Publicity photo of Dimples Cooper shot by the Jose Reyes Studio, Los Angeles
Culture Spotlight

The colorful life and tragic end of the Pinay showgirl who stole MacArthur's heart

She was a vod-a-vil showgirl and the star of the first Filipino film that featured a kissing scene—but General Douglas MacArthur, one of the most powerful men of his time, would fall for Dimples Cooper and keep the actress like his concubine, far from the prying eyes of his mother and the rest of the world 
Isidra Reyes | Aug 11 2019

Featured this month at the Archivo 1984 Gallery and in cooperation with Koenig & Clinton Gallery, New York, is Miljohn Ruperto’s multimedia show and photography exhibit on Isabel Rosario Cooper. The show spotlights the minor-role actress and puts her at the center of the show, giving her the elusive protagonist role. Artist Miljohn Ruperto does this by compiling all of the actress’ appearances as an extra and showing specifically these parts in 16mm film, preserving the spirit of the early years of cinematic experience, and giving us rare glimpses into the colorful, tragic life of Ms Cooper.

 

Isabel Rosario Cooper, better known by her stage name “Dimples Cooper,” was for most of her life, one of the most fascinating and mysterious femmes fatale in Philippine history, the Jezebel who seduced General Douglas MacArthur, one of the most powerful men of his time. She was the woman MacArthur would jeopardize his presidential ambitions for, and he would draw the ire of his mother by carrying on a passionate love affair with Cooper—an affair documented in a stash of love letters and cablegrams which, according to Stanley Karnow’s In Our Image, “bear the imprint of an impassioned schoolboy.” 

Portrait of General Douglas MacArthur, 1930 taken in Washington, D.C. when he was appointed the youngest Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army at age fifty. Colorized photo, marinamaral.com

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Not much is known of Cooper’s early life. Said to have been born Isabel Rosario Cooper in Manila on January 15, 1914, no birth record for such a name born on that date has been found. What was discovered through an online genealogical site was the Certificate of Birth of a nameless female baby born on 23 August 1912 at the family home in 347 Madrid St., San Nicolas, Manila to Isaac J. Cooper, a fireman born in Wisconsin, U.S.A. (St. Louis, Missouri in other records) and his wife, Protacia Rubin, an 18-year old housewife born in Nagcarlan, Laguna. Further accounts state that her father was an American of Scottish descent and her mother, a Filipino.

Portrait of Dimple’s Cooper, Vod-a-Vil Star, circa 1920s, dressed as a “flapper.” Source:Alex del Rosario Castro.

At a young age, Dimples entered show business and became a vod-a-vil star. Together with Katy de la Cruz, the sultry Vitang Escobar, Mary Walter and a few other ladies, the kittenish Dimples lit up the stage of the old Rivoli Theater at Plaza Santa Cruz nightly with their star-studded “Varieties Company.” Their act featured hula-hula dance numbers, comedy skits, songs, and repartee which, together with jazz music, served as amusements in between the screenings of silent films. 

But the advent of the talkies in the latter part of the 1920s saw the fading out of silent movies and with it the decline of the vod-a-vil. Vod-a-vil no longer had the fizz and sparkle it had in its heyday and some of its brightest and most beautiful luminaries had crossed over to the silver screen.  

Varieties Company showgirls of the old Rivoli Theater where Dimples Cooper performed in Vod-a-Vil shows: Nena Warsaw, Carmencita Llopiz, Lolita Vidal, and Katy de la Cruz. Source: Philippines Free Press, 24 March 1951.

In 1925, Dimples Cooper made her very first movie. Entitled, Miracles of Love, the Malayan Movies production helmed by the Hollywood-trained director Vicente Salumbides starred the director himself as a young doctor who falls in love with the picture of a beautiful girl—played by Dimples—on a magazine cover. According to the CCP Encyclopedia of Art, 2nd ed., “Miracles of Love" is remarkable as one of the early films that used the Hollywood techniques such as the close-up, the cutback, and parallel editing, which Salumbides introduced in (Filipino) silent pictures in the 1920s. The movie was a box office success and was endorsed by no less than Bishop Gregorio Aglipay.  

