• History Skews Male: Looking at Anna May Wong’s Life Through the Eyes of a Woman

    Katie Gee Salisbury on Writing a Biography of the Iconic Chinese American Movie Star

    I revered the written word as a young reader. But that reverence sometimes led me to be overly trusting. For a long time, I took for granted that if something was written in a book, it must be true.

    Books, though, are just as fallible as the authors who write them. Which I learned early on in the process of writing my own first book, Not Your China Doll: The Wild and Shimmering Life of Anna May Wong.

    I was, admittedly, an unwitting biographer. The word “biography” felt like  the domain of presidents and war heroes, inventors and businessmen, philosophers and spiritual leaders—all of whom are usually, predictably men. Similarly, the title of “biographer” conjured up the names of “serious” historians like Robert Caro, Jon Meacham, and Walter Isaacson, authors whose tomes tend to live on the NYT bestsellers list for years at a time.

    The truth is, the majority of biographies are written by men, about men, for men. In 2016, Slate conducted an independent survey of 614 trade books published in 2015. Of the books categorized as biographies, more than two-thirds were written by men.

    Of course, it’s one thing to survey the marketplace and acknowledge the dearth of female voices in genres like history and biography. It’s another entirely to understand in practical terms how the absence of female perspectives affects the way history is told, to recognize the threads that go unexplored or are never thought of in the first place.

    I laughed knowingly when I read the Preface and Introduction to Alexis Coe’s best-selling biography of George Washington, You Never Forget Your First. She comes right out and says what the rest of us women biographers have long been thinking: history suffers from “a certain male skew.” She cites the strange obsessions of her subject’s male biographers. They wax poetic over Washington’s manliness, his stonelike countenance, and most of all his “muscular thighs.”

    Coe aptly names these types of Washington biographers “the Thigh Men.” In their “repetitive insistence on Washington’s conspicuous masculinity,” they ignore other important sources of information and parrot stories that are easily debunked, like the old folk tale about Washington having wooden teeth—which Coe handily disproves.

    Men dominating the field of biography is nothing new. Think of how the world of presidential biographies was cracked open and then set on fire by Annette Gordon-Reed’s groundbreaking book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, in 1997. Her biography offers a convincing argument on all the ways that previous historians denied and dismissed evidence of the affair between the third U.S. president and an enslaved woman.

    “When I started writing I wasn’t sure of the truth about Tom and Sally,” Gordon-Reed later explained in an interview for The Paris Review. “But I was a hundred percent certain that the scholars’ use of evidence was awful. . . . [my] book is really about the way historians handled the story.”

    Like Alexis Coe and Annette Gordon-Reed, I was surprised by what I found when I started looking into the sources and interpretations of Anna May Wong’s previous biographers. They seemed to be inordinately concerned with her sexuality, the alcoholism of her later years, and the fact that she never married. These details were inevitably arranged to establish Wong as a tragic figure, a narrative I have resisted.

    As a mixed race Chinese American woman, I saw Wong as a beacon—a symbol of my heritage as well as the struggles my family experienced immigrating to the U.S. several generations before. When I set out to chronicle Wong’s life, I did so with the desire to reclaim her story for Asian American women, for readers like me.

    While I’m not the first woman to write about her—Karen J. Leong, Shirley J. Lim, and Yiman Wang have all made worthy contributions to the study of Wong’s life and career—my perspective as a woman undoubtedly assisted me in debunking unfounded rumors, discovering previously overlooked primary sources, and connecting with Wong’s family and other female researchers.

    A woman biographer is no less flawed than a male one, but the difference in how we tell the story can change dramatically based on our inherent biases.

    The most enduring rumor about Anna May Wong’s personal life, which nearly every previous biographer has been only too happy to lean into, is that she and Marlene Dietrich, a notorious libertine, were once paramours. The bulk of the speculation around Wong and Dietrich arises from a handful of photographs, including publicity stills to promote Shanghai Express, the only film they appeared in together. If I had a nickel for every rumored love affair stemming from an innocent picture of Wong and another famous personality, well, you get my drift.

