Corruption in the White House: 8 Times Presidents Were Caught in Extramarital Affairs
Corruption in the White House: 8 Times Presidents Were Caught in Extramarital Affairs

Corruption in the White House: 8 Times Presidents Were Caught in Extramarital Affairs

Larry Holzwarth - November 12, 2017

Corruption in the White House: 8 Times Presidents Were Caught in Extramarital Affairs
Kay Summersby (center) watching a play in London in 1945. Eisenhower is on her right, General Omar Bradley on her left. Armchair General Magazine

Kay Summersby and Dwight D. Eisenhower

Dwight Eisenhower, known to all as “Ike” throughout his life, was a young army officer when he married Mamie Doud on July 1, 1916, as the United States was preparing to enter World War I. Following the war Ike followed the sometimes difficult career of a peacetime officer in a reduced Army, and the marriage was often faced with the lengthy forced separations of military life.

Mamie faithfully followed her husband to remote and less than comfortable posts in the Philippines, the Panama Canal Zone, and in the United States. When the United States entered the Second World War Ike expected to be assigned to George Marshall’s staff in Washington and the couple set up house in the capital. Instead, Ike was destined to shortly relocate to England and a separation which would last for most of the war.

Upon arrival in England Ike was assigned a chauffeur, a former ambulance driver in the British Mechanized Transport Corps named Kay Summersby. She would remain his personal driver and eventually private secretary for the duration of the war. Summersby was quartered in Ike’s home at Telegraph Cottage along with most of his staff. As Ike rose in rank throughout the war, Kay applied for and became a United States citizen with his assistance, enabling her to leave the British service and join the Women’s Army Corps of the US Army, eventually reaching the rank of Captain.

Besides driving the General and acting as his secretary, Summersby was his frequent dinner companion at formal affairs and working dinners, and her presence was commented on by luminaries such as Montgomery, Churchill, Patton, and others. Churchill would later write that the two were in love.

Whether Ike and Kay Summersby conducted an illicit affair depends on which of the many memoirs written by the participants or observers is given credence. Harry Truman reported in 1945 that Ike had written to ask his boss, General George C. Marshall, for permission to obtain a divorce in order to marry Kay; Truman expanded his statement by claiming that he had ordered the incriminating correspondence destroyed. Kay wrote memoirs claiming an affair which included two attempts at sexual intimacy, both of which were unsuccessful due to Ike’s impotence, which she blamed on his six-pack a day smoking habit. What is known is that Ike never brought his wife to England when many other American generals based there did.

Corruption in the White House: 8 Times Presidents Were Caught in Extramarital Affairs
Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas’s affair with LBJ was considered an “open secret” by Washington insiders. United States Congress

Multiple affairs and Lyndon Johnson

In an era when the President’s boastful nature often dominates the new cycle, it is easy to forget Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was brash, blustery, boastful, and often overbearing. When someone made a comment about JFK’s extramarital affairs Johnson would angrily dismiss the remark, often saying that he (Johnson) had more women by accident than JFK ever seduced deliberately.

Johnson often did things with his female staff that would never be tolerated today, such as commenting on their physical appearance, (“I want to look at a good, trim back end”) or urinating in a washroom with the door open while giving dictation to a female secretary.

Johnson was married to Claudia Alta Taylor – known to the world as Lady Bird – in 1934. Almost from the time of his marriage, he engaged in extramarital affairs, and evidence suggests that Lady Bird was aware of and resigned to her husband’s infidelities. One of his affairs which was conducted in public view was with a former actress and later congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas. Their affair was considered an “open secret” among insiders on Capitol Hill and the Washington press.

It was far from Johnson’s only indiscretion. An earlier affair with a married (to one of his wealthiest supporters) woman named Alice Glass, lasted for more than ten years. Another affair which resulted in the birth of a son allegedly fathered by Johnson out of wedlock began around 1948 and lasted throughout his presidency. It was with Madeline Brown. Johnson provided Madeline a house, a maid, cars, and financial support. Madeline gave birth to a son, Steven, in 1950 and after Johnson’s death sued his estate and heirs for denying Steven his inheritance.

Lady Bird denied the affair had occurred and the suit was eventually dismissed just prior to Steven’s death. Whether Steven’s accusations were true was never litigated but the number and length of Johnson’s extramarital affairs have been attested to by former members of his staff, statements of Secret Service detail members who enabled and concealed them, and Johnson’s own boastful but completely in character remarks.

Corruption in the White House: 8 Times Presidents Were Caught in Extramarital Affairs
An editorial cartoon showing a bereft mother, a baby crying for his father, and a frustrated President-elect. The New Yorker

Maria Halpin and Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland won the popular vote in three consecutive Presidential elections – 1884, 1888, and 1892 – but carried the electoral college in only the first and third. He is thus the only President to have served two terms in the White House that were non-consecutive. When Cleveland first took the oath of office he was a bachelor, but by 1886 he married Frances Folsom, becoming the second President to be married while in office, and the first (and to date only) President to be married in the White House. His new bride was only 21 years of age and the daughter of a family friend for whom Cleveland had recently acted as executor for his estate.

