Isabelle Norstad: First Lady of NATO


Isabelle Norstad: First Lady of NATO

Isabelle Norstad: First Lady of NATO

TUBAC--One of the first things a guest notices when visiting the charming Tubac home of Isabelle Norstad are the photos of famous and influential people that adorn the walls and tables.

England's Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, French President Charles DeGaulle, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and U.S. Gen. "Hap" Arnold are just a few of the well-known figures displayed.

These photos provide some insight into the life that Mrs. Norstad lived as the "First Lady of NATO," when her late husband, Gen. Lauris Norstad, was the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe in charge of NATO forces. It was at the height of the Cold War from 1956 to 1963.

Isabelle Helen Jenkins was born and raised in Hawaii. The Depression cut short her college career at the University of Hawaii and in 1934, she met a young bachelor, fighter pilot, polo player and West Point graduate, Lt. Lauris Norstad.

They married in 1935 and began a life together that spanned 50 years and witnessed many of the great historical events of the 20th century.

A full-time job

She learned quickly that being a military wife was a full-time job and much was expected of her. She also received a lot of advice. Mrs. Norstad jokingly recalls a commanding officer's wife telling her, "Deary, if you want your husband to succeed, you must play bridge." So she "struggled and strained" to learn the game, but she wasn't good at it and finally gave up, telling her husband that he had to carry on himself.

"He was only a lieutenant and went to four stars anyway," she said.

When World War II began, Major Norstad was serving at Langley Field, Va., with the 25th Bomber Group. Identified as one of the brightest young officers, he was appointed to the Advisory Council to the commanding General of the Army Air Forces in Washington, D.C.

From there, he quickly rose through the ranks. At 36, Norstad was one of the youngest brigadier generals in the Army Air Force. As chief of staff of the 20th Air Force, he was charged with planning the strategic bombing campaign against Japan.

While living in Washington, D.C., after the war, Isabelle Norstad's social role in support of her husband's efforts blossomed. Gen. Norstad was confronted with a real diplomatic challenge: Unifying the armed forces under the Department of Defense and developing the Air Force as an important branch of the post-war military establishment.

The Norstadís moved to Europe in 1950, when the general was assigned Commander in Chief, U.S. Air Force in Europe. He was the youngest American officer to achieve the four-star rank at age 45 in 1952. In 1956, he assumed command of NATO forces.

Gen. Norstad's great talent was not only as a military strategist but as a diplomat, encouraging European political leaders to engage in talks, resolving conflict and building alliances. Isabelle Norstad shared this role, providing the social environment for diplomatic relations.

Lived in a chateau

While they lived in Europe, the French government provided them when an elegantly furnished 17th century chateau in Fontainebleau that had been the home of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Their young daughter, Kristin, was living with them at the time and attended French schools in Paris and Switzerland.

A key part of Mrs. Norstad's role was managing the large household staff of 12 servants and 14 gardeners.

During this time she hosted three or more major social functions monthly, and more than 500 total. These included numerous cocktail parties and elegant parties for up to 500 guests, plus frequent dinners and lunches for 20 to 50 guests. She planned each detail carefully, including the menu, flowers and seating arrangements.

Isabelle Norstad lived a life in those years that few experience, associating with heads of state and celebrities, attending lavish parties at the Elys/e Palace, dressed by the renowned couturier Pierre Balmain and always under scrutiny.

She has said that the most difficult part of her role was that she was "always being watched, photographers everywhere, each facial expression analyzed. We were always on stage and never really able to relax."

There is one particularly interesting photo of Mrs. Norstad curtsying to a young Queen Elizabeth II. When asked what she was thinking at the time, she replied, "I was thinking about getting back up, as I had a back problem. I know I can get down, but can I get back up?"

She entertained Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, as well as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

In her dining room there is a lovely oil painting of her former home at Fontainebleau. On a visit to the Norstadís', Gen. Eisenhower painted the picture as a present.

In two administrations

Gen. Norstad served during both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, retiring in 1963 and returning to the United States.

At a farewell luncheon for them at the Elys/e Palace, President DeGaulle asked Mrs. Norstad (in French, of course) if she was looking forward to returning to her own country. "Mais non!"

She had to admit that it would be an adjustment, as everything she was accustomed to would be gone overnight: The staff, villa, cars, gardeners, military planes. And she would be it! She and her husband were unfamiliar with civilian life and he did not even know how to travel commercially.

After retiring, Norstad became president and later chairman of Owens-Corning Fiberglass Corp. They moved from New York to Ohio with the company before retiring to Arizona in 1975, where Gen. Norstad died in 1988.

Isabelle Norstad is still slim and attractive. When asked for her secret to health and a long life, she joked, "Good parents! Inherit good genes! My parents both lived to 95, so I can't claim much credit."

However, she has always been active, watches her food intake and manages her weight, never gaining more than 10 pounds.

Tried out for Olympics

Growing up in Hawaii, she spent her time outdoors horseback riding, biking, hiking and excelled at swimming, even trying out for the Olympics. She began playing golf in 1946 and was passionate about the sport, as was her husband. She played frequently until three years ago.

Began strength training

Now 91, Isabelle Norstad began strength training at 86 because she was losing her balance and muscle tone. For the past five years she has worked out three times per week with Ed "Thumper" Thornton at FIT of Green Valley, which has helped her to feel strong and continue to look after herself.

Entertaining and cooking are still her favorite pastimes and she hasn't lost her touch for pulling together elegant parties.

A frequent guest, Axel Holm of Nogales, points out that "when having dinner at Mrs. Norstad's, everything goes off with relaxed precision: The cocktail hour, a man on the table, seating assignments. Everyone is comfortable. She married a military man and her organizational and entertaining skills corresponded perfectly to the demands of his career."

She also insists that her guests dress up. As she says, "If I put on a lovely table, my jewellery and dress up, I want my guests to look festive, too. Never casual!"

She stays active and has many interests, including reading historical novels and biographies. She enjoys the symphony, theater and opera and attends the Council on Foreign Relations lectures and served on the board of the Pimeria Alta Historical Society of Nogales.

Some 160,000 documents belonging to Gen. Norstad are archived in the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kan. While researching the archives, Axel Holm, who is writing a book about Mrs. Norstad, found a note written in the margin of a letter.

A prominent general had written a formal letter to her husband and on the side had jotted down, "Larry, why don't you ever answer my letters? I hear from Isabelle and that is the only way I keep up with you."

Although she worked behind the scenes, Mrs. Norstad always played an active role that she continues today.