The Rivoli Theater in Plaza Santa Cruz, Manila where Dimples Cooper appeared in Vod-a-Vil shows in the 1920s. Source: Manila Nostalgia

 

Oh what a kiss

Dimples, however, would gain cinematic immortality for Jose Nepomuceno’s "Tatlong Hambog" (1926), a silent romantic comedy, which featured the first kissing scene in Philippine Cinema. Perhaps inspired by the passionate, open-mouth kiss of real and reel-life lovers, Greta Garbo and Gilbert Roland in "The Flesh and the Devil," which opened the same year as "Tatlong Hambog," Cooper and her partner, Luis Tuason, engaged in a passionate kiss in the Nepomuceno project. The hunky Tuason, said to have been a nationally ranked boxer, recalled in an interview published in Modern Romances & True Confessions, that it took three months for Nepomuceno to plan the execution of the kissing scene, filmed amidst the ruins of the old Guadalupe Church and Monastery in San Pedro Macati. Previously, when the story called for such a scene, Filipino directors would usually simulate the act by shooting from behind the actors, or by fading out the lights before the actors’ lips would lock into a kiss. So celebrated was the said kissing scene that Luis Nolasco devoted an entire article on the subject, published in Excelsior in 1930 entitled, “La Historia del Primer Beso de Cine en Filipinas.” 

Elizabeth “Dimples” Cooper and Luis Tuason in the first passionate mouth-to-mouth in Jose Nepomuceno’s Tatlong Hambog (1926), Source: PIC, The Ultimate Magazine

In the same year, actor-producer-director Vicente Salumbides filmed Fate or Consequence which once again featured Cooper as one of the leads in a star-studded cast. The film appears to be the actress’s last appearance in Philippine Cinema. Cooper wrapped up her movie career in Manila and tried her luck as a showgirl in Shanghai—just like the beautiful Miami Salvador, showman Lou Salvador’s sister, who had likewise appeared in movies and made her mark dancing the hula-hula in the nightclubs of Shanghai. The showgirl, for a time, was also said to have been involved with the “General” as recounted by her daughter, the actress, Neil Adams McQueen, in her autobiography, My Husband, My Friend.      

 

Game of the General 

When Cooper met the “General” at the Olympic Boxing Stadium in 1930, she had just returned to Manila from abroad and was the very embodiment of the flapper popularized in the satirical cartoons of John Held, Jr.: “sporting a boyish bob of the era, flat-chested, skinny-legged, with a gawky amble, wearing brief tight skirts, and speaking baby talk.” The writer Petillo described Cooper as “short and delicate and...very beautiful.” 

The “General” was General Douglas MacArthur, who was on a two-year assignment in the Philippines as U.S. Commander of the entire archipelago and would shortly be appointed U.S. Army Chief of Staff in 1930 by President Herbert Hoover. The five-star General was then 50 years old and Cooper 16 (or 18, depending on the source). Soon after their first meeting, “she was seeing MacArthur regularly. Often his chauffeured car would appear at Isabel’s home on Herron [sic, should be Herran, now Pedro Gil] Street in the Paco district of Manila. The General would alight, enter and spend an hour or so with the young lady. Sometimes they would share a drink she laughingly called ‘the Douglas,’ made of crushed mangoes, Spanish brandy, and crushed ice. He saw her frequently, and the relationship was not for long a secret from Manila gossips. MacArthur did not seem to mind. Nonetheless, his friendship with Isabel complicated his life.”

Gen. & Mrs. Douglas MacArthur with their Manila-born only son, Arthur, on their return to Manila in 1950. Source: en.wikipedia.org

Five months before leaving Manila for his new post as U.S. Army Chief of Staff, he was officially in a relationship with Cooper, who was variously referred to as his “mistress” or “concubine,” despite the fact that MacArthur was already divorced from his first wife, the socialite Henriette Louise Cromwell Brooks. While in Manila, MacArthur did not seem to have been particularly worried about the gossip that floated around town about himself and the beautiful star. His Filipino friends, after all, kept queridas and Americans attached no opprobrium to native mistresses as long as the line was drawn at intermarriage. 

