Madame Chiang kai-Shek

Eleanor Roosevelt and Madame Chiang during a 1943 visit. (AP Photo).
In Memoriam. 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 splendor.