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A love story on the auction block

I thumb through auction catalogs; you can never tell what you may find. In a Sotheby's catalog for a sale in New York on June 13, I found a historic love story in a collection of letters. The romance, its evidence now for sale to the highest bidder, was between Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and his secretary-driver, Kay Summersby.

Rumors of the wartime relationship were denied at first by Ike's loyal friends, including Women's Army Corps Capt. Summersby. But in Plain Speaking, Merle Miller's 1974 oral biography of Harry Truman, the former president _ who detested his successor _ told the whole truth and perhaps then some.

According to Truman, "Right after the war was over, he (Eisenhower) wrote a letter to Gen. Marshall saying that he wanted to come back to the United States and divorce Mrs. Eisenhower so that he could marry this Englishwoman," which Truman thought "shocking."

Apparently Gen. Marshall denied the request in such coldly furious writing that "one of the last things I did as president, I got those letters from his file in the Pentagon, and I destroyed them."

Curious; Truman could have elected his fellow Democrat Adlai Stevenson in 1952 by leaking, rather than destroying, those letters. "Most biographers and other students of Eisenhower," writes Selby Kiffer of Sotheby's in tasteful catalog narration, "have dismissed Truman's account as a vindictive falsehood. One who did not was Kay Summersby."

She wrote another book after the Truman revelation, Past Forgetting, asserting but not detailing her love affair with the general who became president. (Lee Remick starred in the miniseries.)

Was her story true? David Eisenhower, in his superb biography of his grandfather, noted that the truth "was known only by them, and both are gone."

It turns out the evidence is not gone. Thirty-seven lots of letters, documents and signed photographs from the estate of Kay Summersby are up for auction next week.

Although there is no smoking profession of love, nobody who reads these handwritten notes and letters from a caring, sensitive, sometimes gruff, sometimes distraught Eisenhower can easily say that Harry Truman was a liar.

In North Africa in 1943, after Kay's fiance was killed, Ike comforted her by writing a series of letters to her mother: "She has been loyal, efficient and a great help for well over a year _ so I feel that she is indeed a very dear friend, and one I'd like very much to help."

(A scribbled note to Kay on what must have been a quiet day: "Irish: (Summersby was not, as Truman thought, an Englishwoman) _ How about lunch, tea & dinner today? If yes: Who else do you want, if any? At which time? How are you? D." (Sotheby's estimates this will go for $3,000 to $5,000. To historians, that romantic ampersand _ "lunch, tea & dinner" _ makes it worth more.)

Two years later, and perhaps after the exchange with Marshall, Ike returned to Washington to become Army chief of staff. This typed dismissal to the woman he left behind in Europe is dated Nov. 22, 1945:

"I am terribly distressed, first because it has become impossible longer to keep you as a member of my personal official family . . ." A month later, this guarded, handwritten note to soften the blow: "The break-up of my wartime personal staff has saddened me immeasurably . . ."

She accepted the brushoff, accommodated his wish for a copy of her diary, and zipped her lip. She sent him a note when he was elected president; he sent "happy tidings" when she remarried.

The mystery remains why she did not include all the correspondence in her final book, but this we now know:

Dwight Eisenhower, separated by war from his wife, became intimately attached to a woman who served with him. Kay Summersby returned his love. He extricated himself because that was the path of loyalty and duty. She understood, steadfastly protected his secret until it could hurt nobody, then made it possible for their story _ of four-star-crossed lovers _ to be appreciated by a later generation of admirers of a great man.

New York Times News Service