Analyzing MacArthur’s attraction to Isabel, the writer Petillo wrote: “Isabel, small, soft-spoken, and of another race, offered no threat to his masculinity. More importantly, her somewhat checkered past categorized her in his mind in an entirely different light from his mother and his former wife. Perhaps with her he achieved the sexual success that had escaped him for so long. Certainly, her presence became very important to him—so important that he risked a great deal to insure her companionship back in the States.”

But what Mac Arthur was worried about foremost was how his mother, Pinky, would react to his having an affair with a Filipina, and a showgirl at that. Carol Petillo in "Douglas MacArthur, The Philippine Years," made the following analysis: “Deeply imbued with Victorian values, and perhaps additionally confused in his sexual identity because of his intense and complex relationship with his mother, (he) seemed unable to relate successfully to women in his own world. His choice of profession, and his preference for service in the colonial empire may have partially reflected a rejection of that world, and particularly the proper women who peopled it.”

When he finally decided to accept the appointment as U.S. Army Chief of Staff, MacArthur presented Isabel with a jade and diamond ring. As recounted in William Manchester’s American Caesar, “Isabel and the General parted on the Manila dock with the understanding that she would follow him to California within a month."  After his crossing, she seemed to have hesitated, and decided to join him only after he had sent her a heartrending cable from San Francisco signed ‘Daddy.’ 

 

Letters from ‘Daddy’

Referring to the correspondence between the General and Isabel at the time, Petillo in Douglas MacArthur, The Philippine Years, noted that “MacArthur seemed fearful that Isabel would not follow him to the States, and spent a great deal of space urging that she prepare with care and allow nothing to interfere with her departure. Between the lines of passionate prose, there was an underlying insecurity--certainly not unusual in May-December affairs…Another measure of the depth of his involvement with Isabel can be seen in his lack of caution in his letters...though he was careful not to be too specific, he nevertheless signed one of his letters with his first name and urged her to wire him at 9th Corps Headquarters in San Francisco if anything went wrong.” A letter from ‘Daddy’ to Dimples indicated that he would meet her at 3 p.m. docking on  9 December 1930 at Pier 9 Jersey City.

In  Washington, D.C., Daddy established her in a Seventeenth Street apartment, then at a suite at the Hotel Chastleton, an imposing Gothic Revival Style building near his office at the State, War, and Navy Building. He provided her with a poodle and an enormous wardrobe of tea gowns, kimonos, and black-lace lingerie. There were few street clothes, because he saw no reason why she would go outdoors. He wanted her always there for him. Like many another lover, he had put his paramour on a pedestal and expected her never to leave it.” However, as pointed out in the book, "Cinema of the Philippines," “the General’s expectation that she would pass the time alone in her apartment awaiting his every visit proved unrealistic, especially for one so beautiful and used to attention.”

He provided her with a poodle and an enormous wardrobe of tea gowns, kimonos, and black-lace lingerie. There were few street clothes, because he saw no reason why she would go outdoors. 

Dorothy Detzer, a Washington lobbyist who met Cooper, recalled in the book, "American Caesar": “I thought I had never seen anything as exquisite. She was wearing a lovely, obviously expensive chiffon tea gown, and she looked as if she were carved from the most delicate opaline.  She had her hair in braids down her back.

“As Chief of Staff, MacArthur had to do a lot of travelling. He would send her postcards but she found these poor substitutes for company.  She tired of the dog and grew restless. Reluctantly, the General agreed to provide her with a chauffeured limousine. In it she prowled the night spots of Washington and Baltimore where she seduced, among others, George S. Abell, a descendant of the Baltimore Sun’s founder. She wheedled a large cash gift from MacArthur and spent it on a spree in Havana.”  

Postcard, The Chastleton Hotel, 16th Street at “R,” N.W., Washington, D.C. Source: cardcow.com

The General encouraged Cooper to enroll in school. She tried art school for a while and switched to law where she met a fellow student who promised to relieve the monotony of her situation while he paid the bills. Word of these goings-on reached MacArthur. Their ardor, as the tabloids put it, cooled. She asked him to find a job in the capital for her brother, Allen Cooper.   He refused, rudely sent her a “Help Wanted” column torn from a newspaper, and hinted that she look to her father or her brother for future support. Finally, on September 1, 1934, he ended their relationship—or thought he was ending it—by mailing her a train ticket to the West Coast and ocean liner passage to Manila. 

