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Entries in ellen copperfield (53)


In Which We Have Bound Our Feet To Madame Chiang Kai-Shek

This is the first in a two part series on the life of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek.

Golden Lilies


Upper class Chinese women suffered through a thousand years of foot-binding. The feet of young girls were swaddled tightly in gauze in order to bend the toes into the sole. The malformed paws were called orchid hooks, and prevented women from fleeing their husbands.

May-ling Chiang’s mother, avoided the fate of other aristocratic women. Her father was no less modern: he had been converted to Christianity in the American South. He hoped to become a doctor, but missionaries prevented this, telling the small Chinese teenager that they already had too many healers. They sent him back to China, and paid him so little he eventually quit the mission. He never lost his faith in Jesus Christ.

Ching-ling and husband Sun Yat-sen

They gave May-ling, their youngest daughter, a Christian name along with her Chinese one. It was Olive. “I used to think Faith, Belief, Immortality were more or less imaginary, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek later wrote. “I believe in the world seen, not the world unseen.”

As the youngest daughter, she did not suffer from the imprecations directed at older sisters Ai-ling and Ching-ling. She was intelligent enough to take just about the right amount of advantage of this.

Ai-ling with her husband H.H. Kung

For Ai-Ling, and eventually for his other children, their father purchased a passport stating that the girl had been born in the Portugeuse colony of Macao. This was the best way of avoiding restrictive U.S. immigration laws exclusive to the Chinese.

When Ai-Ling met Theodore Roosevelt, she asked him this: “America is beautiful, and I am very happy here, but why do you call it a free country?”

May-ling meeting with FDR

The three sisters went to America like their father before them. May-ling was just ten years old. She enrolled at a New Jersey boarding school, where she stayed until eighth grade. After that, she was sent to public school in Piedmont, Georgia. Many of her classmates were impoverished; some were adults who had saved for years in order to afford education.

When she graduated, she went to Wellesley to be close to her brother T.V., who was attending Harvard at the time. She only went out with Chinese boys, breaking off one egagement and spending a summer with her sister in Martha’s Vineyard. She had spent her entire adolescence in America, but she never, not even for a moment, thought of staying.

Returning to Shanghai, she was tasked with running the family home. Her mother was shocked by how much weight May-ling had gained on milkshakes alone. She joined a film censorship committee and avoided any serious committments. A change in diet brought about severe acne, and she became nervous, both for her future and for that of China, which was deep in an industrial revolution.

May-ling with Eleanor Roosevelt

Her middle sister married a powerful politican her oldest sister had rejected. Sun Yat-sen was the man who founded the Republic of China, but at thirty years her sister’s elder, he was fighting a losing struggle for his position in the government. Ching-ling was the first wife of a politican to appear in public with her husband. All the daughters had been trained to encounter different types of people throughout their time in America. “You know how I dread publicity,” she complained to a friend.

May-ling met Chiang Kai-Shek through her sister’s husband. At the time Chiang was a prominent general and statesman, and May-ling noticed his eyes first of all. He had been through three previous marriages, and was rendered sterile from a bout of gonorrhea from a concubine between wives. May-ling invited him to her mother’s birthday party.

Chiang asked Sun Yat-sen if May-ling would be interested in him sexually. Sun deferred to his wife, and Ching-ling explained, “I would rather see my sister dead” than married to a man who had already been married. Chiang didn’t let his attraction for young May-ling go: he brought up the subject again and again. The woman served so many of his purposes. She was beautiful, she spoke English, and she was highly connected.

Military campaigns separated the two for long periods, but May-ling and Chiang wrote each other letters. He was still married to his third wife, of whom the Soong sisters disapproved immensely. The sisters planned to end Chiang’s marriage. “No one,” Ai-Ling said later, “ was as clever as May-ling Soong.”

on the return from Chiang Kai-Shek's kidnapping, 1936

Ai-Ling demanded that Chiang Kai-Shek sent his wife Jennie away. Chiang mused on how to accomplish this and began referring to May-ling as his “third brother” in his private writings. Eventually, he settled on the idea of telling Jennie he would send her to America for seven years while he married May-ling for "political purposes." To his amazement, Jennie actually bought this story, and so did his wife's mother, who commented, “Oh my dear daughter, you are such a good wife.”

