The Collector: Letter Perfect
THE ITEMA handwritten letter that Dwight Eisenhower wrote to his wife, Mamie, on February 15, 1943. Eisenhower, who was then commander in chief of the European theater of operations and supreme commander of the Allied forces in North Africa, penned the letter four days after the War Department promoted him to full general.
In the letter, Eisenhower describes the difficulties of his post, writing, “I appreciate the confidence of my superiors—and feel damn humble in the face of it, but I do not feel that my major job is finished. I’ve just begun and though the prospect is, in some phases, appalling, I can do my duty only if I steel myself to the requirements and meet them to the best of my ability. When you remember me in your prayers, that’s the special thing I want—always to do my duty to the extreme limit of my ability.”
Kenneth Rendell is a dealer in historic documents who keeps a gallery in Manhattan and an office in Natick, Mass. Rendell, who was born the year that Eisenhower wrote the letter, began dealing in coins at age 16 and later switched to documents. He has since handled items associated with each of the 42 past presidents (including the White House papers of Richard Nixon) and with countless other luminaries.
Rendell requested and received this and four other Eisenhower letters in the early 1990s from John Eisenhower in lieu of a commission for selling more than 200 letters that John’s father had sent his mother. Mamie had stored the letters in a shoe box in a closet at her Gettysburg, Pa., home.
Rendell says that Eisenhower’s handwriting reveals his emotions: His letterforms are unusually small and tight in the February 1943 document. “He didn’t write the letter for Mamie to read it. It’s what someone writes to get off their chest, not for someone else to read,” says Rendell. “That is an incredible letter. I never saw anyone write a letter like that. It’s so human.”
Rendell displays a facsimile of the Eisenhower letter (he keeps the original in a vault) at the Museum of World War II, a 10,000-square-foot private museum that he established near Boston six years ago. Among its 6,000 items are the helmet that George Patton wore during his European campaign; a set of D-Day plans; Hitler’s telephone directory, open to the numbers for Goebbels, Göring, and the Berlin Gestapo; and a 1942 Sherman tank. “I was never sure where [the collection] was going,” Rendell says, “and I’m still not sure where it’s going.” However, Rendell is certain of the museum’s purpose: to commemorate the millions of people who lived through World War II as well as those who did not. “It is absolutely not about the glory of war,” he says, “and it’s not about heroes as they are normally thought of.”