During the 1884 campaign, a story circulated of Cleveland’s having fathered a child with a widow named Maria Halpin a decade earlier. The child had been born while Cleveland was serving as the Governor of New York, and had been given the name Oscar Folsom Cleveland.

The candidate did not openly dispute paternity beyond protestations of being unsure of its truth, and his campaign instead focused on the mental state of the mother, who was soon dispatched to a sanitarium. Young Oscar was quickly put up for adoption. These maneuvers were orchestrated by Cleveland’s supporters, in part because of the growing assertions by the mother that the incident leading to conception had not been consensual.

Cleveland was beset with rumors of additional affairs throughout his political career. Many were undoubtedly fed, if not created outright, by political enemies for political advantage based on his relationship with Maria Halpin.

The President’s illegitimate son vanished from the historical record following his adoption and evidently preferred to live a life of quiet privacy. When the scandal was at its height Halpin had produced a document – purportedly in Cleveland’s handwriting – in which she agreed to give her son up for adoption and say no more of the affair in return for the sum of $500. Cleveland’s response, whenever the subject came up during the rest of his career, was to simply ignore it.

Corruption in the White House: 8 Times Presidents Were Caught in Extramarital Affairs
Judith Exner and her first husband, actor William Campbell. EDGARdaily

Judith Exner and John F. Kennedy

JFK’s many mistresses and extramarital infidelities have become common knowledge in the years following his death. Of all his mistresses and dalliances, one stands out as being not only dangerous to his marriage and political career but possibly to his survival.

It began when Frank Sinatra, an early and avid Kennedy supporter, introduced the then Senator and Presidential candidate to a divorcee named Judith Exner, the ex-wife of actor William Campbell (Star Trek fans will remember him as Captain Koloth in the episode The Trouble with Tribbles). According to Exner, she and JFK began an affair which went on for at least the next two years.

Later in 1960 Sinatra again played matchmaker, introducing Exner to Sam Giancana, boss of the Chicago Mafia. Through Giancana Exner developed a “friendship” with Johnny Roselli, a mob enforcer who would later be implicated in CIA attempts to assassinate Castro. Thus Exner was contemporaneously sleeping with the President of the United States and the head of one of the nation’s most powerful criminal organizations. Neither Giancana nor Kennedy felt the need to show any loyalty to the women with whom they had affairs and the fact of her participating in more than one simultaneously indicates that neither did Exner.

Many years after the death of JFK and RFK, who worked assiduously to protect his brother’s reputation after Dallas, records emerged which confirmed the lengthy nature of the President’s affair with Judith. Telephone records and visitor logs confirmed her visits to the White House and other places where the President was staying, as did statements from former members of the President’s security detail.

The Kennedy’s fought back when Exner’s comments regarding the affair became public; she was the first of the many to emerge – other than the long-time rumors of his affair with Marilyn Monroe – and her story gained weight with the public as more Kennedy indiscretions came to light. The ramifications of the President and a Mafia Don sharing a mistress have never been fully revealed, although speculation – including whether it had some involvement in the many assassination conspiracy theories – remains rife to this day.

Corruption in the White House: 8 Times Presidents Were Caught in Extramarital Affairs
Woodrow Wilson with Mary Peck in Bermuda, date unknown. New Jersey Monthly

Mary Peck and Woodrow Wilson

It is hard to imagine a more bookish President than Woodrow Wilson, both in appearance and in his chosen profession. When Wilson was elected to the Presidency his previous position had been as the Governor of New Jersey, prior to that he had been the President of Princeton University. Wilson, belied by his image in photographs where he appears aloof, possessed an almost violent nature. He was passionate and often had difficulty controlling his temper.

When photographers attempted to take pictures of Wilson for which he was unprepared he often demanded the plates be removed from the camera to the point that he would order aides to force compliance. He hated contradiction and suffered what he considered fools most ungladly.

Married in 1885 to the former Ellen Axson, he and his wife had three children – all daughters – and liked to vacation in places where Ellen could indulge her passion for painting. They were on such a family vacation in Bermuda in 1906 when the President of Princeton met a socialite named Mary Peck. Their friendship almost immediately became very close, and Mary became a frequent visitor to the Wilson home, as well as maintaining an extensive correspondence with Wilson. Wilson began visiting Bermuda frequently without his wife and through his letters home Ellen began to believe that there was more than just a friendship between her husband and the socialite.

When Wilson ran for President in 1912 his opposition ravaged him in the press for what they alluded to as an illicit affair, with anti-Wilson newspapers referring to him as “Peck’s Bad Boy.” Teddy Roosevelt famously sniffed at the idea of Woodrow Wilson as a “Romeo” comparing him instead to a store clerk. Wilson won the Presidency and while in the White House Ellen died. To the surprise of many, Wilson was soon remarried – to Edith Galt in 1915 – rather than to the woman with whom he had maintained a long-term relationship to the voiced dismay of his wife.

Mary Peck tried briefly to stop the marriage by threatening to sell the letters she had received from Wilson; he undercut her threat by insisting to Edith that all he had done was to write “…too ardently.” He claimed the relationship was purely platonic, Edith evidently believed him, and for the rest of her life Mary Peck never publicly contradicted him.

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