Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez discusses her new book on Isabel Cooper, a Filipina American actress and Douglas MacArthur’s lover.
April 5, 2021
Isabel Rosario Cooper was a mixed-race Filipina actress who, amid scandal and political turmoil in the early decades of the 20th century, rose to fame in Manila before trying to make it in Hollywood. Cooper has mostly been lost to historical memory, but on the fleeting occasions when she does surface, she is usually accompanied by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. The story goes like this: The beautiful, young Cooper falls in love with the towering military hero in a country on the brink of war. She follows him to Washington, D.C., where MacArthur puts her up in the lavish Chastleton Hotel, and they engage in a five-year affair. Unable to secure her lover’s fidelity, though, she dies by suicide decades later in Hollywood, a tragic victim of unrequited love. “This fiction has proven its durability,” writes Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez, professor of American Studies at University of Hawaii, Manoa, in her recent book Empire’s Mistress, Starring Isabel Rosario Cooper. “Yet there is something there, too, in the way the dead refuse to rest. Her apparition lingers, I suspect, because this flimsy plot…cannot contain her.” I spoke with Gonzalez about her book, Isabel Cooper, and the US imperial project in Asia, the day after a white man killed eight people—including six Asian women—in a shooting rampage at three Atlanta massage parlors.
This conversation originally aired on Instagram Live as part of the Asian American Writers Workshop’s author interview series.
Noah Flora: From page one of the book, you insist that “this is not a love story.” Let’s start there. Why that insistence?
Vernadette Gonzalez: Isabel Cooper was most infamous for being the mistress of a very famous man, a very powerful military leader. I wanted to dig deeper. The love story, the insistence on unrequited love, as the thing that defines her, just ran aground of so many things when I was doing the research. I’m always suspicious of love stories, because they exclude so much. They exclude violence. They exclude the kinds of structural inequities that had to have existed between a mixed-race woman who was much younger than this general, who had basically led the occupation of her country. So there was already this unequal structure of power that got in the way, for me, of the romance. That romance was hiding something. And the insistence of the attachment to the romance, I think, says a lot about what we might be attached to—in terms of storytelling, and in terms of memory and history.
NF: At multiple points in the book, we’re asked to consider how Isabel’s personal story maps on to the history of the United States’ imperial project in the Philippines writ large. Could you flesh out that connection?
VG: When people think of empire, it’s really easy to think about American military occupation, the violence of empire—those things that are easily identifiable as power enacted. One does not necessarily think about how soft power operates. So what I wanted to explore was how personal relationships—from people’s affairs or friendships or even feelings of competition—actually became the glue of imperial society. You see it playing out in the ways that certain people were assumed to be available to others, in the ways that certain people were assumed to be the ones who would serve others. You see it playing out in the different relationships that Isabel has over the course of her life, long after Philippine independence. You can see the ways in which empire continues to take on different shapes. You see it operating through Hollywood fantasies, you see it operating when Isabel is trying to navigate her life in the United States. It comes back to haunt her over and over again, because she is an Asian woman—a mixed-raced Asian woman—in a white supremacist country, navigating all that colonial baggage.
NF: You write that the US brand of “family friendly imperialism” shows how “the libidinal is woven into empire’s design.” Why the emphasis on the libidinal?
VG: The reason I focused on the libidinal as opposed to romance was to show that empire—and particularly US empire, which sort of cast itself as progressive, as forward thinking, was still very much like the old world of empires. When we’re talking about sex in the Philippines during the colonial era, we’re not talking about love. We’re talking about power. We’re talking about who’s got access to whom. And I was trying figure out, “What kinds of maneuvers could people manage in the arrangements that folks were known to have had?” And to try to figure that out from archival materials is interesting. Sometimes you have to read between the lines, and sometimes the archive just hits you over the head. In the Library of Congress, there are all these logs, basically, of the sexcapades of the American administrators who went over there. When you put those side-by-side with the folks who sincerely believed in the project of “civilizing,” you start to see the contradictions. But you also see that they weren’t really contradictions. They were part-and-parcel of the same idea of these less-than-human people that you were trying to bring into the light of civilization. The idea that these white American colonial figures slept with both men and women in the Philippines does not show a lack of racism. Rather, it shows the very heart of it.
NF: That sex and the libidinal were key modalities through which colonization operated seems to fly in the face of the anti-miscegenation laws that defined American social relations at this moment in history. How does Isabel Cooper’s story animate that tension?
VG: The Philippines represented a place outside of the continent where the rules around miscegenation didn’t necessarily operate in a straightforward or predictable fashion. A lot of adventures were had in these frontier spaces. A lot of the white men who were who were stationed in the Philippines during this era got married. And the question of whether those marriages were legitimate, legal or not, is sort of up in the air. In Isabel Cooper’s case, her dad felt like he was legally married to her mom. And he recognized his mixed-race children, which was really unusual. In 1916, he even brought them all the way to Arizona. So there are all these leaks in the boat. The structure of empire isn’t hermetically sealed. There were a lot of anxieties around the existence of these mixed-race kids, since they were evidence that people were definitely sleeping across the color line.
NF: Before her tragic misadventures in Hollywood, Isabel Cooper was actually quite famous in the Philippines, a local stage and movie starlet who came to embody the new Filipina. Could you sketch out her rise to prominence in this specific cultural moment of pre-WWII Manila, and the centrality of the vaudeville stage?
