By the time she reached the White House, she’d lost a sister and a child to early deaths, endured a separation from her husband and remaining child due to their military duty, and was often forced into lengthy bed rest due to her rheumatic heart condition. Along the way she learned to never abandon herself, lead herself towards laughter and have her Birthday Cake – and eat it too.
Mamie Eisenhower never met a holiday she didn’t like. At Easter, she had recordings of chirping canaries piped into the White House like it was a Hitchcock set for The Birds Meet the President. At St. Patrick’s Day, she made every room the Green Room, having green bulbs placed in all the light fixtures.
Not even Christmas, however, could trump the importance to her of The Birthday.
For each of the eight years of the Eisenhower Administration, from 1953 to 1961, the calendars were starred big on the date of November 14. It was the First Lady’s birthday and it never passed unnoticed.
The annual publicity over Mamie Eisenhower’s big, sweet fluffy birthday cakes soon marked not just an unprecedented chapter in the annals of Presidential Food History but the Pop Culture of the Atomic Age.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt helped the nation come to realize that living with a disability did not have to prevent achievement. Betty Ford helped lift the veil of silent shame about breast cancer and alcoholism.
Mamie Eisenhower, however, proved to Americans that age was no reason to deny oneself the joy, the good wishes, the gifts – and the cake of a full-fledged, color-coordinated, guest-packed Birthday Party.
Annual celebrations honoring the first President George Washington on his February 22 birth date continued on after his presidency and his death in 1799.
It eventually became a national holiday and was joined, unofficially, with that of Abraham Lincoln’s February 12 birthday and came to be dubbed as “Presidents Day.”
It has increasingly been recast as a day to honor all the Presidents, despite that never being the intention.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, gave currency to the idea of an annual public celebration of the President’s birthday. In his case, annual “Birthday Balls,” around the time of his January 30 birth date were created as March of Dimes fundraisers, to help fight polio.
The idea was quickly politicized. The 1962 Madison Square Garden birthday party of President John F. Kennedy may be remembered most of all for the sultry rendition of Happy Birthday sung by Marilyn Monroe but at the time it made headlines for its wildly successful fundraising effort, which wiped out the National Democratic Committee’s lingering debts. Soon enough, birthdays of incumbent Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama were held to also raise money for their respective political parties.
Several converging factors seemed to have inspired the idea of annually celebrating First Lady Mamie Eisenhower’s birthday.
Although F.D.R. would sit in his office to accept his birthday greetings and big cake, it was always First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who presided at the public birthday fundraisers held for him, and always surrounded by a bevy of popular movies stars of the time.
With F.D.R.’s 1945 death just three months after his 63rd birthday and start of his fourth term, the March of Dimes fundraiser was continued by the Truman Administration until that term had concluded in January 1949.
Although President Truman appeared in some publicity photos for the event, it was First Lady Bess Truman, following the tradition of Eleanor Roosevelt, who officially presided over the continuing Roosevelt Birthday Balls. Thus, First Ladies cutting birthday cakes in public wasn’t entirely an unusual sight by 1953.
Four years later, the October 14, 1953 birthday of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had been inaugurated President just ten months earlier, became the first to use the established precedent of the Roosevelt Birthday Balls as a politically partisan fundraiser.
Coming a month after his, her birthday was a logical event to continue the fundraising. Part of his presidential campaign’s success was the result of a systematic public relations effort marketed to gain support from undecided women voters.
Mrs. Eisenhower’s image had been a central part of that, drawing in housewives who strongly identified with her. Particularly well-organized, the Women’s Republican League of Washington capitalized on this and became one of the sponsors of a Mamie Birthday Party, raising funds through ticket sales to the event.
A photograph from that 1953 President Eisenhower Birthday Gala, held in an outdoor stadium, in Hershey, Pennsylvania, however, provides perhaps the most important clue to how First Lady Eisenhower got her own annual birthday celebrations. As Eisenhower cut the mammoth chocolate cake into a few pieces, it was Mamie who couldn’t help herself from taking the first plate of cake that he handed her – and holding on to it – just to taste.
