.
BookTrib: What do you find most inspires you to write?
JM: Great characters in a compelling story.
BookTrib: As a well-established, critically acclaimed author, do you have any advice for writers who are just starting out?
JM: The young Ernest Hemingway sent his early short stories to the then famous writer Gertrude Stein. This was Paris in 1921. She returned them with the crisp advice: “Start over again and concentrate!”. He said it was the best advice he ever received and famously rewrote every book several times.
Ike and Kay is now available for purchase.
ABOUT JAMES MACMANUS
James MacManus is the managing director of The Times Literary Supplement. He is the author of six novels, including the historical novels Black Venus, Sleep in Peace Tonight, and Midnight in Berlin.