Madame Chiang Kai-Shek
Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, Soong May-ling, who died on Thursday aged 106, was the widow of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese Nationalist leader.
At the height of her fame during the Second World War, Madame Chiang was one of the world's most influential women. But in later years, a gaunt relic of her former celebrity, she was a forlorn propagandist for her husband's ostracised and diminished regime in Taiwan.
She was the last of the principal participants - the others being Chiang Kai-shek, Churchill and Roosevelt - in the 1943 Cairo Conference, which represented the zenith of pre-Communist China's significance in international affairs.
She was also the last of an exceptional brood. Her eldest sister, Qing-ling, was the widow of Dr Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China and founder of the Nationalist (Kuomintang) Party. Madame Sun became a vice-chairman of the People's Republic in Beijing. Their brother, T V Soong, was finance minister of Nationalist China and reputedly one of the richest men in the world; a third sister, Ai-ling, was the wife of another finance minister, H H Kung.
Of the three women, it was commonly said that "one loved power, one loved money, one loved China". May-ling was the first of that trio.
Soong May-ling was born in Shanghai on March 5 1897 (although some authorities have her born almost a year later), the fourth child and youngest daughter of Charlie Soong, a former Methodist missionary turned Bible publisher, entrepreneur and close political ally of Sun Yat-sen. Soong, who had been brought up in America, sent his daughters to be educated at the Wesleyan College at Macon, Georgia.
May-ling went on to Wellesley College in Massachusetts (to be close to her brother T V, who was at Harvard) where she majored in English Literature. Although no intellectual - and, in her youth, no great beauty - she was nevertheless noted by teachers for her forceful charm. She returned to China in 1917.
Chiang Kai-shek, a former invoice clerk who had risen to command the Whampoa military academy, emerged at the head of the Kuomintang army after Sun Yat-sen's death in 1925. Alliance with the immensely rich and powerful Soong family enabled him to consolidate his position: he divorced his second wife to marry May-ling in 1927. Shortly afterwards, he became leader of the party, and ruler of such portions of China as he was able from time to time to subdue.
The marriage was widely regarded as one of convenience. No children came of it, whilst the Generalissimo (though converted to Christianity by his wife) fathered at least two illegitimate sons elsewhere. In later years, there were rumours of separation and possible divorce, but in the 1930s, during Chiang's various struggles against warlords, Communists and Japanese invasion, they were a potent - and, according to an adoring press, devoted - couple.
May-ling's hagiographers particularly praised her role in the so-called "Xian Incident" of December 1936. Chiang had been held captive near Xian in north-central China by Marshal Chang Hsueh-liang, who sought to force him into alliance with the Communists against the Japanese. May-ling, despite illness, immediately flew from Shanghai to her husband's side, turned her charm on Marshal Chang (who in due course spent more than 30 years under house arrest) and played a part, subsequently much dramatised, in negotiating the Generalissimo's release.
Her official role in the government at the time was as Secretary-General of Aviation. She was also Chiang's adviser and personal representative in foreign affairs, as well as chairman of innumerable committees on social reform at home, especially those concerned with the welfare of women and orphans.
Several books were published under her name, including Xian - A Coup d'Etat; China Shall Rise Again; and China in Peace and War, which the British Medical Journal described as "permeated with noble thoughts, clever and unwarped". According to the BMJ's star-struck reviewer, the author was "the most understanding woman in the world", whilst the Sunday Times commended her "serene courage". With her Georgian accent and her talent for sentimentalising the struggles of her countrywomen, May-ling became a special object of fascination to the American public. Year after year she featured on American lists of the 10 most admired women in the world.
In late 1942 she embarked for the United States for medical treatment - despite her subsequent longevity, her health was often poor - followed by a tour to raise money for the United China Relief fund and to publicise her government's needs for material with which to resist the Japanese.
Eleanor Roosevelt, for one, declared a desire to help Madame Chiang "as if she had been my own daughter". Staying at the White House, May-ling supplied her own silk sheets, which she insisted should be changed whenever she had rested or sat on the bed, sometimes four or five times in a day.
