Reading and Such

Reimagining Isabel Cooper: She’s more than a mistress

Society was adamant in reminding her that she was the querida of Douglas MacArthur. It’s not too late to understand her

Isabel Cooper
Author Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez retrieves and reconstructs Isabel Cooper's story.

The fine print on the back cover of Empire’s Mistress, starring Isabel Rosario Cooper intrigued me. I knew nothing of Isabel Cooper and the word “mistress” attached to her name piqued my interest. She’s primarily remembered in history as the teenaged mistress of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. “Querida” is a pejorative in the Philippines: It does not denote a woman with power, authority, and ownership. Its connotation of immorality is reason enough to vilify Filipino women.

Cooper reminds me of La Malinche, the primary translator, later right hand, of the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, who’s considered a sellout to the white race. But feminists have long been freeing La Malinche from the La Chingada (translated as the f***** one) narrative.

Following her feminist sisters, author Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez retrieves and reconstructs Cooper’s story. She peels away the sordidness of the affair and locates Cooper in America post-affair and independent. Through meticulous and difficult archival research, she reframes Cooper from a disposable plaything to a colonial subject against the discourses of colonialism and patriarchy.

Biographers are often harsh on their subjects given the inherent bias of biography writing. They either laud the greatness or emphasize the ignominy. They’ve written about Cooper, but not in the sense of excellence like, say, that exhibited by Gabriela Silang. Cooper’s story is constantly couched in salaciousness that is lent credence by the vast age gap between the lovers and 22 handwritten love letters from MacArthur to his “Baby Girl.”

To shroud the liaison in romance is to omit truths about colonizer and colonized

Buttressing the story’s lubricity is Cooper’s trip to Washington, DC, where she was billeted near MacArthur’s office and supplied with clothes, “[a] chauffeured limo, access to the city’s night spots, paid trips and cash.” The arrangement of mistress to a powerful man cancels romance’s sweetness and innocence because, Gonzalez points out, it doesn’t exist in colonialism and patriarchy. In fact, to shroud the liaison in romance is to omit truths about colonizer and colonized.

Being tagged by past biographers as MacArthur’s mistress even after the affair had ended underscores the bias against colonized women. It’s a plaything-versus-a-powerful-white-man scenario. The breakup was blamed on Cooper’s “ingratitude and disloyalty” and “rapacious sexuality” despite the lack of archival evidence to prove her transgressions. Tellingly, in crucifying Cooper in the narrative, it protects MacArthur to this day and attests to the biographers’ power to frame women as figures of greatness or objects of scorn.

Cooper’s situation mirrors the plight of another empire’s mistress, Malintzin Tenepal aka La Malinche. She spoke Yucatec and Nahuatl, the languages of the Mayan and Aztec people respectively, giving Cortes easy access to the Aztec empire. Her intimate association with  Cortés—she gave birth to his son—has led to her denouncement as traitor following the empire’s demise. Feminists have since challenged this view, asserting that she sacrificed herself to save her people and, despite the extent of her power and position, remained Cortes’ slave.

Pulling the focus away from the affair with MacArthur, Gonzalez redirects it onto Cooper’s family and her mestiza, or mixed race, lineage in colonial Philippines where life choices weren’t made in black and white.

At 14, her mother, Protacia Rubin, an orphan and a financial burden, was quickly married off by relatives to Isaac Cooper, a 33-year-old American farm-boy-turned-soldier. Although Rubin grew into her role of wife, she wasn’t docile. Her decisions in life, as can be read between Gonzalez’s lines, were pragmatic—as opposed to moral—that shattered societal norms and created opportunities that weren’t available or denied her. She gave herself, for instance, another chance at life when, with young Isabel in tow, she left her husband in Arizona. Using her second name Josefina/Josephine and with a new husband, Thomas Ryan, she started afresh in Manila.

That Cooper’s mother was a strong-willed survivor is easily overlooked, making it convenient to shift Rubin’s narrative of an immoral woman onto Cooper’s narrative of a querida, a woman working her way in life by coquettish persuasions. Past biographers trapped mother and daughter in denigrating stereotypes until Gonzalez grounds their disadvantaged backgrounds vis-a-vis the zeitgeist then. It’s like a fillip to biographers (and historians) who easily shun sociopolitical contexts in writing about the past.

In contextualizing Cooper’s mixed-race heritage, Gonzalez tells readers that it’s a stark reminder of the illicit relationship between Filipinos and Americans, of the ambiguous but sexualized existence of someone not fully Filipino or American. Cooper’s value and worth in society were measured in terms of racial and sexual desire, says Gonzalez, and the evidence is in the popularity of Cooper’s vaudeville act for “sailors on shore leave, local residents, foreigners, and Filipinos” at the Rivoli and Savoy.

