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At Versailles Palace, An American Looks For Clues To Family History

Apr 8, 2017
Originally published on April 9, 2017 10:56 am

When Maureen Hargrave, a 71-year-old American who lives in San Diego, wrote an email to the chateau of Versailles in January, she wasn't sure she would hear back.

"I went to the Versailles website," she says, "and pulled down the link, and just wrote, 'On December 16th, 1944, Elsie Hargrave, my aunt, married Michael McKeogh, Eisenhower's aide de camp. She was Eisenhower's driver, and they were married in Marie Antoinette's chapel. Can I come see it, please?' "

Hargrave is referring to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during the Second World War. And Marie Antoinette, of course, was the last queen of France — the ill-fated, Austrian-born wife of France's 18th century monarch, Louis XVI.

Hargrave's email was forwarded to Versailles archivist Karine McGrath, who responded immediately.

"I thought, this is incredible," says McGrath. "It's a lovely story and a historical story and so I wrote her back, saying, 'We never heard this story, what can you tell us?' "

Two months later, the native Midwesterner and the palace historian are standing side by side in that same Versailles chapel, built in 1710 by Louis XVI's great-great-grandfather, Louis XIV. It rises in splendor on two tiers of sculpted marble columns and arches, with light pouring in through tall windows, illuminating ornate paintings on the ceiling. An altar and pipe organ are covered in gold.

Hargrave's aunt and uncle may have been the most recent couple to marry here. But the most famous marriage took place 174 years earlier, on May 16, 1770, between Louis XVI, France's final monarch, and Marie Antoinette. Until Hargrave's email arrived, the palace thought the royal nuptials were the last to be celebrated in the palace's Chapelle Royale.

"We knew of the wedding of Eisenhower's aide de camp and driver, but we thought it was held in the Trianon Palace," says McGrath, referring to an early 20th century luxury hotel near the palace grounds.

McGrath says Hargrave's visit has helped reveal unknown details about this period. "She's piecing together family history," McGrath says, "and I'm piecing together the history of a very special moment at Versailles."

American troops liberated the town and its chateau in August 1944. Eisenhower stayed on for another six months, until February 1945, running the war from the palace.

"At the end of August [1944], the Germans left and the Americans arrived, and bombs fell in the chateau gardens that summer," says McGrath. "So this is a momentous time in the palace's history and there are still many things we don't know."

McGrath says the palace, now one of France's major tourist attractions, was closed to the public during the war, but American soldiers came to visit, just as the German soldiers had.

"Not at the same time, of course," she says with a laugh. "But they did the same things and their offices were in the same places."

Even after the Germans left, a fear of spies remained. Both women talk about the fact that Eisenhower was locked down and kept out of sight for a few weeks in December 1944, due to fears that Germans were parachuting spies in to kill him.

Hargrave says that Eisenhower wrote during this period to his wife, Mamie, saying, "'They let me walk outside today and I'm finally able to breathe!'"

Versailles curators wanted to give Eisenhower the very best furnishings for his office, McGrath says. "But he didn't want them," she says. "He didn't want to have to be careful. He just wanted to work normally."

She says the Americans showed particular concern about conserving the palace's art and furnishings and conducted a full inventory when they arrived after the four-year German occupation.

Elsie Hargrave, known as "Pearlie," was serving at the time in the Women's Army Corps or WAC, and met Sgt. Michael McKeogh, Eisenhower's aide, in North Africa, where they began their courtship.

"My uncle had to ask for Eisenhower's permission to marry my aunt because they were in a war," says Hargrave.

The couple adored Eisenhower and considered him the perfect boss, she says.

McKeogh oversaw Eisenhower's personal affairs — "like clothing, food and getting him settled in a new place," Hargrave says — so he could concentrate on the war. "He loved to read Western novels and would read through the night," she says.

Hargrave says her uncle wrote to Mamie Eisenhower requesting "more socks and more novels" for the general.

Her aunt — Hargrave's father's youngest sister, in a family of 10 — was part of a team of drivers serving Eisenhower. She wasn't the only woman.

McGrath says palace records show Eisenhower gave the newlyweds $100 as a wedding gift, but he had to leave their reception early. He had a good excuse: The Battle of the Bulge broke out on the same day.

"He didn't have much time to socialize," says McGrath. "He was there to win the war."

The Battle of the Bulge was the last major German offensive, fought in the Ardennes forest in eastern France.

For her visit to Versailles in March, Hargrave brings a few old family photos and a copy of her uncle's memoir, Sgt. Mickey and General Ike, which he wrote right after the war ended.

McGrath opens the palace archives, which include photos of Fred Astaire and Dinah Shore performing for the troops in the palace gardens, and the guest book from the Hargrave-McKeogh wedding, signed by Eisenhower.

The two women pore over an unknown signature in the guest book just beneath Eisenhower's. They say their next project is to figure out whose it was.

Hargrave says she only saw her Aunt Pearlie three times in her life. She died in 2005, and McKeogh died 12 years before her. Her family rarely talked about the story of their wedding.

She says the couple had a daughter, whom she's been trying to get in touch with.

"They must have obviously told her some of the stories about their time together in Versailles," says Hargrave. "Karine [McGrath] wants to know what Versailles was like then. So I'm hoping I can get the two of them together to talk about it."

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