Mamie Eisenhower (1896-1979) was an American first lady (1953-61) and the wife of famed U.S. Army commander and 34th president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ike’s military career kept the couple constantly on the move- in fact, they wouldn’t even buy their first home until more than 30 years into their marriage. Decades of entertaining at the highest military and political levels left Mamie in good stead when she became first lady, and she became known as a gracious and skilled White House hostess. Though outwardly social, she closely guarded her privacy and was reluctant to take a public stance on most issues. The Eisenhowers faced a series of medical challenges while in the White House, which led Mamie to closely monitor and care for Ike during his recoveries.

Mary Geneva “Mamie” Doud spent her early years in Iowa before the family settled in Denver, Colorado, in 1905. The second daughter of a highly successful meatpacking executive, Mamie enjoyed a privileged childhood that exposed her to the luxuries of traveling, fine clothes and jewelry. An average student, she nonetheless was a bright child who displayed an ear for the piano and keen social instincts. Mamie also absorbed financial lessons from her father and the basics of hosting through her parents’ frequent parties, skills that later served her well as first lady.

After the Douds purchased a winter home in San Antonio, Texas, Mamie met her future husband at Fort Sam Houston in October 1915. A second lieutenant who was on duty as officer of the day, Eisenhower recalled Mamie as “saucy in the look about her face and in her whole attitude,” and invited her to join him on his appointed rounds. Following a swift courtship, Ike presented her with a copy of his West Point class ring to mark their engagement on Valentine’s Day 1916. They originally planned to be married in November, but the pending conflicts in Europe and Mexico forced a hastily rearranged wedding date of July 1, 1916, in Denver.

Although she primarily focused on supporting her husband and ceremonial duties as first lady, Mamie threw her weight behind a few select causes. She led the local and national fundraising drives for the American Heart Association in 1956, and later supported increased benefits and the formation of a retirement community for military personnel and widows. Mamie also did her part to combat segregation through such symbolic acts as inviting African-American children to the White House Easter Egg Roll, and she accepted an honorary membership to the National Council of Negro Women.

Mamie famously supported the president through a series of health scares, which included a serious heart attack in 1955, an abdominal operation in 1956 and a stroke the following year. However, she endured her share of physical problems as well. Mamie spent long hours in bed due to a heart condition instigated by a childhood case of rheumatic fever, and she suffered from an inner-ear infliction called Ménière’s disease, which affected her balance. The occasional sight of the first lady stumbling and grasping to steady herself fueled a nasty, and unfounded, rumor that she had a drinking problem.

A longtime fan of Richard Nixon, her husband’s former running mate, Mamie officially joined the Nixon family with her grandson’s marriage to the president elect’s daughter in December 1968. She went on to enjoy frequent overnight visits to the White House and Camp David, and took part in a televised campaign spot for Nixon’s 1972 reelection. The campaign marked a change in the former first lady’s public persona; once known for an outlook that cut across partisan lines, she became increasingly vocal in support of her preferred candidates in the final years before her death at age 82.

Access hundreds of hours of historical video, commercial free, with HISTORY Vault. Start your free trial today.