10/27/03 - Madame Chiang
kai-Shek died in her sleep at 105 or 106.
She is a stranger to the ears of most but a half
century ago she was the most famous woman in the
world and the most powerful woman in all of Asia,
then called China and the Far East. Truman didn’t
like her and said outright that she and her group
made off with $750 million (about $12 billion in
today’s currency) of American aid money.
Nevertheless, she was an enemy and opponent of Mao,
and became an important American ally and powerful force in Taiwan
(then called Formosa) for almost the rest of her life. (Hannah
Pakula, the biographer of Queen Marie of Romania and Empress
Frederick, daughter of Victoria and mother
of Kaiser Wilhelm, is currently completing a biography
of Madame Chiang).
One of the internationally famous Soong sisters,
Madame Chiang’s sister Madame Sun Yet Sen took
Mao’s side. For that she was put by her sister under house
arrest in a villa that had a sewer running through it. After Mao’s
ascension to power, Madame Sun remained in China where she was
venerated for her support of his regime.
In her American life which came after the Fall of China, Madame
Chiang lived on an estate in Glen Cove and in a large duplex overlooking
the East River on Gracie Square. In an interview several years
ago she referred to the apartment as “modest” – all
twelve or sixteen rooms of it. Everything’s relative.
She had three little dogs – two
bijons and a Yorkshire – which
were also getting old and wobbly along with their
centenarian mistress. She was said to have either
29 or 39 in staff who worked in three eight-hour
shifts. Mandarin or Cantonese cuisine, I do not know,
but cooking for so many staffers as well as the official
entourage began early every morning. Those in Madame
Chiang’s apartment were not the only ones in
the building aware of the pungent dishes and the
smoked Peking duck being prepared, sniff sniff.
The aromas and sheer volume caused one neighbor to remind that
it was an apartment house and not a restaurant they were
all living in. Ahem. In time all those perishables and food items
drew endless herds of those little shiny brown critters that have
outlasted almost every living thing in history of the planet — Roaches.
Although some of the Madame’s immediate neighbors were people
of great wealth and influence and political power also, dealing
with this business of the bugs was dicey. What do you say to the
once-most-powerful woman in the world still living in High Security
Heaven that she’s bringing roaches into the building and
they needed exterminate?? Pretty please?
Finally, it came to pass: Exterminators were dispatched. Then inspectors
were dispatched to confirm mission accomplished. Looking into anybody’s
closet or cupboard can be an edifying or a fascinating experience.
Looking into those of the once-most-powerful woman in the world
was even better than that. The things they saw. Like one closet
that was all Gold Bars. I’m talking Fort Knox, not Hershey’s.
Neighbors would see Madame Chiang’s cortege as they departed
for her occasional outings a couple times a week. She liked a ride
around town. She also liked to go to Radio City Music Hall at Christmastime
for the big Holiday Show. And visiting Grant’s Tomb; that
was another favorite.
All this past weekend there were Asian
members of the press/media waiting
outside the door of the apartment house, presumably
hoping for a glimpse of someone who was part of this
now ancient story. A few yards away, on the Promenade
along the East River, hundreds, or maybe thousands
strolled, jogged and cycled by. They were almost
all unaware of the spot they were passing, and indeed
almost all unaware of the existence of a woman named
Madame Chiang kai-Shek who lived there — a
tiny little woman who possessed riches and international
political power far beyond their wildest dreams,
a woman who outlived her enemies, detractors, friends
and family, remaining in somewhat pared down imperial