Jennie sailed for San Francisco on board the SS President Jackson. By the time she had crossed the Pacific, she was able to read for herself that Chiang was denying she was his wife at all. The Times wrote that “political enemies are blamed by Chiang Kai-shek for what he denounces as false reports concerning the young woman now in the United States who is said to be his wife.” Jennie went to the edge of the Hudson River to throw herself in, but could not bring herself to do it. 

May-ling on her wedding day

May-ling and Chiang were married during a public ceremony at the Majestic Hotel attended by 1300. A small Christian moment had preceded the traditional Chinese wedding. "When I saw my beloved wife slowly walking in just like a floating cloud in the glow of evening, I experience such an unprecedented feeling of love that I hardly knew where I was," Chiang later wrote.

The next day he reported, "Today I stayed at home, holding my beloved wife and chatting together. At that moment I realized nothing can compare with the happiness of being newly married."

Two months later, May-ling wrote, "I have been married almost two months, and just as I started this letter to you, again the question flashed across my mind whether marriage has made any difference to me." She explained it this way: "I do not think that marriage should erase or absorb one's individuality."

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She is a writer living in Los Angeles.

"Anatomic" - Opus Orange (mp3)


In Which We Recommend You Take A Job Typing



Manny Streisand was her father, known in Flatbush as the instructor of troubled men at the Brooklyn High School for Specialty Trades. The E. 7th street tenement he was born into charged a rent of $15 a month. Heading into Manhattan for the only honeymoon he could afford, Manny Streisand banged his head against the windshield when the car in front of him stopped short. Five years later, he began to suffer the first of many seizures. On August 4th, 1943, he was dead.

His daughter Barbara was almost a year and a half. She was not yet Barbra, she was still Barbara. She did not cry as a child, despite the fact that her grandfather was a malicious tyrant. Her mother Diane, unable to cope with her husband's early passing, was keen to drop the girl off with a caretaker whenever she could.

When she was old enough for school, she was old enough to experience its displeasure. Her peers called her Big Beak and drew attention to her lazy left eye. The Yiddish word for an ungainly misfit was "mieskeit," and everyone knew that was her.

Her mother was attractive enough to find a second husband, and young Barbara did not care for her suitors. Barbara tried to turn them away like Penelope. When these strange men kissed her mother, Barbara thought they were trying to take Diane from her.

A neighbor in her Brooklyn building knit the young girl a sweater to wrap around her only toy: a hot water bottle. Her mother became concerned by Barbara's lack of interest in eating. The only time she paid attention to the girl was when she was force-feeding her something or other, possibly a knish.

She sang for the first time at the age of seven. She rushed breathlessly into her mother's embrace afterwards, eager for her approval. Her mother told her, "Your arms are too thin."

Her mother found another man, one in the garment business. He impregnated her but refused to get married for some time. Diane Streisand moved into a one-bedroom on the corner of Nostrand Avenue. The rent was $105 per month.

Barbara's new father Louis Kind hated her, would criticize her clothes in front of her friends, brought no money to the family, beat his new wife. When one of her friends asked why Kind owned a different last name, she told the girl, "Oh, he uses that name for business."

On the plus side, her new father possessed the only television set she had ever had. She imitated everything she saw, showing her mother the correct way to hold a cigarette for the first time at the age of ten. Lucille Ball was generally regarded as the best.

Her first band in elementary school was Bobbie and the Bernsteins. She was Bobbie, backed by twin sisters, her closest friends at school. She never invited them over to her house out of fear. One of her classmates told her, "Barbara, please don't sing anymore."

For her fourteenth birthday, her mother nixed the idea of going to see My Fair Lady. Instead, her and her friend Anita Sussman saw The Diary of Anne Frank. At first she cried at the bracing similarities of her own existence, but afterwards it occurred to her as if there had never been a question: that part was made for her.

