My Search For Douglas MacArthur
An overheard remark sent the author off on a years-long quest to discover the truth about a man whose power to inspire both rage and reverence has only grown after his death
February/March 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 1
Midway into the research it seemed a good time to go and see D. Clayton James, author of the only reliable work on MacArthur, a magisterial three-volume scholarly biography, published a generation ago. I asked Professor James how he had felt during the twenty years he had lived with MacArthur. “Hated him on Tuesday,” said James. “Loved him on Wednesday!” Welcome to the club.
I also discovered that earlier researchers had made interesting, possibly important, finds that have since vanished without a trace. For example, there were love letters from a Mexican servant girl MacArthur had known in Veracruz in 1914. Shortly after they came to light, they were somehow “purged,” to use a researcher’s term, from the MacArthur Archives. No one has seen them since.
Despite the false scents, the doctored accounts, the mystique, and the gaps in the documentary record, it is impossible to live a lifetime in the public eye and to write as much as MacArthur did without scattering a plethora of clues. Cardinal Richelieu once observed, “Give me four lines of any man’s writing and I can justify a hanging.” I found windows on MacArthur’s mind and feelings scattered throughout his letters, his speeches…and his poetry.
MacArthur’s love poems are in a prosody that might be called “early Hallmark.” The most interesting are those he wrote to the first woman he proposed to, Fanniebelle Stewart of Park Avenue in New York City. She rejected his offer of marriage, and among his missives to her is a twenty-seven-page offering that shows how MacArthur, then a lieutenant of engineers, saw his destiny—as a colonel of infantry, dying heroically in battle, leaving his proud and grieving widow, the adored “Fan,” to bring up their two young sons alone and tend the flame of Colonel MacArthur’s memory. No wonder she chose to marry a rich cotton broker instead. His poems to her nonetheless provided a window on the heart and mind of MacArthur as a young officer.
I found that every version of MacArthur’s actions when the Japanese attacked the Philippines in December 1941 was fundamentally flawed.
In the closing stages of my research, I got the benefits of another major windfall. An abundance of nonsense had been written about MacArthur’s first wife, Louise Brooks Cromwell MacArthur. In 1991 one of Louise’s descendants put up for sale more than seventy letters MacArthur had written her, and the entire text of each letter was reproduced in the catalogue issued by the autograph dealer offering them for auction. These letters offered the possibility of writing the first accurate account of their marriage. As any biographer would be, I was thrilled beyond words at the prospect of doing so.
Many years later, after the marriage had ended in mutual scorn and bitterness, Louise blamed its collapse on “an interfering mother-in-law.” She also claimed MacArthur was impotent. His letters to her establish the absurdity of both these assertions.
Divorced from Louise, MacArthur sought sexual release and the sustaining power of a woman’s love in the arms of a sixteen-year-old Scottish-Filipino chorus girl, Isabel Rosario Cooper. I was able to chart the entire course of this affair and was intrigued to find he had boasted to Isabel, “I have surpassed my father’s achievements.” True, he had become Chief of Staff, a position that had eluded his father. On the other hand, his father had won the Medal of Honor for his courage at Missionary Ridge in 1863, while the son had been denied it by Pershing, despite what he achieved on the Côte-de-Châtillon.
One way that MacArthur covered his tracks was by destroying much of the correspondence he received, especially from those close to him. Sometimes there are copies of his replies, but usually I was forced to guess from these what the letters he was responding to contained. I cannot claim I always succeeded.
The two most important women in his life were his mother and his second wife, Jean. His marriage to Jean was blissfully happy. She was an ideal Army wife, popular with other officers and, more of a challenge, other officers’ wives. The down-to-earth, resilient, and loving Jean provided him the emotional base he needed following his mother’s death. As for his mother’s role in his life and career, that was crucial. “My mother found my father a lieutenant and raised him to three stars,” said MacArthur. “She had an earlier start with me and made me a full general.”
While competing with his father, MacArthur revered him too. Formal photographs of Lt. Gen. Arthur MacArthur show a slightly pompous, potbellied, bespectacled man in late middle age self-consciously striving to look like a figure of importance. “What a martinet!” my editor said mockingly. To my jaundiced eye, he looked like a shoe-store owner gussied up for a night at the Masonic lodge.