I was hoping to learn some modern Chinese history by reading Hannah Pakula’s The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-Shek and the birth of modern China, but I was disappointed as I have my doubt about some of the material she used. As the New York Times Book Review said of the book, “Pakula uses no source in Chinese and offers little evaluation of the ones she does use.” Pakula is no historian; she may not have the professional training to evaluate the material she uses.
In the book Pakula was making a case that Mme. Chiang and
Wendell Willkie had an affair and even a one-night stand when Willkie visited
Chongqing in October 1942.
After losing to FDR in his Presidency bid in 1940, Willkie
traveled the world representing FDR. He
was a very respectful and influential political figure, advocating Lend-Lease
(a 1941 Act by Congress, empowering the president to send war supplies/money to
the allied countries).
Madame Chiang understandably wanted to charm and woo such an
important figure from USA, from whence their war supply and money came. But the book portrays her as a seducer
and that she wanted to come to USA with Willkie. When Gardner Cowles (a publisher, who
accompanied Willkie on the trip) told May-ling that she could not come to the
States with Willkie. May-ling scratched
her long fingernails down Cowles’ cheeks, so deeply that the marks remained for
a week. Sensational story if it were
In Hannah Pakula’s The
Last Empress, we read the following paragraph (at Cairo Conference),
May-ling, who was wearing a black satin sheath dotted with
yellow chrysanthemums, continually arranged and rearranged her feet in order to
give glimpse of what Brooke called “the most shapely of legs” via the long
slits in her skirt. “This caused a rustle amongst those attending the
conference,” he wrote, “and I even thought I heard a suppressed neigh come from
a group of some of the younger members!”
The following paragraph is from William Manchester/Paul Reid’s
The Last Lion: Defender of the Realm
1940-1965 Volume 3 (Churchill’s biography).
Paul Reid, using Manchester’s material after the latter was stricken by
stroke, to complete the book. Manchester was a respected
historian, who apparently felt Alan Brooke’s diary (Churchill’s right hand man—Chief
of Staff during WWII) was credible and trustworthy.
Madame Chiang, who spoke perfect English, translated for her
husband, leaving Brooke with the impression that Madame “was the leading spirit
of the two, and I would not trust her very far . . .The more I see of her the
less I like her.” Not so the other staff
officers, whose collective
breathing almost stopped when Madame’s “closely clinging dress of black satin
with yellow chrysanthemums displayed a slit which extended to her hip bone and
exposed one of the most shapely of legs.”
In the Volume V (Closing
the Ring) of Churchill’s The Second
World War, with which, I feel, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature,
Churchill wrote about his impression of Mme. Chiang during Cairo Conference
I had a very pleasant conversation with Madame Chiang
Kai-shek, and found her a most remarkable and charming personality. I told her how much I had regretted that we could
not fix an occasion for a meeting at the time when we had both been in America
together, and we agree that no undue formalities should stand in the way of our
talks in the future. The President had
us all photographed together at one of our meetings at his villa, and although
both the Generalissimo and his wife are now regarded as wicked and corrupt reactionaries
by many of their former admirers, I am glad to keep this as a souvenir.
In the Volume IV (The
Hinge of Fate) of Churchill’s The
Second World War, we read why Churchill and Mme. Chiang did see each other
when they both were in America (also in 1943).
On this weekend was discussed the question of my meeting Madame
Chiang Kai-shek, who was making and extensive tour of the United States. She was at this time in New York, and intimated
that she would be glad to receive me there.
Amid the pressure under which we were working and in the few days that
remained before I must leave I did not feel able to make so long a
journey. The President therefore invited
the lady to lunch with him to meet me at the White House. The invitation was refused with some hauteur. Madame was of the opinion that I should make
the pilgrimage to New York. The
President was somewhat vexed that she had not adapted his plan. It was my strong desire to preserve the unity
in the Grand Alliance, and I offered to go half-way if she would do the
same. This offer was however considered
facetious, so I never had the pleasure and advantage of meeting this lady until
the Cairo Conference.
In Hannah Pakula’s The
Last Empress, we read the following conversation between Churchill and Mme.
Chiang, (so far I cannot verify this conversation indeed happened.)
think I’m a terrible old man, don’t you?
Chiang: I really
don’t know. You believe in colonialism
and I don’t.
tell me what do you think of me?
Chiang: I think
your bark is worse than your bite.