Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Wendell's Chinese Adventure

"Soon after nine p.m., as the publisher (Gardiner Cowles, Look magazine) recorded in his privately published memoirs, 'there was a great clatter in the courtyard. The Generalissimo marched in, visibly furious. He was accompanied by three bodyguards, each carrying a little Tommy gun. Trying to restrain his rage, the Generalissimo bowed coldly, and I returned the bow.' Chiang asked where Willkie was. Cowles said he did not know. He then offered Chiang tea. After they had drunk this in silence, the Generalissimo repeated his question, and Cowles repeated that he had no answer. At that, Chiang stormed through the house followed by his bodyguards. He searched every room, peered under the beds and opened cupboards. Not finding what he was looking for, he left without saying anything. Cowles sat up drinking more Scotch. At 4 a.m., he recorded, 'a very buoyant Willkie appeared, cocky as a young college student after a successful night with a girl...Willkie stomped off to bed, but was up a couple of hours later for breakfast. He had a speech to make and asked Cowles to go see Meiling and tell her she could not fly to the U.S. with him. The publisher inquired where he could find her. Willkie suggested an apartment on the top floor of a hospital for women and children. With her own private guards protecting them, that was where they had gone the previous night.

An interesting review of a book on Wendell Willkie in the New York Times. It sounds like a book well worth the read, but what I was looking for was a reference to this incident treated at length in Jonathan Fenby's Chiang Kai-shek bio. Chiang's wife had clearly married him for power, but the limits of Chiang's usefulness were becoming apparent in 1940, and she was clearly looking to move on an even more central stage . Willkie's loss to Roosevelt was clearly a tremendous disappointment to her. It is often said of the three Soong sisters that one loved money, one loved China, and one loved power. Meiling certainly played her part. In New York, later that year, Meiling met with Willkie's man Cowles again:

"She told the publisher that her union with Chiang was a marriage of political convenience, and recounted the story of his having said on their wedding night that they would not have sex - a tale which , as Cowles recorded, he was not sure he believed. Next, she moved into the reason for inviting him. She was sure Willkie could get the Republican presidential nomination, and urged Cowles to do all he could to achieve this. 'I was to spend whatever amont of money I thought necessary,' he wrote in his memoirs. 'She would reimburse me for all my expenditures.' Funding to buy the presidency for Willkie would have come, in part at least, from the residue of U.S. loans sitting in the American bank accounts of the Chungking regime. 'If Wendell could be elected, then he and I would rule the world,' she told Cowles. 'I would rule the Orient and Wendell would rule the Western world.' It was, as Cowles noted, a totally mad proposal, 'but I was so mesmerized by clearly one of the most formidable women of the time that this evening I would not have dismissed anything she said.'"

The Willkie book sounds interesting. I wonder if it includes any more background on this story. At any rate, I suspect we're all better off for old Franklin Roosevelt getting elected in 1940. Roosevelt was reported to have departed from his usual practice of sitting on a sofa with visitors when Meiling visited the White House, insisting that they be seperated by a table, in order "to avoid being vamped." Fooling around with a secretary is one thing, but Willkie's Chongking adventure seems right up there with Kennedy's sharing a girlfriend with a mobster in the annals of irresponsible cheating. Great leaders know when to get out the table.