Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Willkie/Soong May-ling Affair

Taiwan intellectual, legislator, firebrand, and free spirit Li Ao acquired a further distinction--dingbat--during the 2000 presidential election by alleging an affair between Mdme. Chiang Kai-shek (Soong May-ling) and U.S. political figure Wendell Willkie during the Chungking years.

Turns out, he was right.

In The Soong Dynasty, author Sterling Seagrave had already cited John Service's on-the-scene but anodyne reports on the apparent mutual interest between Willkie and Soong May-ling, which led to Willkie paving the way for Mdme. Chiang's triumphal visit to the United States in 1943.

The story was taken a step further in Jonathan Fenby's recent biography of Chiang Kai-shek.

Fenby quotes virtually verbatim (and fully cites) Mike Looks Back, a privately published memoir (1985) by Gardner Cowles, scion of a publishing empire that included Look magazine. Cowles was Willkie's supporter and confidant during Willkie's political career, which culminated with a presidential run against FDR in 1940.

In 1942, FDR dispatched Willkie on an around-the-world fact-finding trip accompanied by Cowles. During a brief stay in Chungking, Willkie and Mdme. Soong became powerfully enamoured of each other.

On one occasion they slipped away from a government reception, leaving Cowles to divert the attention and wrath of Chiang Kai-shek. Later that evening, the Generalissimo appeared at Cowles and Willkie's quarters and searched it from top to bottom in a vain effort to find his wife.

At 4:00 am Willkie returned, in Cowles' words "cocky as a young college student after a successful night with a girl...giving me a play by play account of what had happened"--though Cowles is too much the gentleman to reveal the details himself.

Then Wilkie announced to an astounded Cowles that he wanted to bring Soong May-ling back to Washington with him.

Cowles convinced Willkie such an escapade would doom his political aspirations. As repayment Cowles was delegated to deliver the bad news to Mdme. Soong. Her reaction created an indelible impression on him:

Before I knew what was happening she reached up and scratched her long fingernails down both my cheeks so deeply that I had marks for about a week.

When Mdme. Soong eventually made her historic trip to the United States the next year, she summoned Cowles to her suite in the Waldorf and proposed that he devote himself exclusively to obtaining the Republican presidential nomination for Willkie, spending whatever was necessary--with his expenses to be reimbursed by Mdme. Soong:

...she wound up her sales talk with a remark I shall never forget: "You know, Mike, if Wendell could be elected, then he and I would rule the world. I would rule the Orient and Wendell would rule the Western world." And she stressed the word rule.

After the war, Cowles repeated the story to his wife, sophisticate/socialite/inveterate name dropper Fleur Cowles. While deriding Mike Looks Back as ghost-written and inaccurate, at least as it pertains to the launch of her legendary style magazine Flair, she retells the Mdme. Chiang/Willkie story herself in her own 1996 memoir She Made Friends and Kept Them, confirming more explicitly that the encounter was a secret tryst between the two and not simply a tete a tete about absolute world domination:

On this historic trip, Mme Chiang had her dangerous, short-lived affair with Wendell Willkie ...This brief love affair...had taken place in Mme Chiang's secret apartment on the top floor of the Women's and Children's Hospital. Mme Chiang was so besotted by Willkie she asked to see Mike Cowles privately before they left China, pleading with him to make sure that Willkie would beat Roosevelt in the next election for the Presidency. She offered to pay any costs! [Emphasis in original]

The conversation concluded with her agitated promise: 'If Wendell could be elected, he and I would rule the world, I the Orient, Wendell the rest.'

Gardner and Fleur Cowles divorced, apparently not on the best of terms, in 1955. By conflating the two conversations between Mdme. Chiang and Gardner Cowles, she seems to be relying on her own recollections of 40-year old events--indeed she recollects that her husband told her the story "shortly after we were married"--and not regurgitating Gardner Cowles' disparaged memoir.

Amusingly, Fleur Cowles seems unaware of what must have been Mdme. Chiang's resentment at Gardner Cowles for interfering with her plans for the ultimate, world-conquering power couple romance, and for failing to catapault Willkie into the White House in 1944.

When Fleur Cowles unexpectedly passed through Taiwan in 1953, Mdme. Chiang dropped her off at her accommodations--a fog shrouded, cliffside concrete aerie with "hideously primitive" sanitation, originally used as a final residence for Japanese kamikaze pilots--and told the snake-phobic Cowles sharply:

Don't worry about rats, Fleur. My housekeeper keeps a boa constrictor.

A bemused Cowles concludes:

...I used to reason that, in all likelihood, neither snake nor housekeeper really existed, that the snake had been conjured up as a mischievous form of revenge by Mme Chiang for 'dropping in' on her but...I just couldn't sleep. By the time I left, I had decided that insects, whether flying or crawling, and the hole in the floor for sanitation, were horrible enough to make the snake merely another ingredient in a nightmare.

Gardner Cowles' recollections, complete with claw marks, can't be dismissed as hearsay or third-hand tittle-tattle. And it was a story he regaled his wife with shortly after the event, before age, imagination, and fading memory had taken their toll.

The question that interests me is What did Li Ao know--and when did he know it? Did he glean allegations from the otherwise obscure memoirs of Gardner and Fleur Cowles? Or are there other voices?


David said...

It was fairly common knowledge that the Soong May-ling/Chiang Kai-shek marriage was a pretty loveless marriage of convenience (after all Soong was famous as the sister 'who loved power' - her two sisters loving Money and China respectively). Chiang only married her after he got turned down by her sister ... so I'm betting gossip about Soong was pretty common.

Of course, there's a difference between gossip about an affair and real proof - but Li Ao has never been one to be cautious in his statements. After all, even if it wasn't true, it's believable and hard to prove that he's wrong ...

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