As Japanese bombs shook Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s underground command center on the Philippine island of Corregidor in December 1941, his wife, Jean, never gave a thought to escaping to safety with their 3-year-old son Arthur. “We have drunk from the same cup,” she said at the time. “We three shall stay together.” Three months later, on President Roosevelt’s orders, MacArthur (who would soon become commander of the Allied forces in the Pacific) and his family finally fled in a PT boat, just ahead of the advancing enemy.
Once the very symbol of the loyal military spouse, Jean MacArthur, who died on Jan. 22 at the age of 101, became in later years a beloved member of high society. Ensconced on the 32nd floor of Manhattan’s elite Waldorf Towers apartments after the general’s death in 1964, she was feted by the likes of the late publisher Malcolm Forbes, who threw her a 90th-birthday party attended by Frank Sinatra, Barbara Walters and other luminaries. It was not uncommon even for Presidents as disparate as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton to seek her friendship. Yet for all the plaudits she received–including the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest award for civilian patriotic service–the vivacious widow typically responded with a self-effacing “People are so good to me.”
A symbol of white-gloved propriety and World War II-vintage patriotic devotion, Jean MacArthur was attended at her final bedside, in New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital, by her only child, Arthur, 61, an extremely private Manhattanite who years ago distanced himself from his mother and strong-willed father. “Mrs. MacArthur was a real sort of southern belle,” says her friend, columnist Liz Smith. “And very much the little woman. She certainly didn’t understand anything about women’s liberation.”
Born in Nashville in 1898 to a banker and his wife, Jean Marie Faircloth seemed destined to marry a soldier. After her parents divorced when she was 8, she and her two brothers were raised in the home of their maternal grandfather, Capt. Richard Beard, a Confederate veteran who venerated military service. A fellow member of the conservative Daughters of the American Revolution once recalled that “every time Jean Faircloth heard a Fourth of July firecracker go off, she jumped to attention and saluted.”
After graduating from Soule College in Murfreesboro, Tenn., Jean set out to see the world. It was on a 1935 trip to Asia that she met divorcé Douglas MacArthur at a shipboard party. Though 18 years her senior, the smitten officer sent her flowers the next day, and “that,” she was fond of saying, “was that.” The couple married in 1937, and Arthur was born the next year.
The new family was soon plunged into the Pacific war. “She was faithful to two objectives,” her former secretary Rosario A. Sobral told the Los Angeles Times in 1951. “To keep a quiet, smooth-running home for the general’s peace of mind and to help the troops in any way possible and their loved ones at home.” She refused to be treated with five-star deference, yet throughout her 27-year marriage to MacArthur, she always referred to him in public as “my general.” He, in turn, was fond of calling her “my finest soldier.”
After the general was relieved of command in 1951 after disagreeing with President Truman on the conduct of the war in Korea, the couple moved into the Waldorf Towers, where they sometimes entertained–though only for lunch. Their evenings were devoted to private screenings of movies. The general, naturally, favored films starring such rough-hewn actors as John Wayne and Ward Bond.
Just before her husband’s death, Jean helped to establish the Norfolk-based General Douglas MacArthur Foundation, which memorializes his career and fosters military leadership, and later the Jean MacArthur Research Center, which houses the general’s archives. Befriending notables including Prince Albert of Monaco, columnist James Brady and then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations George Bush, she exercised such passions as baseball, opera and lunches with the famous, delighting guests with her charm, wit and sense of adventure. “When I went to one of Malcolm Forbes’s hot-air balloon expeditions in 1989 in France, she was in the house party along with people like Walter Cronkite and the King of Romania,” recalls Liz Smith. “I didn’t like ballooning, and I would go out every morning and say, ‘Oh, God, I don’t think so.’ And then I see Mrs. MacArthur being helped into the balloon by Malcolm. There won’t be any more grand old ladies like her.”
Sabrina McFarland in New York City and J. Todd Foster in Washington, D.C.