While never known to refuse a cake plate based on flavor, it was at her 1955 party, held in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania where the family’s home was located, that Mamie Eisenhower got a bite of one that sent her into orbit.
A magnificent confection concocted for her by White House chef Francois Rysavy, it was a rich vanilla cake soaked with cointreau and sprinkled with orange rind, the recipe being one from his days as a pastry chef in Prague.
It was, however, the astounding fondant and meringue frosting that tasted as good as it looked.
Knowing the joy she got from the pink carnation which her husband brought her each morning, Rysavy created intricate pink carnation flowers with the frosting and christened it “The Carnation Cake.”
In fact, the frosting is more complicated than the cake.
Here is the recipe:
According to White House maid Lillian Rogers Park, Mrs. Eisenhower also had many of her desserts tinted in her favorite colors of “Mamie Pink” and green, am effort that was far easier and more appetizing to achieve with her Carnation Cake frosting than her Pumpkin Chiffon Pie or Million Dollar Fudge. And while she also raised eyebrows for pinching pennies by ordering that her non-birthday cakes be made from the less expensive boxed cake mixes becoming popular in the Fifties, the First Lady did not stint on the cakes she had made for everyone else’s birthdays.
“The First Lady insisted that the housekeeper keep a ‘birthday calendar’ along with the household records. Every time a member o the household staff celebrated a birthday, Mrs. Eisenhower ordered a cake baked in the White House kitchen. She personally selected a birthday card to accompany it,” recalled Chief Usher J.B. West.
It wasn’t just the maids and butlers and cleaning staff that got a Mamie cake. The First Lady remembered the birthdays of her bridge gang gals, most of whom were old friends and fellow Army wives.
An unabashedly affectionate grandmother, she hosted special birthday parties with elaborate themes for the three eldest of her grandchildren, Anne, David and Susan.
For David’s cowboy-themed birthday party, the President’s wife even pulled rank to get a the TV cowboy Roy Rogers.
Of course, nobody’s birthday could rival those of Mamie, especially the annual multiple number and wide range cut her on what might be called the statute of birthday limitations.
One year it was celebrated as early as October and another year, as late as March.
In 1957, she had four birthday parties, a splashy one that made the news, hosted by an organization of women reporters in Washington, with Ethel Merman flying in to belt out Happy Birthday for her friend Mamie. A more formal one was held by the wives of Cabinet and other government agencies, followed by a private party with old friends thrown by her sister. Last was an intimate one held in the suburban home of her son, daughter-in-law,and grandchildren.
The most memorable of all the Mamie Eisenhower Birthday Parties was surely the big public one hosted in 1954 by the Republican’s Women’s League of Washington. Arriving at the event in the Mayflower Hotel ballroom, a 10-foot tall gift-wrapped box awaited her.
It was insisted that she open the gift, mysteriously tagged “To Mamie from Georgia.”
Bewildered by the identity of the sender, before she could tear all the wrapping off, a man began to punch and bust his way out of it. “Georgia” was the name of the woman who had sent her husband as the gift to entertain at the party – and it turned out to be comedian Red Skeleton.
His unrelenting teasing of the First Lady from the stage had her and the guests howling.
At her 1956 party, all of the star entertainers that Mamie Eisenhower chose to invite showed up, from Mahalia Jackson to Giselle McKenzie to Tony Martin. For the first time, the event was even filmed and telecast through the nation as a special shown on all three national networks.
Year after year, coming as it did about two weeks before Thanksgiving, the First Lady’s Birthday Party began to feel like a new holiday, as if it ushered in the Christmas season. Media coverage of the annual event only expanded, the subject of newsreel shorts and both the entertainment and political section of newspapers across the country.
