When Wendell Willkie met Madame Chiang Kai-shek, it was love at first sight. Or maybe just lust at first sight. Either way, the smitten pair, both married to other people, managed to slip away for a steamy one-night stand. It happened in 1942, in Chungking, China’s wartime capital. Two years earlier, Willkie, a businessman who never held political office, had been the dark horse Republican candidate for president. Now he was an emissary of the man who defeated him, Franklin D. Roosevelt, on a 49-day trip to visit America’s allies in North Africa, Iran, the Soviet Union and China.
“A great hulk of a man, with attractively shaggy hair, a booming voice, and a genial homespun manner, he exuded charm, vitality and that all-important, if difficult to define, political asset: charisma,” wrote Willkie’s traveling companion Gardner Cowles, the founder of Look magazine.
When Willkie and Cowles arrived in Chungking, they were treated to an elaborate reception staged by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the nationalist Chinese leader, who believed Willkie would probably be the next president of the United States. Enormous crowds lined the 11-mile route from the airport to the city, waving little paper Chinese and American flags and cheering.
“This scene moved me profoundly,” Willkie later wrote.
In Chungking, Willkie and Cowles stayed at a mansion owned by Madame Chiang’s brother. “It was equipped with all sorts of luxurious trappings,” Cowles wrote, “as well as dozens of perfect servants to attend to our needs.” For six days, Willkie was ushered through a carefully choreographed round of receptions, banquets, meetings and military parades. “The idea is to get him so exhausted and keep him so torpid with food and drink,” wrote “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, the American general stationed in Chungking, “that his faculties will be dulled and he’ll be stuffed with the right doctrines.”
The plan worked. “I have fallen so much in love with the Chinese people,” Willkie announced, “that it is going to be difficult to carry out my fact-finding mission with the correct critical approach.”
Perhaps Willkie had fallen in love with all the Chinese, but one in particular caught his eye—Chiang’s wife. Scion of the powerful Soong family, Madame Chiang was, as Stilwell noted in his diary, “a clever, brainy woman… forceful, energetic, loves power, eats up publicity and flattery.” At 44, she was also beautiful, charming and extremely ambitious. Educated in the United States, she spoke perfect English with a fetching Southern accent.
Willkie fell for her. In a speech, he suggested that she become ambassador to the United States: “With wit and charm, a generous and understanding heart, a gracious and beautiful manner and appearance and a burning conviction, she is just what we need.”
She, in turn, gushed over him. At a reception, she announced that she’d written a speech but decided to scrap it after meeting Willkie: “He is so spontaneous, so warm-hearted, so essentially human that anything written down could not express the welcome felt in our hearts.”
Perhaps those words were meaningless niceties. But American diplomats observing the pair thought the wily Madame was wooing Willkie. “There is little doubt that Little Sister has accomplished one of her easiest conquests,” wrote an aide to Stilwell, using one of the Madame’s nicknames.
Willkie, 50, was married but for years he’d conducted a semi-public affair with a New York newspaperwoman. Now he embarked on another fling. At a luncheon, he asked Cowles for help. “He whispered that he and the Madame were disappearing in a few minutes and that I was to take his place and cover up for them,” Cowles wrote in his 1984 memoir. “Sure enough, ten minutes later, they were gone.”
Cowles chatted up Chiang for the rest of the reception. Then he returned to his luxurious quarters. Willkie wasn’t there, so Cowles poured some Scotch, and asked the servants to prepare dinner.
“Shortly after dinner, there was a great clatter in the courtyard,” he wrote. “The generalissimo stormed in, visibly furious. He was accompanied by three bodyguards, each carrying a little Tommy gun.”
“Where’s Willkie?” Chiang asked.
“I have absolutely no idea,” Cowles replied and offered Chiang tea.
Chiang gulped it down, then asked again: “Where’s Willkie?”
“I assure you, Generalissimo,” Cowles said, “he is not here.”
Unconvinced, Chiang stormed through the house, opening closets and peeking under beds. Failing to find Willkie, he left in a huff.
Cowles sipped more Scotch, worrying that his friend might soon end up in front of a firing squad. “At four in the morning, a very buoyant Willkie appeared, cocky as a young college student after a successful night with a girl,” Cowles wrote in his memoir. “After giving me a play by play account of what had happened between him and the Madame, he concluded blithely that he had invited the Madame to return to Washington with us.”
“Wendell, you’re just a goddam fool!” Cowles exclaimed. “You want to be nominated again in ’44 and you want to be elected the next president.”
Angry, Willkie lumbered off to bed. A few hours later, he told Cowles that he had to run off to deliver a speech. “You’re going to see the Madame,” Willkie said, “and tell her that she cannot fly back to Washington with us.”
Dutifully, Cowles visited Madame Chiang’s apartment hideaway to inform her that she couldn’t travel with Willkie.
“Who says I can’t?” she asked.
“I do,” Cowles replied. “I told Wendell that he could not take you along because it would be unwise politically.”
At that, Cowles recalled, “She reached up and scratched her long fingernails down both my cheeks so deeply that I had marks for about a week.”
o Madame Chiang didn’t fly to America with Willkie. A couple months later, however, she came on her own. One night, she invited Cowles to dinner in her New York hotel suite. He arrived, expecting a dinner party but found instead a dinner for two. The Madame implored him to devote himself to electing Willkie president, and promised to repay any money he spent in that pursuit.
“If Wendell could be elected, then he and I would rule the world,” she told a stunned Cowles. “I would rule the Orient and Wendell would rule the Western world.”
It didn’t work out that way. Willkie ran for president in 1944, but the Republicans nominated Thomas Dewey instead. Then, a month before Dewey lost to Roosevelt, Willkie died of a heart attack.
Five years later, in 1949, Mao’s Communists conquered China and the Chiangs fled to Taiwan, where they set up a one-party dictatorship. In 1975 the generalissimo died, and Madame Chiang moved to New York. She lived there until 2003, when she died, still quite beautiful at the age of 105.
Originally published in the August 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.