But Isabel had no intention of leaving Washington. She moved into a rooming house a few blocks from his office. She was job hunting when she heard that a columnist named Drew Pearson was interested in the General’s past.

As recounted in Karnow’s "In Our Image," MacArthur drew flack from the press in his handling of the infamous Bonus March incident when, in the summer of 1932, some 20,000 veterans  of WWI, mainly jobless victims of the Depression, marched to Washington to urge Congress to vote for a deferred bonus. Many came with their families and camped in empty government buildings or in flimsy huts outside the city. While most of the protesters merely needed to be heard and given compassion, MacArthur regarded them as subversives and assumed personal charge when President Hoover ordered their dispersal. Mobilizing 800 troops, he first evicted the veterans from the public buildings. Then, disregarding Hoover’s  directive to halt,  pursued them with bayonets and tear gas across the Anacostia River. As women and children fled in terror, MacArthur’s men burned their encampment of tents and shacks. But to protect his reputation, he shifted responsibility to the President whose “force and vigor” averted “a very grave situation.”

Variety Star postcard with Holiday greetings from Dimples Cooper, 1926.

Columnists Drew Pearson and Robert S. Allen, who revelled in puncturing pomposity, assailed MacArthur for his “dictatorial” handling of the situation and his dispersal of the veterans as “unwarranted, unnecessary, arbitrary, harsh, and brutal.”  

MacArthur sued Drew Pearson, Robert S. Allen, and United Features Syndicate, which owned the rights to the “Washington Merry-Go-Round Column” for libel and asked for USD 1.75-M in damages. In building their defense, the columnists received help from Mississippi Congressman Ross Collins who lived in a suite on the same floor of the apartment building as Cooper. Moreover, Pearson discovered to his delight that she had kept all of MacArthur’s syrupy and impassioned love letters to her. When Pearson’s lawyer, Morris Ernst, casually informed MacArthur’s counsel at a pre-trial hearing that they would have a certain Miss Isabel Rosario Cooper summoned as witness for the defense, MacArthur promptly withdrew the case. 

The General paid off Cooper USD 15,000 to have the letters returned to him and an equal sum to defray Pearson’s legal expenses, which cost him dearly. MacArthur could easily have defeated Pearson in court had he not feared that his mother would learn about Dimples. After all, MacArthur was a divorced man and single. Yet were those letters revealed in public, they would have damaged MacArthur’s reputation irreparably and doomed his presidential aspirations. To this day, the MacArthur Estate prohibits direct quotation from the letters (copies of which are at the University of Texas at Austin, Humanities Research Center) which reveal the schoolboy infatuation of a middle-aged man for a beauty less than half his age.

 

Two weddings 

Shortly after, MacArthur would once again leave for Manila after accepting an offer from President Manuel Quezon to serve as his military adviser. MacArthur arrived in Manila late in 1935. Six weeks later, his mother, Mary Pinkney Hardy MacArthur, passed away, emancipating him. Aboard the ship, he met Jean Marie Faircloth, a 36-year old lady from Murfreesboro, Tennessee whom he married on April 30, 1937 while on furlough in New York.  A year later, she gave birth to their son Arthur in Manila, named after his father.

Portrait of Mary Pinkney “Pinky” Hardy MacArthur, General Douglas MacArthur’s mother, looking at his portrait, circa 1925.

With USD 15,000 on hand and “Daddy” out of her life, Dimples married lawyer, Frank E. Kennemore, Jr. (or Kennamer, b.15 February 1912-d.19 April 1972, the same student she was involved with in Washington, D.C.) in 1935, lived in his native Oklahoma, opened a beauty salon, and divorced in 1942—according to U.S. Census records (which were also found online) and a newspaper announcement of their divorce cited by Cindy Fazzi in the footnotes of her book, My MacArthur. Moreover, two marriage licenses cited by Fazzi reveal that she was married twice to Fil-American bartender, Milton Moreno (born 1915 in Roseville, California to Manila-born Gabriel Moreno and Angelina Dennis), the first on June 13, 1944 and next on November 21, 1946. Apparently, the marriages ended in divorce. And there were no records found of any children born to her.

