For me, the setting of a book is always one of its most important elements. Setting--particularly real, historic setting--embodies characters. It shows us how characters like to live, the furnishings and things they surround themselves with, the odd bits and pieces of life.
When I was writing The General's Women, I was especially fascinated by Telegraph Cottage, Eisenhower's countryside retreat during the wartime months he spent in England. Here are some of the things I learned about this lovely place.
In September, 1942, when Ike was planning the North African campaign, he got tired of living in the Dorchester Hotel in London and asked Kay Summersby (his driver) and Harry Butcher (his aide) to find a cottage where he and his staff could get some R&R. Kay (an Irishwoman) had lived in England for 15+ years and knew the lay of the land. With the help of the British billeting office, she found a cottage she thought Ike would like.
A century before, Telegraph Cottage had been a station on the telegraph line that linked London and Portsmouth. (The telegraph succeeded the semaphore chain that allowed Whitehall to communicate with the naval base on the south coast.) Not far from Ike's war offices in London and later, in Bushy Park, the cottage was a small Tudor-style slate-roofed house at the end of a winding drive, with plenty of privacy. A path at the back led to the thirteenth green of the Little Coombe golf course—ideal for Ike, who liked to hit a few golf balls. He liked to ride, too, and he and Kay would often go riding at nearby Richmond Park. Ike thought the cottage was ideal, although he said the rent ($32 a week) was “pretty damned steep.” The British generals, accustomed to their own grand estates, were appalled that the Allied Commander in Chief was going to ground in a “rabbit hole,” as General Sir Alan Brooke put it. Winston Churchill liked the place, but insisted on having a bomb shelter dug in the garden.
The house itself was comfortable, cozy, and about as warm as an English cottage heated only by one fireplace is likely to be. Ike's Irish orderly, Mickey McKeogh and a couple of black privates, managed the place. Ike, no gourmet, occasionally did the cooking: beef stew was his specialty. In the dining room, a round oak table seated six for a comfortable meal (ten if they were chummy), and a sideboard doubled as a regularly-frequented bar. French doors opened out onto a flagstone terrace and the rose garden, and a steep, narrow stair led up to five tiny bedrooms. The only telephone, a direct line to headquarters, was installed in Ike's bedroom by the Signal Corps. The place was definitely off-limits and out of reach.
The cottage quickly became home to Ike's full staff, and they spent nights and weekends there whenever they could, both during the 1942 run-up to Operation Torch and Overlord (1943-44, the Normandy invasion). Evenings were spent playing bridge or listening to records: "Beer Barrel Polka" was a favorite of Ike, who also liked to read Westerns. According to Harry Butcher, the staff code-named the place Dah-di-dah, Morse code for the letter K, in recognition of Kay's "special relationship" to Ike. Also at home in the cottage was Telek, a birthday present from his staff in October, 1942. He is said to have named his much-loved Scotty for two things close to his heart: Telegraph Cottage and Kay. Later, Telek was joined by Shaef the cat (named for Ike's European command, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force). Shaef did something Telek couldn't. She cleared the cottage of mice.
When Ike took up painting at the encouragement of Winston Churchill, he painted the cottage, perhaps as a reminder of the happy months he had spent there. (No offense, but he was a better general than an artist.)
Eisenhower's occupation of Telegraph Cottage ended in the summer of 1945, a few months after V-E Day. Sadly, it burned in 1987. Ike's painting, along with his leather jacket and other memorabilia, was recently sold at auction. It was expected to bring around $160,000--50 times more than the $3200 the Army spent to billet him there during the war.