PHILADELPHIA, PA – Above all, Jennie Eisenhower loves to tell a story, and she tells it in a myriad of ways. She is a two-time Barrymore Award winner – once for Best Actress and once for Best Supporting Actress, with four additional nominations. She is a director, an instructor at Temple University, and she gives singing and acting lessons privately. And if her last name – Eisenhower – rings a bell, that’s no coincidence: she is the great-granddaughter of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the granddaughter of President Richard Nixon.
Her professional love and passion is theater, and it all began with Greek theater. “I played Antigone” at Northwestern University, from where Eisenhower graduated Summa Cum Laude. “I was a theater major and the first semester that we got onstage, we tackled the Greeks,” she told TNH. “Greek theater is great material to use to begin the process of getting actors to open up and experience all of their emotions in a heightened and raw way. The stakes of Greek tragedy – Antigone, Medea, Oedipus, Electra, etc., are incredibly high! The only way to act them truthfully is to plunge yourself fully into the emotion that’s called for, be it grief, rage, shame, joy, or fear. We learned so much using the Ancient Greeks and that training remains at the core of who I am as an actor.”
The daughter of Nixon’s daughter Julie, and of Eisenhower’s grandson David – for whom the Camp David Presidential retreat is named – she has the distinct and rare honor of being a close relative to an American president on both sides of her family. But when it came to choosing performing over politics, the choice was never even close. “I’m interested in politics but am not passionate about politics the way I am about theater,” Eisenhower says. “It was never a debate for me as to what I was going to be when I ‘grew up.’ I always wanted to be a performer – from the time I was old enough to get up on stage.”
“I was very close to my grandparents,” Eisenhower says, referring to Richard and Pat Nixon, former President and First Lady of the United States. “They lived about a two-hour car ride away from us when I was growing up and we would visit their home about once a month, staying the whole weekend. I used to cry when we would pull away in the car.” Eisenhower lived in the Philadelphia suburb of Valley Forge and the Nixons lived in Saddle River, NJ. “And once when they visited us,” she continued, “I wrote a song titled ‘Ma, Stay,’ to convince my grandmother (“Ma”) not to go back to New Jersey! My relationship with them was very special and I miss them very much to this day. It was hard to lose them when I did – I always hoped they would live to be great-grandparents and meet my child – but I am grateful to have been able to spend as much time with them as I did while they were living.” Mrs. Nixon died in 1993 and the president in 1994. Eisenhower is married to Anthony Cheslock; they have one daughter, Chloe, born in 2013.
On her website, jennie-eisenhower.com, Eisenhower includes a video that she made for the American Cancer Society, which includes a heartfelt account of her “very special bond” with her grandmother, who died of cancer. “We made up a lot of different games together. My favorite game was one called Shoe Store. Because my grandmother was the First Lady and in the White House, she had a lot of shoes in her closet. So, I would go into the closet, and she would come in, and I would be the shoe store owner. And she would try on all the different pairs of shoes and I, as a five-year-old, would advise her on which pump was the most stylish, or which color to choose with her outfit, and this would go on for hours and hours. I used to have so much fun with Ma.”
The Shoe Store game was an early indicator for Eisenhower’s love of playing roles. “I always wanted to be a performer,” she told TNH, “from the time I was old enough to get up on stage.”
With all the different hats she wears, Eisenhower says “my primary passion is to tell a great story. For that reason, I do tend to wear a lot of hats, as the opportunities to tell great stories have been quite varied during the course of my career. Be it singing in a musical, directing a play, or even teaching a student to tell a story in the best and most authentic way they can, my love of storytelling is the common thread throughout the various items on my resume. I don’t have a favorite “hat” (in terms of whether to act, teach, direct, etc.) so much as I have favorite shows that I have been a part of – including a new musical I recently acted in called “Field Hockey Hot.”
Eisenhower has a full schedule, including her next show, “Passion,” at the Arden Theatre, “a Stephen Sondheim musical that I am really looking forward to doing. And next spring I’ll be starring as Lilli Vanessi in ‘Kiss Me Kate,’ a favorite of mine. That will be at Act 2 Playhouse. My schedule is constantly changing,” she says, and it is updated regularly on her website.
Eisenhower has truly made a name for herself in the Greater Philadelphia area. She recalls: “There was a day when my mother and I were shopping together and a woman approached my mother while I was looking at a rack of clothing across the store. I overheard her say to my mother, ‘You’re Jennie Eisenhower’s mother, aren’t you?’ It was a hilarious moment, because my whole life I had heard ‘You’re Julie’s daughter,’ or ‘You’re the President’s granddaughter.’ I think that was the moment that I realized there are people (mostly in the Philadelphia area, where I work onstage) who see me as an actor first, a political relative second.”
In past interviews, Eisenhower has stated that she thinks her famous Republican ancestors, Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon, would probably be Democrats if they were alive today, and on a related note, reminded that Eisenhower was an advocate of universal health care. “I try not to get too political,” she tells TNH, and “though I stand by those statements, they are obviously speculation on my part.” Nonetheless, Eisenhower’s take on the modern-day Republican Party is that it has “changed a lot since my grandfather and great grandfather were in office, and I would love to see it become more moderate again.”