Historical Fiction by Cindy Fazzi
Douglas MacArthur. Her pulse quickened as she read the name. His handwriting was neat, his signature confident, but just the same, his note struck her as an anomaly, a mistake. The white man who acted as his messenger stood next to her at the bar.
Men of all ages filled the Olympic Boxing Club, waiting for the fight to begin. Filipinos, Americans, and Europeans caroused and mingled freely here, unlike the Elks or the Army and Navy Club, which banned Filipinos.
The foreigners sat at the tables, drank Cerveza San Miguel, and smoked cigars. The Filipinos, who were standing at the cheap section of the club, jostled and bet among themselves.
“I’m Captain Ed Marsh, by the way.” The messenger extended his hand.
An American officer in civilian clothes. It was Saturday night, after all.
“A pleasure to meet you, sir.” She shook his hand, but withheld her name.
Isabel Rosario Cooper came to the club in search of her brother, or rather his car. She needed Ben to drive her to the Manila Carnival.
Women didn’t come here because they didn’t watch boxing, so when she stepped inside the club, she’d grabbed everyone’s attention without trying. The men had erupted in whistles and cheers. The crowd had parted as she crossed the room. Just the way she liked it. She was born to part crowds — to turn heads. For an aspiring actress, every place was a stage.
Who knew MacArthur sat amid the boisterous horde? She read the note again. I can’t help but notice your gracious presence. I would love it if you can favor me with your company. Please join me for dinner at The Grand.
This time, the words made sense. Not a blunder on his part or a misinterpretation on hers. The message hit her like a jackpot — bigger than the Carnival Queen title that her best friend, Nenita, aimed for. He was the most important man in the Philippine Islands. He could open doors for her and her family.
She stopped herself from blurting out a yes! She couldn’t afford to give herself away. Nothing compelled a man to pursue a woman more than her lack of interest.
“Who’s Douglas MacArthur?” She stood with the note in one hand and her silk purse in the other hand. Chin up and chest out, despite the sweat underneath her lace blouse. Her skirt squeezed her waist and constricted her breathing, but she’d worn it because it displayed her figure. The stifling humidity now made her regret her choice. Even the garter belt and stockings itched in such heat.
“You’ve never heard of Douglas MacArthur?” His eyes widened.
She shook her head. A saxophone wailed, distracting them both. They turned toward the elevated boxing ring — empty. Below it, a band warmed up.
Captain Marsh offered her a pack of Lucky Strike. “Care for a cigarette?”
“Why, thank you.” She tucked her purse under her armpit and took one stick, which he lit with a lighter. They stood side by side, watching the band.
“Do you see the gentleman in the middle?” He pointed at a table not far from the band. “White suit. Gray-striped tie. Do you see him?”
“That is Douglas MacArthur.”
The man stared at her while smoking a long-stemmed pipe, the bowl shaped like a corncob. He didn’t smile. The band played a jazz-style rendition of a Filipino folk song. The audience, packed ten deep, hooted and screamed for the fight to begin, but MacArthur didn’t even blink.
She glanced at his note again before inserting it in her purse. “This is nice. But I don’t know him.”
“It’s unbelievable. You really don’t know him?”
She shook her head and shifted her weight to one hip.
“He’s the Big Cheese!”
She arched her eyebrow.
“Major General MacArthur is the most powerful American not just in the Philippines, but in Asia.”
She took a drag on her cigarette. “I know what big cheese means, thank you.”
MacArthur stood out in his expensive suit, slicked-back hair, and intimidating pipe, but he was as old as her father, if not older. His title was commander of the U.S. Army’s Philippine Division, though everyone treated him like a king.
Rumor was, he had his eyes on the White House. He flaunted his kinglike authority using the Philippines as his stage, like William Howard Taft had done. His photographs graced the newspapers almost every day, stealing the spotlight from the American governor-general. He snubbed the American bureaucrats and saved his charm for the old money in Manila.
MacArthur, like his compatriots, didn’t seem to mind the local fools around him. The Americans seemed content just to drink booze, something they couldn’t do without getting in trouble back in their country because of Prohibition.
In this melting pot of drunken indulgences, the Filipinos behaved the worst. A man had propositioned her and several others had called her “sexy” and “beauty.” Not a compliment, but a catcall. She’d cursed them under her breath, but she couldn’t blame them. For once they felt entitled like the Americans, happy to be admitted to the Olympic at all. Here they could pretend to be equal to the white man and display their drunken braggadocio.
The music ended. The boxing match would start soon. She better find her brother or she might miss the coronation of the Carnival Queen. She could have taken the streetcar, but she wanted to ride in the Chevrolet Tourer that her brother drove, one of the few in Manila. Ben had finagled to use the car this weekend, courtesy of their father’s newest business venture, an outfit that imported American cars. He’d predicted that Papa’s latest gamble wouldn’t survive unless a rich American or European backed him. She and her brother wanted to use the car while they could.
She swept the club with a glance. No Ben.
“Are you looking for someone?” asked Captain Marsh.