VG: Yeah, one of the things I found out about her as I started doing research was that this woman, when she agreed to follow MacArthur to Washington, D.C., was herself very popular. She was at the height of her fame, the height of her cultural cachet as a star. Vaudeville is a form that was imported, but also vernacularized in particular ways, in the Philippines of the early colonial period. It was a hybrid form—not just American repertoire, but also Filipino forms. Isabel started treading the boards as a chorus girl at a very young age.
At the same time, there was a lot of cultural traffic between Manila and Hollywood. Filipino filmmakers were apprenticing in Los Angeles and bringing some of those ideas to the Philippines, where there was already a local film industry. She’s right there right when all this happens. And she’s also right there for the very public debates about what a Filipino nation and a Filipino identity was going to look like, as the Philippines started to agitate and move toward independence from the US. A lot of that coalesced around the feminine figure, and Isabel was like the lightning rod. She becomes known as the American Beauty because of her mixed-race-ness. And that Americanness was also associated with modernity. For a lot of traditionalists in the Philippines, that’s exactly the kind of woman they didn’t want. They didn’t want to lose the good, well-behaved, respectable Filipina.
And then she gets recruited, at the age of 16 or so, to represent the first Filipino on-screen kiss. Any on-screen romance or kiss had been imported to Manila from Hollywood up to that point. Filipinos had not done their own love scene. And the way that I write about it is, there’s this on-screen, very visual scandal, which is really masking a long-standing structural scandal of everything else around Filipina women, around occupation, around colonialism.
NF: And then she meets MacArthur, goes to D.C., eventually breaks with MacArthur, and goes to Hollywood. She spends the rest of her life playing bit parts in various films: A Filipina nurse, the Chinese secretary, a Native American woman, a hula dancer, a Caribbean slave, a belly dancer. What is the sum total of all these parts?
VG: She was basically cast as the fantasy of white supremacy. That’s the role actors of color and mixed race had in Hollywood. Even actors of stature like Anna May Wong had such a limited set of roles available to them. And these kinds of films consolidated ideas about race, about other places, about American heroism elsewhere. She was essentially a prop for a lot of narratives that the US loves to tell about itself through film.
NF: Your source material ranges widely, from National Enquirer magazine clippings, casting lists, film reviews, ship passenger lists, census filings—yet still you write that Isabel’s story is “incomplete, unsatisfying, and riddled with silences, absences and refusals.” The book is permeated with these moments of melancholia. What was the emotional experience of writing the book?
VG: There were definitely moments when I’d come across a piece of evidence and go, “What was happening in this moment? What was she going through that this is what shows up in the archives?” Really late in the research, someone who had seen an academic article I had written about her ended up contacting me and we traded materials, because he had some stuff that I hadn’t found. What came out of that exchange was this letter that she had written in this really agitated handwriting. And I was like, “What is she saying? I don’t understand what’s happening in this moment, because she’s not making sense.”
After 1953, until the time that she dies, there’s nothing. You’re basically imagining the worst of what could happen to an aging woman of color in Hollywood, especially in the 1950s. There are these moments where you get an attachment to this figure who is clearly just trying to make her way with whatever she has on hand. And it’s not always pretty.
In the end, what I got out of it was a better understanding of exactly the sort of everyday negotiations that women like Isabel have to make. So many Filipinos, so many Asians who are a part of the circuits of empire, share a similar lack of opportunities, such that their horizons are very limited. But you can see her working with what she has, trying to tell her story in whatever way she can.
NF: It’s a good point to pivot on in terms of anti-Asian violence today—the rise in the visibility of attacks and then of course, in Atlanta, the shooting of six Asian women working in massage parlors. What are your thoughts? Can we think about your book as providing some framework for making sense of this?
VG: In telling Isabel’s story, I was trying to foreground the way she navigated a really complicated situation that was not structured to her advantage. I wanted to give a sense of the complexity of a human being that I think Asian American women in particular do not get. That’s why she’s stuck in that narrative of the suicidal unrequited romance, because it’s the one that is familiar. But that’s such a harmful fantasy. It’s one of the fantasies of white supremacy. So it can’t surprise us that she is coming from the Philippines, where one of the first massive US military installations is being installed. Her father, her lover—they’re all part of that whole infrastructure of militarism. The logics that justify the massive military network abroad, in the past and in the present, in Asia and in the Pacific, are not incidental to Isabel’s story but constitutive of it.
It is a virus that infects all of US culture and society. The kind of no-brainer understandings about how inter-state relations between the US and Asia-Pacific are gendered and sexualized in particular ways, and the way that Asian women are its currency—that is why something like Atlanta makes sense to somebody who is wielding the gun. It’s been played out so many times before. We see it with the 2014 murder of Jennifer Laude by a US Marine in the Philippines, the way that Pacific islands and Asian lands are rendered pleasure destinations or nuclear targets—both sides of the same coin—and how Asian women are generally just understood to be available to all, but especially to white men. These are not isolated, individualized hate crimes. Rather, it’s an integral part of a white supremacist, misogynist racial system. That’s how we have to understand the moment in Atlanta.
In fleshing out stories like Isabel Cooper’s, we can see she is basically operating in a militarized sexual system. She’s not sexual slave—but the kinds of options available to her are structured by that system. So we have to have empathy, I think, to understand what she’s going through, but also a critical eye, to understand why those are the only options available to her. A project like this is driven by both love for Asian women, but also a great deal of anger on their behalf—on our behalf.