Isabel Rosario Cooper, if mentioned at all by mainstream history books, is often a salacious footnote: the young Filipino mistress of General Douglas MacArthur, hidden away at the Charleston Hotel in DC.
Empire’s Mistress, Starring Isabel Rosario Cooper by Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez refuses to reduce Cooper’s life to that simple statement. The book investigates Cooper’s life both in the Philippines, where she was a famed vaudeville and film actress, and in the United States, where her life shows the struggles that Asian actors and actresses faced in a prejudiced Hollywood.
In this interview I ask Vernadette to introduce us to Isabel Cooper, and go beyond the simplistic historical narrative of her as MacArthur’s mistress. We’ll talk about how her life exemplifies how imperialism, gender and entertainment intersected in both the Philippines and the United States. And we briefly explore how this connects with the idea of being “Asian-American”.
Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez is Professor of American Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, and author of Securing Paradise: Tourism and Militarism in Hawai‘i and the Philippines (Duke University Press, 2013), and coeditor of Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawai‘i (Duke University Press, 2019).