 

Hello, Hollywood

It was during her marriage to Moreno that Cooper headed for Hollywood to pursue her dreams of stardom. To promote herself, Dimples commissioned the Jose Reyes Studio in Los Angeles to shoot portraits of her in various costumes for roles she aimed to land: a demure Filipina girl in a butterfly-sleeved Filipiniana outfit; a sultry Chinese dragon lady clad in a Cheongsam; and a flirty island girl in a sarong  and lei.      

Still photo showing Dimples Cooper as a Filioina nurse in Mark Sandrich’s So Proudly We Hail(1943) starring Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, and Veronica Lake where Dimples Cooper played a Filipina nurse.

As per imdb.com, the earliest Hollywood film credited under her screen name, Dimples Cooper, was Mark Sandrich’s So Proudly We Hail(1943), starring Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, and Veronica Lake, which is about a group ofnurses returning from the war in the Philippines recalling their experiences in combat and in love. Cooper played an unbilled role as a Filipina nurse. The movie garnered four Oscar nominations. 

Next came another war movie, Lewis Milestone’s Purple Heart (1944), the story of the fate of an American bomber crew captured from the first air raid in Tokyo. The movie had Dimples Cooper in another unbilled role as a Geisha.  Yet another war movie was Cecil B. De Mille’s The Story of Dr. Wassell(1944), starring Gary Cooper and Laraine Day, where she played a secondary role as a nurse in WWII Java. Two years after, billed curiously this time as Chabing, Cooper played one of the king’s wives in John Cromwell’s Anna and the King of Siam (1946), starring Rex Harrison as the King and Irene Dunne as Anna, with fellow Filipina actress, Rosa del Rosario likewise playing one of the king’s wives. 

Farley Granger showing Dimples Cooper playing the role of a Geisha. A 20th Century Fox production.

The following year, billed again as Dimples Cooper, she played a church choir member in Elia Kazan’s Boomerang(1947), a film noir crime thriller based on a true story about a vagrant wrongly accused of the murder of a Catholic priest. The year 1947 was a busy year for the bit-roler as she appeared in three more films: as a Squaw billed as Dimples Cooper in Cecil B. De Mille’s costume epic Unconquered (1947), starring Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard, set in British Colonial America; as a native woman billed as Chabing in John Brahm’s Singapore (1947), starring Fred MacMurray as a pearl smuggler who finds his amnesiac bride, played by a young Ava Gardner, married to another man in Post-WWII Singapore; and as Lillie May Wong (billed as Chabing), the murdered Chinese princess’ maid in her first Charlie Chan movie, William Beaudine’s The Chinese Ring (1947) with Roland Winters as Charlie Chan. Henceforth billed as Chabing, she would star in another Charlie Chan movie with  the same director and star, entitled Shanghai Chest(1948), where she played a receptionist named Miss Lee.  

Screen grabs from William Beaudine’s The Chinese Ring (1947) with Chabing as Lillie May Wong, the sinister personal maid of a murdered Chinese princess. A Monogram Pictures production.

Despite being confined to bit roles, the 1950s saw her making four more movies: as a Chinese girl in Peter Godfrey’s The Great Jewel Robber (1950) starring David Brian as a master thief who targeted society homes; in an unknown role in Lawrence Raimond’s The Art of the Burlesque(1950) which starred Charlie Crafts as Prof. Stringheimer who ran a Striptease College where aspiring stripteasers were taught their craft; as a slave girl in Jacques Tourneur’s Anne of the Indies (1951), starring Jean Peters, Debra Paget, and Louis Jourdain; and her swan song, as Lolita in Leslie Selanderf’s I Was an American Spy(1951), the story of nightclub owner, Claire “High Pockets” Phillips, played by Ann Dvorak, who secretly worked as a spy for the Americans in WWII Manila.