The tour was a glittering success. Newsweek described her address to Congress as "enchanting". Many thousands turned out to hear her at Madison Square Garden and to see her tour the streets of New York's Chinatown. Hollywood stars lined up to greet her in Los Angeles.
The inclusion of the Chiangs in the Cairo Conference six months later was a further gesture of solidarity on the part of Roosevelt. But Churchill did not share FDR's enthusiasm. "That China is one of the world's four great powers," he wrote to Eden, "is an absolute farce." When Churchill was in Washington in May 1943, coinciding with May-ling's tour, she had suggested that he travel to New York to meet her. An alternative proposal from FDR that she should travel to Washington to join Churchill and himself for lunch was, according to Churchill, "declined with some hauteur". In her "regretted absence", the two great leaders of the free world "lunched alone. . . and made the best of things".
At Cairo, Churchill had hoped in vain that the Chiangs would "visit the pyramids" rather than distract Anglo-American discussions with the minor matter of Chinese demands for military support. But on meeting May-ling at last he found her "a most remarkable and charming personality".
After Roosevelt's death in 1945, the Chiangs found President Truman less sympathetic on a personal level, and unwilling to bankroll the struggle against Mao Tse-tung's Communist forces which the Nationalists now looked unlikely to win. There were suspicions that vast sums of American aid already provided to Chiang's government had been corruptly diverted.
Truman himself was caustic on the subject in later years: "They're all thieves," he told an interviewer, "every damn one of them. They stole 750 million out of the [$3.8] billions that we sent to Chiang. They stole it, and it's invested in real estate down in Sao Paulo and some right here in New York." To make matters worse, Chinese interests backed Truman's Republican opponent, Governor Thomas Dewey, in the 1948 presidential election. When total defeat became imminent for Chiang at the hands of the Communists, May-ling was dispatched across the Pacific (leaving the Chinese mainland for the last time) to rally support. But Truman declined to offer her the hospitality of the White House. "I don't think she liked it very much," he said. "But I didn't care one way or the other about what she liked and what she didn't like."
By the time she rejoined Chiang, he had retreated with the remnants of the Kuomintang army and a hoard of China's national treasures to the offshore stronghold of Formosa, now Taiwan, where he spent the remaining 25 years of his life preserving the myth of the sovereignty of his corrupted, authoritarian regime over the whole, lost territory of China. May-ling continued to spend long periods in the United States, courting the so-called China Lobby of Right-wing Republicans and enjoying the benefits of her offshore fortune.
She was finally dropped from the "most admired" list in 1967. The economic reality of Communist China, the disaster of the Vietnam War and the impossible odds against a military comeback by the ageing Generalissimo, all combined to erode the strength of the China Lobby. With the expulsion of Nationalist China from the United Nations in 1971, and Richard Nixon's visit to Beijing the next year, the decline of the Chiangs' international status was complete.
But by then Chiang Kai-shek himself had faded into feeble senility. He ceased to be seen in public; his son by his first marriage, Chiang Ching-kuo, was already prime minister, but it was May-ling who continued to speak in the president's name. After his death, aged 87, in 1975, she remained a shadowy force in Taiwanese politics and a figurehead for the older generation of Kuomintang parliamentarians who clung to the dream of triumphant return to mainland constituencies they had not seen since 1949.
Madame Chiang left to spend a decade in failing health on a family estate in Long Island, but returned to her mansion in suburban Taipei in 1986. By then her stepson had begun to sow seeds of change, both in terms of democracy within Taiwan and of a less intransigent stance towards the mainland.
When he died in 1988, she was known to oppose the appointment of his successor, the reformist Lee Teng-hui. But she appeared briefly on the platform of the 13th Kuomintang congress in Taipei later that year to shake Lee's hand and to listen to a speech, delivered on her behalf, recalling past glories.
She then retired once more to Long Island, living out her final years in a nursing home.