Here is a sampling of some of the coverage, the last newsreel among them capturing one of the few known audio recordings of Mrs. Eisenhower:
While there had been some initial public criticism of this grandmother’s girlish bangs and clothes, there were remarkably no critical editorials about the mature First Lad’s excitement at her birthday parties, gobbling up slices of frosted cakes, impishly opening presents and giggling at comedians. The reason is explicable.
It may have simply been that, however perhaps reluctant to admit it, most adults also wouldn’t have minded being feted by friends and families on their own one special day a year, be they the humorless business type caricatured in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, or the anti-establishment beatnik who despised anything “square.”
In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that, over the course of the 1950s, revenues at stationery stores that carried birthday party novelty items and greeting cards, like the chain owned by the Hallmark Company, boomed.
Was it related to the First Lady’s annual parties and has Mamie Eisenhower been the uncredited Mother of the American Birthday for half a century?
It may be impossible to say, considering various factors at play in the post-World War II U.S.
Birthday parties had been around since the leaders of ancient civilizations were annually feted by those they ruled and Kings had decreed that peasants cease toiling for a day to commemorate their dates of birth with annual festivals.
By the time of the Gilded Age in the U.S., there were elaborate dinners with cakes as big as Mamie’s in honor of millionaires and robber barons, their society wives often giving gifts to their guests, struck in precious medals to remember the event.
By the 1920s, even the working-classes were beginning to throw birthday parties for their children or arranging special picnics or day trips for fun. Still, American adults who marked their birthdays with special dinners at home were usually among the upper-middle classes, a reality compounded by the Depression.
In the flush years which began after World War II and accelerated once the Korean War ended, a rapidly expanding middle-class also experienced a rise in its discretionary income (or “play money”) and consumer goods on which to spend it.
With “aspirational advertising” offering the working-class a more affordable version of life which emulated that enjoyed by the wealthy, the 1950s saw a rise in goods like disposable crepe paper streamers to decorate one’s home for birthday parties, paper hats instead of those fashioned by milliners, plastic horns and noisemakers instead of those in metals.
Even though birthday greeting cards had been around for several decades, the range of choices proliferated, with varieties being produced and marketed to age and gender demographics, as well as a more ribald version of the “gag” card. The leader in the industry of birthday goods and cards was the Hallmark Company of Kansas City.
Its founder and president, a man by the name of Joyce Hall happened to be one of President Eisenhower’s oldest friends and he was particularly close to Mamie.
In fact, she was given a free hand in guiding the Hallmark Company’s creation of unique holiday cards with cartoon versions of herself and the President, which they sent out privately.
To what degree Joyce Hall may have suggested, advised, or encouraged any aspect of Mamie’s Birthday Parties is uncertain.
Still, its not unreasonable to suppose that the multiple annual events, so widely reported in print and broadcast throughout the Fifties, did indeed help to popularize birthday celebrations by adult Americans and influence the rising number of those who began indulging in colorful, fun and exuberant birthday rather than solemn little dinners.
After leaving the White House, the now-former First Lady’s belief in celebrating a birthday never wavered.
Nor did her taste for cake.
Her granddaughter recalls that even on the 1969 funeral train of the late former President, the veiled widow made sure there was a birthday cake for her grandson David.
Mamie Eisenhower’s 75th birthday in 1971 was another massive gala, held at the Washington Hilton, with President Nixon playing Happy Birthday for her on the piano, and reliable Ethel Merman, Ray Bolger and Lawrence Welk provided entertainment; it was a fundraiser for the recently-founded Eisenhower College.
A year later, Mrs. Nixon treated Mrs. Eisenhower to a performance of The Last of Mrs. Lincoln, followed by a party.
In 1973, it was a smaller party at Camp David.
In fact, in October of 1979, even though it was two weeks before she would have turned 83 years old, a family friend slipped into her Walter Reed Hospital suite, where she was brought following a stroke at home in Gettysburg and brought her one final birthday cake.
Mrs. Eisenhower didn’t live to see her birthday – but she got her cake.
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