In 1929, a young woman sailed from Manila to New York to reunite with an older man who begged her to join him in the United States. Twenty years old at the most—her actual birth year was never clear—she was born from a Filipina mother and a former American soldier previously stationed in the Philippines. The man for whom she was about to stay cooped up in a Washington, DC hotel room for several years was none other than General Douglas MacArthur, three decades her senior and soon to be the Chief of Staff of the US Army.
Isabel Rosario Cooper’s name has for the most part faded from the history books, but if there’s any mention of her at all, it’s usually as MacArthur’s mistress. Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez hopes to change that with Empire’s Mistress, Starring Isabel Rosario Cooper, a biography in which she tells Cooper’s story in the wider context of American colonialism and Hollywood’s mistreatment of Asian actors.
Isabel Cooper, born sometime between 1909 and 1912, was part of the first group of mixed American-Filipino children born after the United States had taken from Spain as colonial master of the Philippines in 1898. Cooper was born in Manila and spent most of her childhood there, apart from a few years in Arizona before her mother left her father in the US and took ten year-old Isabel back to the Philippines. The Manila of her teenage years was cosmopolitan and American.
The city was being made modern for bureaucrats, businessmen, teachers, and their families, all of whom cut their teeth on colonialism but wanted the comforts of home. Its waterfront parks and parkways, neoclassical government buildings, streets with trolleys, sewer systems, and electric lighting showcased the progressive empire that the United States styled itself to be… Strolling on Calle Rosario, peeking in the windows of Clarke’s or the Silver Dollar Saloon, having lunch at Tom’s Dixie Kitchen on Plaza Goiti, Filipinos and Americans mingled in public.
This was also the Manila young Douglas MacArthur knew. His father had served as the top military officer in the Pacific and Douglas spent much of his career, on and off, in the Philippines.
As a girl of mixed race, Isabel’s most promising career opportunities in Manila were limited to the entertainment industry. She became a singer and dancer who went by the name Dimples. She also starred in a number of silent films, including the first Filipino film to feature a kiss on screen. It was scandalous. MacArthur met her a number of times over a decade and pursued her romantically when she was a dancer, probably in her mid-teens. When he asked if she’d like to study in the United States, there was an understanding that she would be there for him in other ways.
Once Isabel was situated at the Chastleton Hotel in Washington, MacArthur dressed her in kimono, fulfilling his geisha fantasy. (He was also known to wear a kimono at his desk when he served as Chief of Staff.) During the Chastleton years, MacArthur was between marriages and didn’t mind who in Washington knew about Isabel as long as his mother was kept in the dark.
Gonzales uses Cooper’s story as a metaphor for the way in which colonialism is rooted in a temporary exploitation of a land and its people. When MacArthur had finished with Isabel, he had no qualms about leaving her. But Cooper was resilient and didn’t let that keep her down; she married a couple times and moved to Hollywood to reignite her film career.
Cooper’s Hollywood years take up most of the relatively short book’s 170-odd pages. She went by Dimples in Manila, but in Hollywood she was known as Isabel, Belle, and Chabing, the name her mother called her when she was a girl. Because Hollywood preferred to cast white actors in yellowface rather than Asians in lead roles, Isabel couldn’t find the same kind of work she had in Manila. Nevertheless, she starred in a number of supporting roles as a geisha, hula girl, and a member of the harem in Anna and the King of Siam. She also played a Filipina nurse in So Proudly We Hail, set during the Bataan Death March and MacArthur’s abandonment of the Philippines. In this film, Isabel’s character was an unnamed Filipina nurse while the American nurses played by Veronica Lake, Claudette Colbert, and Paulette Goddard took center stage.
Isabel Cooper’s nurse sits on one of the bunks. As the camera pans right to focus on one of the main characters, we see Isabel Cooper in profile. She opens her mouth, as if to say something, then catches herself. She, too, has a tale to tell about MacArthur leaving. Or disasters wrought by men of war. But this is not her story to narrate, and the camera lingers instead on Goddard, Colbert, and Lake as heroines, always, of this plot.
Gonzalez states up front that archives don’t hold much when it comes to Isabel’s correspondence or footage of her Filipino films. Nevertheless, throughout the book she includes images of posters, movie stills, and other photographs of Isabel during the time she acted in Manila and later in Hollywood. She also features the recipe of a cocktail developed in Manila called The Douglas, in honor of MacArthur (mango juice and pulp, Spanish brandy, and the juice of a calamansi shaken with shaved ice). In other parts of the book, Gonzales writes about attending a multimedia exhibit about Isabel in a New York Gallery in 2014 and learning about Asianamnesia, a 2008 play by Sun Mee Chomet, that tells the stories of Isabel, Anna May Wong, and Oyuki, the wife of George Morgan of the JP Morgan banking family.
Besides the art installation and play, Gonzales notes that every once in a while images of Cooper pop up on social media. They’re still mentioned in relation to the MacArthur affair, but Gonzalez is hopeful about the way in which Cooper will be remembered.