Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez is Professor of American Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, author of Securing Paradise: Tourism and Militarism in Hawai‘i and the Philippines, and coeditor of Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawai‘i. Her latest book is Empire’s Mistress, Starring Isabel Rosario Cooper, which follows the life of Filipina vaudeville and film actress Isabel Rosario Cooper, who was the mistress of General Douglas MacArthur, to explore the contours of empire as experienced on the scale of personal relationships.
If most people know anything about Isabel Rosario Cooper, it’s that she was General Douglas MacArthur’s mistress. In footnotes to most histories, she is portrayed as a tragic figure, “a beautiful woman who died of heartbreak.” What made you want to tell her story more fully?
This kind of feminine figuration has always served as camouflage for complexity, a shorthand that feeds into and is fed by a colonial fantasy of brown women longing for white men, as well as narrative desire for familiar tropes. This version of Isabel Cooper’s story is not in the footnotes: it is front and center because it’s the comfortable and typical characterization of “women like her.” When I started to dig into the footnotes of MacArthur biographies, I discovered a kind of recursive pattern that boiled down to a reliance on repeated citations of sources that had somehow become authoritative evidence for her story. What became clear was that these sources that were more hearsay or even outright inaccurate had circulated enough times that they had hardened into truth—in particular the version that revolved around the General as her object of yearning and heartbreak had become the standard. The work of postcolonial feminist scholars has taught us that of course there’s something more operating beneath the flattened image of dead, beautiful, heartbroken women, something more than “MacArthur’s mistress.” The short interludes that bothered to portray Isabel Cooper in MacArthur biographies and their suspect footnotes that were cited as evidence didn’t match up to this work.
There’s also a way in which stories like hers are dismissed as unworthy in the sense that her biggest known “accomplishment” is sleeping with MacArthur—often read as betrayal at worst, or venal at most—another way to marginalize women’s stories. At the same time, I did not want to dismiss her sexual agency, because to some degree, that was crucial to the kind of power and identity she wielded. From the great work that has been done on the early colonial period in the Philippines, particularly on the “woman question,” we know that the lives of Filipinas were complex, cosmopolitan, and often grappled with the contradictions engendered by the shifts in colonial society. I wanted to tell her story more fully because it deserved to be told with the same kind of effort in terms of research and writing as stories of men like MacArthur, and I felt that it would be a good vehicle to also interweave a parallel account about archives and genres, and the ways in which both open and up and foreclose how we learn to narrate ourselves.
You choose not to structure your book chronologically like a traditional biography. Instead you begin with her relationship with MacArthur and then jump around in time. You also feature documents, pictures and imagined letters and conversations in between your chapters. Why did you choose this structure? How does it help tell Cooper’s story more fully?
It took me a while to figure out how to tell her story. I knew I needed to include elements of biography—because so little of her life is actually known, and the broader historical context of her story is unfamiliar to most readers—so some part of this had to be fleshed out. But I also knew that I didn’t want to present an account that was somehow whole or authoritative or forthright, like an exhumation or an explanation, because I didn’t want to repeat the pattern of how she has been narrated in such an overdetermined way. I did begin with a chronological draft, but this structure felt like it didn’t make room for the ways in which patterns repeated themselves in her life, or how a particular part of her story (the MacArthur interlude) pre-empts others. It felt inert—and so I began with her death, because so much of what is written about her pivots on the suicide of this beautiful woman, and the half-truths or outright lies that adhered to it. I also foregrounded her time with MacArthur in the narrative, a bit perversely, because I wanted to arrest the desire to center MacArthur and frame him as the “reveal” of the story later on in the book. I felt like that the strange enticement of that infamous scandal was not something I wanted the reader to be invested in. The few years of her life during which she associated with MacArthur has come to define her and how she’s narrated: it’s the hook that draws most people to her story, but I didn’t want it operate as the climax of the narrative. It is certainly not the main driving force of her life, even as it is often characterized this way. I try to make the case that this moment is more an effect, rather than a cause.
The overall structure of the book also pulls from the protracted, piecemeal, and interrupted process of my research into her life, and from the sometimes-unexpected and last-minute way that new sources would shift a whole arc I had neatly mapped out. The sparseness and inaccuracy of the existing writing and archival materials on Isabel Cooper resists that neat and orderly biographical narrative: there are so many moments that are lost to history because of lack of documentation, and in her case, contradiction, inconsistency, absence, or outright error in whatever records can be pieced together. So that’s another story in itself: the colonial archive’s promises and secrets. I was struck by how so much of the narrative about her is fictional (in the sense of repeated inaccuracies), and as I dug deeper, how much of this fiction she also perpetrated. It gave me permission to speculate about moments that might not have documentation, or to invent, as she did, stories about herself.