Publicity photos of Dimples Cooper shot by the Jose Reyes Studio, Los Angeles, used by Dimples Cooper at the start of her Hollywood career as an actress.

Ironically, the Philippines Free Press published a retrospective article on Dimples “Chabing” Cooper in its March 17, 1951 issue, wistfully remembering her glory days as a showgirl on the Rivoli stage singing “Has Anybody Seen My Kitty?” with a lisp to the uproarious delight of U.S. Navy Servicemen. The report included a glamour studio portrait of a more mature Dimples and simply stated that she was in Hollywood making a picture and was now known by her screen name, Chabing.

Publicity photos of Dimples Cooper shot by the Jose Reyes Studio, Los Angeles, used by Dimples Cooper at the start of her Hollywood career as an actress.

There was a slim chance an Asian actor like Dimples Cooper/Chabing would have made it big in Early Hollywood. Even Anna May Wong, who holds a special place in film history as the first Asian American actress to become a Hollywood sensation, was limited by the Hays’ Code and California’s anti-miscegenation laws (in effect until 1948) from taking roles that involved romance with a white male lead.   Wong also suffered from the stereotyping of Asian actresses as “China Dolls” or as “Dragon Ladies.” Despite her prodigious talent as an actress, she was often relegated to playing supporting roles to white lead actresses. Even lead roles which were meant for Asians, such as the O-Lan role in The Good Earth (1937) went to  so-called “Yellow Face” white actresses like Luise Rainier who even won an Oscar Best Actress award for her performance in this movie.  

Movie still from John Cromwell’s Anna and the King of Siam (1946) showing Chabing as one of the king’s wives. A Darryl F. Zanuck production for 20th Century Fox.

At 29, Cooper was way past her prime to be a newcomer in Hollywood. Looking at her filmography, it is remarkable she was cast in relatively major productions by the likes of Cecil B. DeMille, Darryl F. Zanuck and major studios such as 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, Universal Studios, and Warner Bros. Though she was often given minor roles and was often unbilled, she was able to work with major directors such as Kazan, DeMille, John Cromwell, and Jacques Tourneur, and with major stars such as Gary Cooper, Rex Harrison, Fred MacMurray, Paulette Goddard, Linda Darnell, and Ava Gardner. It is even highly probable she used some of her MacArthur connections to help her get a crack at Hollywood.

 

Drug overdose

It is not known if Dimples ever returned to Manila. But the last time she was in the news again was on June 29, 1960, when she died at age 46 at her home at 6244 Delongpre Avenue, Los Angeles, due to “acute barbiturate intoxication” as a result of “ingestion of overdose of barbiturates.”

Her death was declared a suicide.   According to her Death Certificate, she was divorced and her death was reported by her ex-husband, Frank E. Kennamer. She was laid to rest at  Holy Cross Cemetery, a Roman Catholic cemetery in Culver City, California on July 5, 1960.  

Death Certificate of Isabel Rosario Cooper said to have been born on 15 January 1914 to Isaac Cooper and Josephine from the Philippines. She died at her home at 6244 Delongpre Avenue, Los Angeles, CA on 29 June 1960 at the age of 46 due to acute barbiturate intoxication and ingestion of overdose of Barbiturates. Her death was declared a suicide. The informant was her first husband, Frank E. Kennamer. She was interred on 5 July 1960 at Holy Cross Cemetery at Culver City, CA.

Was Dimples Cooper the blackmailing temptress she was painted to be? Or just an unfortunate victim of circumstance—whose man, though free to marry her, chose to keep her in a gilded cage like a concubine, always ready for his visits? A closer look at her storied life reveals, ultimately, that the one-time showgirl and screen actress was a child-woman whose dream of stardom ended in tragedy when she met and fell in love with a man she thought would truly love her.

 

The Isabel Rosario Cooper show opens on August 15, Thursday, at 6PM at the Archivo 1984 Gallery located at the La Fuerza Compound, Pasilio 18, 2241 Chino Roces Avenue, Makati City. For more details or inquiries, please contact [email protected] or 0906 216 2199 via SMS or Viber.