With her family in tatters, she sought a second home and found it in Jimmy and Muriel Choy, a Chinese couple who owned a restaurant on Nostrand Avenue. Kosher food had the disadvantage of being associated with her awful parents; Chinese food meant magnificent life in comparison. She schlepped from table to table as a waitress, the only Jewish one they had.

High school was a different matter. Her desire to perform became a singular force of will, the only one she required. She had never been identified as gifted in school, but a mandatory IQ test quickly revealed the truth. With a quotient of 124, she was quickly shuttled into the honors classes. Still, she did not fit in with the smart students, and she ate alone. One teacher called her "self-centered."

Sex was taboo in her home. Information had to be attained through other avenues. She asked Muriel Choy whether the man was always on top during intercourse. Muriel responded, "Not necessarily."

Her first romance was with the best-looking guy in her theater troupe. She had always been considered the ugliest girl in school. He did more than admit she wasn't: he told her she was attractive, the first person who had ever done so. Her second boyfriend was a black guy named Teddy. People were absolutely flabbergasted.

The pace of things began to pick up, even if the world wasn't exactly to her liking. She auditioned for Otto Preminger's cinematic version of the Joan of Arc story, Saint Joan. They chose a gentile. Her mother separated from her abusive stepfather and had to sue for a measly $37 a week. To make ends meet, her mother sold undergarments in her building's laundry room and asked her daughter to steal milk bottles from where they sat outside their neighbor's doors.

A theater near her home would play Italian films. She did not understand the language. When Jerry Lewis movies filled the theater, she imitated him in the lobby for other patrons. Her mother let her use their college savings ($150) to fund an apprenticeship at an upstate New York playhouse. Her first part was as a Japanese child leading a goat, and the role meant she had to clean up the animal's droppings after every performance.

She continued to lie about her age, hoping she would be accepted into a year-round program at the Cherry Lane Theater in Greenwich Village. Her mother trashed the clothes that her theater friends gave her out of kindness, and accused them of enslaving her daughter. She adopted a new style: skirt, stockings, shoes, leather bag, all blacker than black.

Some time later on, in her aspiring actress days, another student spotted Barbara and took notice. James Spada's 1995 biography of Barbra, Streisand: Her Life, has him remembering his first vision of the girl: "I remember this funny-looking girl on the stage sitting cross-legged...she had a very small part, she didn't have many lines. But boy, by some magic wave of her wand she was making everybody look at her," Dustin Hoffman said. "Did you ever see those pictures of a mother bird with the worm and there's a bunch of baby birds with their mouths open? Somehow there's one that's straining more than any other to get that worm from their mother. That would be Barbra."

She met Warren Beatty, five years her elder. She rejected him for the moment, put off by his strategy of chasing every tail he saw. Her own early rejections were brutal one casting agent wrote over her photo, "Talented. Who needs another Jewish broad?" When she invited her mother to watch her perform a particularly moving scene in acting class, her mother told her to give up and take a typing job.

Until then, her name had been Barbara. But she decided that there were a million Barbaras, and if she removed the 'a', only one Barbra.

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

with Sydney Pollack and Robert Redford

"Fight or Flight" - Sonya Kitchell (mp3)

"Lucifer" - Sonya Kitchell (mp3)


In Which Descartes Operated From A Singular Angle

More Than One


René Descartes never knew how his mother died. If he did, might he have loved women?

It was in childbirth, when he was fourteen months old. Henry IV was in the 12th year of his reign. Henry's idea was to create the best school in the entire country, called La Flèche, to educate France's brightest citizens. In 1606 Descartes arrived at the age of ten, a mere pupil in a class of 1200.

René's instructors were the Jesuits, and a father there by the name of Charlet took an interest in the smartest boy at La Flèche. Descartes was afforded his own room — he did not have to sleep in the dormitory with the other children. He was afforded special dispensation to stay in bed until noon, and it was there he did much of his work.

