Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty

Anna Chan Chennault, 1923-2018

Chennault wedding Claire Chennault was fifty-four years old when he married for the second time, to the young Chinese journalist Chan Sheng-mai, who Americanized her given name as Anna. (She also apparently altered her birth year, which for most of her life was given as 1925 and only at her death did the Washington Post ungallantly revealed that she was two years older. In a comical counterpoint, Chennault for most of his life was two years younger than his stated age.)

The daughter of a Chinese diplomat, Anna as a high-school student in 1941 found herself in Hong Kong as the effective head of her family, her mother having died and her father out of touch in Mexico. Anna and her five sisters fled to Guilin to escape the Japanese occupation. Though they lived in poverty during the war years, Anna managed to graduate in 1944 from Canton Christian College, which likewise had relocated to "free China." Meanwhile, an older sister had become a nurse for the 14th Air Force Flying Tigers in Kunming, and through this connection Anna met General Chennault and interviewed him as a correspondent for the Central News Agency. Two years later, he divorced Nellie Chennault, the mother of his eight children, and a year after that he married the young journalist, who in time would give him two more daughters.

Inevitably, Anna Chennault became a young widow, and she proceeded to reinvent herself as an American, a prolific writer (including books about Chennault and the Flying Tigers), a Washington lobbyist (I met her in 1986 at the K Street address that once belonged to the New Deal fixer Tommy Corcoran), anti-Communist, society hostess, and Republican party stalwart who was accused of helping sabotage the Paris peace talks until Richard Nixon replaced Lyndon Johnson as the president in charge of the Vietnam War. Despite all that, Anna went to Beijing in 1981 as an unofficial emissary of the incoming President Reagan, and she seems to have enabled Taipei and Bejing to moderate their hostility. Indeed, it seems that Anna's last profession was as an expeditor of trade between Taiwan and the People's Republic, and between the PRC and the United States. She died at the end of March 2018, at the age of 94, at what was identified as "her home in Washington DC." That used to be the famous Watergate apartments, but I don't know if that was still true in 2018.

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