By Paul Bedard, Washington Whispers
Dwight Eisenhower might have been a modern-day George Washington, but you've probably never seen an "Ike Slept Here" sign on any boarding house. Fact is he was a perfectly boring fit for the 1950s and interest in his presidency following his success winning World War II has never been high.
But something's up. First, plans were unveiled last month for a rare presidential memorial on Washington's National Mall to Ike, designed by famed Architect Frank Gehry. It will be near the Smithsonian museums. And there's been a surge in interest in Eisenhower memorabilia, especially from WWII, among collectors eager to chart his rise from a Pentagon desk job when Pearl Harbor was attacked to supreme allied commander. That trend was sparked in an unusual way when the kids of Ike's former aide de camp, Col. Ernest "Tex" Lee, decided to part with their dad's huge collection of the five-star general's gear. "I don't think we're just trying to make lots of money," explains son Bill Lee. "There's just lots of interest in it out there."
In their first sale through Alexander Autographs a few months ago, interest was shockingly high, says Bill Panagopulos, president of the online auction site. That sent Lee's kin looking through the closets of their mother, who died last year (Lee died in 1965). Lee says that what was left were "things that meant the most to my mother," but not so much to the four children. Plus, he added, the best of the collection was earlier given to the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas.
What they found is heading to Panagopulos for a late May sale and the treasure trove is impressive. The headliner, so to speak, is Ike's four-star army helmet that could draw $30,000. It is, says the auctioneer, "perhaps one of the most significant World War II relics to ever come to the auction block." Among the other items: Ike's riding crop with a hidden dagger stuck inside; his passes to allied HQ and Strategic Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces; his personal five-star staff car flag; the official history of Operation Overlord, the 1944 assault on Nazis in Europe, done for Ike by his chief of staff.
Early interest is high and Panagopulos thinks it might be due to today's political polarization. "As supreme commander during World War II, Ike united all the allies in a war against a common enemy, and as president, he was a calming father figure out there hitting golf balls," he says. "Perhaps that's what people are really yearning for today, a calming influence at a turbulent time."
Illustration by Ed Wexler for USN&WR.