“My brother. I thought he would be here.” It was just as well. Ben would have chastised her for this brazen foray into his territory. He refused to accept she belonged in a man’s domain. What was acting but acting for men? “You’re not an actress. You’re a child,” he’d said. It had made her laugh, which irritated him. He was three years older than Isabel, short on prospects but long on impudence.
At last, Captain Marsh smoked. He thrust his chin at her cigarette. “You like it?”
“It’s all right. It helps me keep my figure.”
“You’re worried about your figure?”
“Every girl worries about her figure.”
“Not you.” He appraised her from head to toe. “You’ve got nothing to worry about, except the trail of devastated men you leave behind.”
He was right. She wasn’t worried about her body, as much as the trail of men who had left her devastated — the men who owned theaters, presided over movie studios, and directed vaudeville shows and motion pictures.
In countless auditions and meetings, those men had crushed her spirit with a shake of their heads. How easy for them to dismiss her when dozens of pretty young things lined outside their doors.
“Too short.” “Too white.” “Not white enough.” “Not dark enough.” Their decisions had nothing to do with her ability to act or sing or dance. Men judged her for her looks alone. She ought to ignore their shallow criticisms, but instead, each objection assaulted her. Their rejections kept her awake at night, bled her dry of hope, left her dead inside for days and weeks at a time.
And when she recovered, it would be just in time for another audition. “Sorry, but your breasts aren’t big enough.” “Your dimples are pretty, but they could be too distracting in a close-up shot.” “Your facial mole is even more distracting than your dimples.” And another round of rejections would begin.
Her heart pinched. Time could never heal the pain as much as an acceptance and a contract. So, what did this American know about her worries?
“Captain Marsh, I have to go.” She tossed her cigarette butt in the trash can and inspected her purse to make sure she had enough coins for the streetcar. “I want to catch the coronation of the new Carnival Queen.”
“You should be the Carnival Queen, if you ask me.” He winked.
Wrong. She could never win the competition. Sure, she was the right age and the right size and shape. But contestants in this beauty pageant must have a “good reputation,” which meant no previous experience in the theater or night clubs or moving pictures, all of which were fertile ground for immorality and bad reputation. She couldn’t explain this to the American.
He brought the cigarette to his lips and sucked smoke with evident pleasure. “We’re rooting for Gloria Luna.”
“Who is ‘we’?”
“Me and everyone at that table.” He waved at a group of white men behind MacArthur, all of them wearing Army khakis.
“You’re rooting for her sponsor, Manila Times. It’s pro-American.”
“I thought all newspapers in the Philippines are pro-American.”
She gave him a closemouthed smile. “Do you speak Tagalog?”
He made a face.
“Ask your buddies if they know what sipsip means. That’s what being pro-American means to Filipinos.”
“Say it faster. As one word.”
“Why don’t you tell me what it means?”
Sipsip meant someone who kowtowed so low he might as well have been a doormat. No American wanted to hear that. “I have to go.”
“I don’t even know your name.”
“Isabel Rosario Cooper.”
“My father is American. My mother is Filipina.”
“That explains your perfect English. Isabel — what a lovely name.”
It wasn’t her only name. She reserved “Isabel” for the authority type, like the tyrannical nuns at Colegio de Santa Maria Dolorosa, or nosy American officers for that matter. Family and friends called her “Belle.” In the entertainment world, she was known as “Dimples” for the cursed dimples on both of her cheeks that had cost her movie roles.
“I think you’re swell,” he said.
Compliments from strange men were as common as a sneeze. They wouldn’t bring her a job at a club or a movie role. She turned on her heel.
“What about the Commander’s invitation? What should I tell him?”
She glanced at MacArthur again. He continued to stare with a cool expression, pretending to be uninterested. The man was an actor. Perhaps they were not too different.
Her heart thrummed and her thoughts raced as she reconsidered. Part of her wanted to accept his invitation. She would look him in the eye and discover what he was made of.
She bit her lower lip when the final answer hit her. No favors for the Big Cheese tonight. She would take pleasure in knowing that she, too, had the power to rebuff people. Not just any man but Douglas MacArthur. My MacArthur. Whether he realized it or not, a man whose desire drove him to write it down and risk her rejection was a man she owned.
She walked away, the heat of MacArthur’s stare burning her back. It reassured her as much as acting on stage, under the spotlight. She was MacArthur’s Carnival Queen; he was her captive audience.
“Before you go — ” The American officer had caught up with her. “ — At least tell me one thing.”
“What is it?”
“How old are you? The Commander wants to know.”
“Not old enough for him.”
He chortled and shook his head. “Come on now.”
They reached the door. The burly men blocking it swung around and whistled. “Hey, doll!” said one of them. “Don’t leave,” said another. “You’re going to miss a great fight.”
She ignored them and faced the American. “I’m sixteen.”
His jaw slackened, his grin vanished.
It was her turn to chuckle. Someone opened the door for her, while the others moved to the side. She clutched her purse tight and sashayed outside, feeling tall in her five-inch pumps.