The mestiza mystique was packaged in Cooper’s schtick as an ingenue—reminiscent of a young Britney Spears

The mestiza mystique was packaged in Cooper’s schtick as an ingenue—reminiscent of a young Britney Spears—singing risqué songs. Her stage name, Dimples, played up the mestiza’s coquettish innocence that later became “sinful” when she transformed into Elizabeth Cooper, one of her incarnations, and crossed over to silent films.

Her mestiza bloodline was both boon and bane. It catapulted her from obscurity into fame when she became the face of the modern Filipino woman. But it also embroiled her in a scandal of national proportions with the release of Ang Tatlong Hambog (1925) that featured her and co-star Luis Tuason’s on-screen kiss—a first in Philippine cinema.

Silver-screen kisses are part of an actor’s profession when viewed through 21st-century lenses of openness and modern thinking. But through the lenses of American colonialism and patriarchy, they are seen as an affront by an elementary-graduate mestiza to the moral decency of Filipino women. Welding the actress with the role, the populace found Cooper and her role highly sexualized and thus scandalous for a society that, from the beginning, barely brooked her mixed-race lineage.

Cooper left the Philippines in May 1927, and Gonzalez finds her in Los Angeles. She brimmed with excitement and hope in breaking into Tinseltown with the high demand for Asian and mixed-race actors to provide authenticity for films set in the Asia-Pacific.

But reality bit Cooper hard. As Gonzalez puts it, she became an Oriental in America from the new Filipina in Manila. Her first roles were nondescript. She was on screen for less than a minute as a Filipino nurse and Javanese nurse in So Proudly we hail and The Story of Dr. Wassel, respectively. Her appearance as a geisha in The Purple Heart lasted more than a blip, except there was no deviation from her real and reel role of “nurturer of men of war.”

Her life reads like a spy thriller with her transformations

Her life reads like a spy thriller with her transformations. This time Isabel disappeared and Chabing emerged. This final metamorphosis, evocative of her mother’s mindset, showed an indomitable spirit—largely unknown until Gonzalez’s book—to overcome obstacles in finding solid footing in Hollywood as an actor. Did a new name spell success this time? Disappointingly, her resumé outlined the whole gamut of trivial roles available to women like her—i.e., Siamese harem wife, hula dancer, wild Native American, a Chinese fish cleaner, serving girl or receptionist in a club, Filipino woman servant, and Oriental belly dancer—roles that still bore traces of a silent, barely visible but desired, and subservient mistress.

Cooper perhaps became disillusioned when, after portraying a belly dancer, she had no more roles after 1953.

The unjustness of being imprisoned in a legacy plays repeatedly in my mind

Ignoring the oddity of collected statements, reprinted texts, facsimiles of letters etc. as chapters, Gonzalez’s work lies heavy on the mind—enlightening, but ponderous. The unjustness of being imprisoned in a legacy—one can’t simply mention Cooper without MacArthur’s name in the same breath—plays repeatedly in my mind. It’s unacceptable to have one’s existence hingeing on an affair while her partner’s life story reads differently. Granted, she was once a mistress and paled in comparison to Philippine vaudeville legend Katy dela Cruz. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that, try as hard as she could to overcome barriers, sociopolitical circumstances held her down tightly. Despite her changeovers, society was adamant in reminding her that she was a querida.

It’s ironic that Cooper transcended her role as MacArthur’s mistress yet Hollywood hardly gave her a chance to go beyond her past and lineage. As women’s roles evolved after the war, Hollywood stubbornly kept her at the margins, pegging her as an exotic oddity that was fleetingly entertaining. Biographers were no different.

To deny Cooper’s past is unconscionable, but so is dwelling on the MacArthur affair. Simply put, she was more than a mistress. She was independent, pragmatic and hardworking. She quit school at 12 or 13 to help support her ailing stepfather. She persevered against all odds until life pushed her to play, sadly, her final, fatal off-screen role of victim of circumstances in 1960.

Is Cooper to be pitied or elevated to tragic heroine? Neither. Gonzalez clears the way for people to comprehend Cooper in her totality. It’s not too late to understand her.

Isabel Cooper

Dimples, with her signature dark bobbed hair and red lipstick, was a household name in vaudeville in the middle of the 1920s.

“Empire’s Mistress, starring Isabel Rosario Cooper” (2021), published by Duke University Press, is available on Amazon.com.

About author

Articles

She has clocked years of overseas work and living. On the second year of the pandemic she returned and settled back in the Philippines after 20 years.

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