Many of La Flèche's faculty had joined the Jesuits for the academic freedom they offered. Science was an open subject and the latest theories were discussed. In the school's library, René found books of the occult. At La Flèche he learned Greek and Latin. It was Seneca, the great Roman philosopher, who interested René most. Math gradually began to occupy the majority of the boy's time.

In 1610, King Henry IV was stabbed to death. The King's heart was excavated from his body and moved to the school, where it was buried in a ceremony by René and twenty-four other students. The entire campus draped itself in the black of mourning; candles lined the hallways. Father Charlet gave the eulogy in Latin.

The year before, Galileo produced his first telescope. Stores in Paris sold them later that summer. "If you had a year or two to equip yourself with everything necessary," René wrote to an artisan friend, "I would wager that we'll see if there are animals on the moon."

At first René harbored a deep respect for the Jesuits who taught him so many different subjects. Eventually, he grew disillusioned. Half the time after he imbibed a particular lesson, he would learn later that the salient facts of the discipline were in fact wrong. "It seemed to me in trying to educate myself," Descartes wrote, "I had done nothing more than discover my own ignorance at every turn."

A short sojourn in law school was the end of his formal education. After leaving La Flèche, gambling appealed to him immediately. He could manage complex calcuations in his head, so understanding the odds was nor problem. He earned a law degree because it was what his father wanted.

René could not muster any interest in the women of Paris. He was more at ease with his scientist friends, but never quite comfotable with anyone. He was done with the city, so he went to Holland to join the army. A year of not fighting later, he left to join the other side, a sort of military tourist.

When diplomacy halted the conflict, René rented a heated room on the Danube in the city of Ulm. He stopped drinking his customary wine and tried to remember his dreams, which became evil, disturbed. Scholars later puzzled over the extensive descriptions of these nighttime sojourns. They were even presented to Freud, who did not think much of them on a symbolic level.

His visions caused Descartes to leave the army and continue to travel. In 1622 he returned home to sell the portion of his mother's estate to which he was entitled. His father wanted him to find a wife, but this was the last thing on his mind. "His own experience — not to say his refinement of taste — led him to declare that a beautiful woman, a good book, a perfect preacher, were all the things in the world most difficult to find."

His friends in Paris were Balzac and other scientists like Claude Hardy and Claude Mydorge. He moved to Holland, where he planned to finish his first book, the Discourse. Before completion, René found out that Galileo's Dialogue on the Two Chief Systems was banned by the Catholic Church.

René was furious and reconsidered publishing the fruits of his labors. "I cannot imagine that an Italian, and especially one well thought of by the Pope from what I have heard, could have been labeled a criminal for nothing other than wanting to establish the movement of the earth." He published Discourse anyway, and it was a sensation. Not only did it attack much of how scientific thought operated, the text had Galileo in its sights as well. "It seems to me," René wrote, "that he lacks a great deal in that he is continually digressing, and never stops to explain one topic completely, which demonstrates that he had not examined them in an orderly fashion."

During this time Descartes managed his first and only recorded romance. She was a servant girl of 24 in the house of his friend Thomas Seargent in Amsterdam. Helen was literate and somewhat beautiful, so they conceived a child. Because she was Protestant and he was ashamed, there was no talk of marriage. He moved her to Deventer where she gave birth to his only spawn, a girl named Francine.

René referred to Francine as his niece and never mentioned his daughter or the woman who bore her to anyone who might talk. He set up a situation where Helen and Francine could stay with him when he received no visitors. He began to worry about his physical health for the first time, turning his attention to the study of medicine. 

When Francine hit five, he planned to send her to France for school. Instead she died suddenly from scarlet fever, her face covered in purple bruises, with her father hundreds of miles away. The year 1640 also recorded the death of Descartes' father and his sister Jeanne. "I am not one of those who believes that tears and sadness belong only to women," he remarked. He published a lot more before dying of pneumonia while he was tutoring the young Queen of Sweden.

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording.

"The Other Side of Love" - Jack Savoretti (mp3)

"Nobody 'Cept You" - Jack Savoretti (mp3)

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