She was beautiful, bewitching and ambitious. Not content with ruling China with her husband she dreamt of ruling the world - even if it meant seducing a would-be American president. Jonathan Fenby reveals the extraordinary secret of Madame Chiang Kai-shek.
Today the woman Ernest Hemingway once called "the Empress of China" will be celebrated in a memorial service at St Bartholomew's Church in Manhattan which her family hopes will be attended by 1,000 people. Sixty years ago, in the same city, she dreamed of ruling the world in association with one of America's most prominent politicians.
Meiling Soong, aka Madame Chiang Kai-shek, once famous round the world as the beautiful and extremely powerful Dragon Lady wife of China's autocratic ruler, lived the last years of her life in seclusion in a large apartment overlooking Gracie Park on the Upper East Side before dying on October 23 at the age of 106. The seclusion was not simply a matter of age and health. The Kuomintang Nationalist party, which had ruled the island of Taiwan after she and her husband fled there from mainland China in 1949, is trying to reinvent itself as a modern democratic party, and had no wish for this figure from its authoritarian past to emerge from the shadows.
So, as the obituaries put it, this last survivor among leading figures of the second world war, who worked at her husband's side trying to rule China for two decades, took her secrets to the grave. But, while writing a biography of Generalissimo Chiang, I came across long-buried evidence of one secret which showed the extent of her ambitions, and how she sought to use her ability to seduce westerners to realise an extraordinary dream.
The story began in the grey, isolated city of Chongqing, China's capital for most of the eight-year war with Japan that began in 1937. The time was October 1942. The occasion was the visit of leading American politician Wendell Willkie, who had run against Franklin Roosevelt for the presidency in 1940 and was planning a second bid in 1944.
Despite their political differences, Roosevelt had sent Willkie on a goodwill mission to China, and the exuberant Republican waded into the crowds as if he was electioneering. Like many westerners, he was particularly struck by the Generalissimo's wife. Her perfect English made her the regime's principal go-between with its American ally. Daughter of one of China's richest and most powerful families, she epitomised modernity in a country steeped in tradition as she drove to the war front in Shanghai in slacks, argued about arms supplies with American generals and pushed for the development of China's air force.
Then 45, she appeared at a tea party for the visitor with the cloak of an air marshal thrown dashingly over her shoulders. She told the 50-year-old Willkie she found him a very "disturbing influence", a remark which visibly gratified him.
That evening, a large reception was held. Willkie asked his companion on the trip, an American publisher called Gardner Cowles, to replace him on the greeting line. The politician then disappeared - as did Meiling. When the reception ended, Cowles went back to a house where he and Willkie were staying. After a while, Chiang strode in with three bodyguards. He asked where Willkie was. Cowles said he did not know. The Generalissimo stormed through the house, peering under beds and opening cupboards. Not finding anybody, he left.
Willkie eventually arrived at 4am. According to a private memoir by Cowles which I unearthed in an American archive, he looked "very buoyant... cocky as a young college student after a successful night with a girl". After giving "a play by play" account of what had happened between him and Meiling, he said he had invited her to return to Washington with him.
"Wendell, you're just a goddam fool!" Cowles exclaimed. He acknowledged that Meiling was "one of the most beautiful, intelligent, and sexy women either of us had ever met", but the politician had to be discreet. Mrs Willkie would probably be waiting at the airport in Washington: if he wanted to run again for the presidency, flying in with Madame Chiang would be a considerable embarrassment.
Willkie stomped off to bed, but was up a few hours later for breakfast. Since he had a speech to make, he asked Cowles to go to see Meiling to tell her she could not accompany him to the US. When the publisher delivered the message, Meiling scratched her long fingernails down his cheeks so deeply that the marks remained for a week.
Two months later, Madame Chiang flew to the US on a barnstorming tour to raise support for China in its fight with Japan. She addressed both houses of Congress, and stayed at the White House, bringing her own silk sheets. When they met, Roosevelt had a card table set between them, to avoid being "vamped", as he put it.
Back in New York, she invited Cowles to a tête-à-tête dinner in the Waldorf-Astoria Towers, where she took a whole floor. She informed him that, on their wedding night in 1927, Chiang had told her he believed in sex only for procreation and, since he had a son by an earlier marriage, they would not sleep together. Cowles was not sure he believed her - the story seemed designed to be relayed to Willkie.
Next, she said Cowles should spend whatever was needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination for Willkie. "She would reimburse me for all expenditures," he added in his memoir. The cash would, presumably, have come from US loans to China sitting in American bank accounts.
"If Wendell could be elected, then he and I would rule the world," she went on. "I would rule the Orient and Wendell would rule the western world." Though Cowles considered the proposal crazy, he was "so mesmerised by clearly one of the most formidable women of the time that this evening I would not have dismissed anything she said."
Returning to China, Meiling led a palace coup to block her equally ambitious eldest brother, and talked of becoming China's war minister. Then, 60 years ago this month, she flew with her husband to meet Churchill and Roosevelt at a war summit in Cairo.
Instead of visiting the pyramids, as Churchill wanted her to do, she walked into the conference chamber, wearing a black satin dress with a yellow chrysanthemum pattern, the skirt slit up the side. Since the Generalissimo spoke no English, she took over on the Chinese side, constantly correcting the interpreters and setting policy as she chain-smoked British cigarettes. At one point, according to the British chief of staff, she aroused a "rustle" and a "neighing" from men in the room when she shifted position and showed "one of the most shapely of legs" through the slit in her skirt.
But her plans to co-rule the world fell apart when Willkie failed to get the Republican nomination, and then died of a heart attack. Nor were matters smooth at home. The Generalissimo was congenitally suspicious of anybody around him who amassed power, including his wife. He was said to be having an affair with his nurse, and Meiling was reported to have thrown a vase at him, causing such injuries that he could not go out in public for several days.
Trying to reassert herself, she made another trip to the US, but things were not what they used to be. Washington was cooling on the Chiang regime, finally recognising its inefficiency and corruption, and Roosevelt's successor, Harry Truman, refused to receive her at the White House.
From then on, it was a downhill path that stretched over six decades as Chiang was forced out of mainland China and Meiling lost out in power struggles in Taiwan after his death in 1975. But, for a time in the early 1940s, she had been the most powerful woman on earth, and could dream of ruling the world with an American consort.
· To order a copy of Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the China He Lost, by Jonathan Fenby, for £22 plus p&p (rrp £25), call 0870 066 7979. Published by Simon & Schuster.
© Guardian News & Media 2008
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