Cooper goes by many different names in her life, from Dimples as a child performer, to Chabing Cooper, Elizabeth Cooper, and Belle Cooper, to a married name of Isabel Kennamer. Why does Cooper constantly rename herself and shift her identity?
To me, this was a strategy that was tied to moments in her life where she was reinventing herself, or starting over. She was someone who had, at a very young age, entered the world of the stage and screen, so taking on roles was a habit she never dropped. It was something she also learned from her mother, to some extent. But she also had really distinct periods in her life: she crossed the Pacific several times, experienced very diverse living conditions, married twice, had affairs, and made big choices about her career. I think renaming herself gave her some modicum of control over conditions that were far beyond her power to manage, and later on, allowed for her to have a clean slate when so much of her past tended to creep up on her unexpectedly due the lingering effects of US imperialism. As a researcher, this made tracking her occasionally tricky: it felt sometimes that these past decisions on her part were also about refusing an easy narration on mine. It forced me to pause and think about what went into her decisions to go by a particular name at different points in her life.
You say that “sex, and lots of it, defined the colonial encounter.” How does focusing on intimate relationships like that of Cooper and MacArthur change the way we view colonial history?
I owe so much of this work to postcolonial feminists who understand the intimate as a site of colonial power, and to work by Philippine Studies and Filipinx diaspora studies scholars in particular who have explored how sex and sexuality operated in the US-Philippine colonial world. My ability to tell Isabel Cooper’s story is built on that foundational research, and my claim is not new. What I try to shed a bit of light on is how the contradictions of American claims to benevolence and discourses of superiority break down when you look at how empire played out through relationships between people. So many of the colonial encounters turned on sex—the archives are filled with both overt confessions, allusions, or outright mentions of sexually transmitted diseases or decisions about the management of sex work. It’s dirty reading at times. I was interested in the messiness of transactions that revolved around sex or were defined through sexual exchange, as well as how the racial carnal desires at the heart of empire shaped relations well after the actual arrangement or encounter occurred. Who had the upper hand in these kinds of arrangements or coercions was not always clear, and that made for a fascinating dynamic to explore. Isabel Cooper operated within this colonial milieu and the ways she understood, navigated, and leveraged it gives us a sense of the push and pull, and the possibilities and limits of human agency and creativity at a more intimate scale of empire.
What can we learn about Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s from Cooper’s story? How does centering the experiences of non-white actors change the way we think about this era and its films?
I don’t know that we learn much more than we already know about how the Hollywood gambit was a story about deep disappointment for non-white actors in the 1940s and 1950s. For all the Anna May Wongs and Philip Ahns who carved out some kind of a career against and alongside the deep racism and sexism that defined Hollywood culture, there were hundreds of aspirants like Isabel Cooper whose willing and strategic self-exoticizations fell far short of any kind of living. It is probably safer to say that Cooper supplemented her income with her film acting roles but supported herself mainly from nightclub work. The casual mention of casting couch culture, or the matter-of-fact ways she tried to position herself for “Oriental” roles or parts for which she could make a racial stretch was evident in the letters that she wrote during that time, as well as in the industry literature itself. In some ways, her experience was more the rule, rather than the exception that gets written about.
How have artists and people of Filipino descent remembered and reimagined Isabel Rosario Cooper? What does her legacy mean to people today?
For most Filipinos, Isabel Cooper first registers as MacArthur’s mistress, with all the titillation and scandal that entails. This is why interest around her endures. In so many ways, this bit of her story feeds into the melodramatic habits that characterizes some of Hollywood/Manila cinema of her time, as well the theater of everyday politics in the Filipino diaspora. She is also known to some extent as a performer on stage and screen. Filipino cinema is just a bit over a century old, so there has been renewed interest in its pioneers—and as a crossover vaudeville star who made a big early impression in the first “modern” Filipino silent films, Isabel Cooper (she went by Elizabeth Cooper in film) is noteworthy.
Over the course of my research and writing, I also encountered visual artists (one of whom I write about), and writers (both fiction and non-fiction) who grapple with the kinds of narratives that adhere to Isabel Cooper. I think she continues to attract this kind of interest because when you dig deep enough, there’s a lot more to her story beyond the superficiality of MacArthur’s mistress that is typically the first draw. I look to these interpretations as retellings that reveal the inadequacy of the “mistress” framework. My purpose in the book is not to supplant or supersede any of these creative encounters with her, but rather to shake up the assumptions that produce a particular narrative account that is a habit of imperial culture, and one that clearly is not enough to contain her.