    That said, one of the photos in question deserved a closer examination. It was a rather delicious snapshot in time, an image that continues to titillate viewers even today: Anna May Wong at the Reimann Art School Ball in Berlin, February 1930, flanked on either side by Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl respectively. One biographer speculated, based solely on the visible chemistry between them, that the three women were entangled in a ménage à trois. The thought never failed to induce an eye roll and exasperated laugh. How many women have become the object of a man’s erotic lesbian fantasy?

    Other outtakes from that evening showed the women carousing, having a few laughs. In one, Wong playfully placed Dietrich’s dainty pipe back in her mouth. In my view, they’re just three twentysomething women at a jazz age party. If something more than good-natured female comradeship was afoot in this image, I expected I would find evidence of it. The newspaper and magazine archives I searched, in both English and German, did not yield any clippings that pinned Dietrich and Wong together in social settings or otherwise. When I went to check the sources cited by Wong’s previous biographers, the chain of references read like a bad game of telephone. The citations all led to dead ends: other books whose authors provided no citations whatsoever.

    Though her interest in women was well known in Hollywood, Dietrich never publicly disclosed her extramarital affairs, sapphic or otherwise. Still, it didn’t keep her from mentioning some of these dear “friendships” in her 1987 memoir. She makes no mention of Anna May Wong—a glaring omission—and seems to skirt discussion of Shanghai Express, one of her best films, altogether. So much for friendship?

    By that time, the tables had turned in the dynamic between the two actresses. In Europe, Wong had been the American movie star, Dietrich the wannabe. But now that Dietrich had been “discovered” by Josef von Sternberg and, on the strength of his word alone (or perhaps it would be more accurate to call it his sexual obsession?), brought to Hollywood on a plum contract with Paramount Pictures. She was living large in a Beverly Hills home, a gray Rolls Royce with a chauffeur at her service, and $10,000 deposited into her new checking account, without any of her films ever being seen in the U.S. Meanwhile, Wong had been demoted to supporting actress.

    The only witness to their relationship was Maria Riva, Dietrich’s daughter who accompanied her mother to the set as a 7-year-old. Riva later wrote a tell-all biography of her mother’s life, including detailed accounts of her many affairs with men and women. I decided to ask the one person still alive who would actually know whether such an allegation had any weight to it. Riva, who I contacted through her son via email, was in her 90s when I put the question to her. What did she think of the rumors that her mother and Anna May Wong had an affair?

    “Absolute nonsense. Pals, yes. Lovers? No. Intimate friends in the sense they talked as young women do,” Riva wrote back.

    That settled it for me. Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich were not lovers. Everything in my research suggested they were hardly even friends—merely friendly. Two exoticized actresses competing for the same femme fatale roles do not make a romantic pair. But rather, professional rivals. Case in point: Dietrich invited a friend to watch an early cut of Shanghai Express with her, but when he praised Wong’s acting, the screening room “grew distinctly chilly after that.”

    Spending five years immersed in Anna May Wong’s world, I’ve learned some important lessons about writing biography.

    Then there was the photograph of Wong and another reputed lover. In the summer of 1936 while on her sojourn in China, the actress rented a traditional Chinese home in one of Beijing’s charming hutong neighborhoods. There, she became fast friends with fellow American Frank Dorn, known as “Pinkie” by his intimates. Dorn was a West Point graduate stationed in Beijing as a U.S. military attaché and studying Mandarin Chinese. He later served as the right hand man of General Joseph Warren Stilwell in the China Burma India Theater during WWII.

    I’d heard theories of a romantic affair between Dorn and Wong suggested on the internet, but I never gave them much credence until I read Yunte Huang’s biography of Wong, Daughter of the Dragon. Not only does Huang appear to confirm their relationship, but he also details Dorn’s influence over Wong’s stay in Beijing, stating that Dorn helped Wong secure her rental house, that they rode around in his Studebaker, enjoyed nightcaps at the Grand Hotel, went antiquing on Morrison Street, etc.

    “When they tired of fooling around,” Huang writes, “Anna May and Pinkie could simply kick back and relax in their courtyards, enjoying the quiet hu-tong (alley) life.”

    This piqued my interest. I flipped to Huang’s citations and saw a military biography of Frank Dorn written by Alfred Emile Cornbise listed. In a matter of minutes, I had downloaded the book to my iPad and typed “Anna May Wong” into the search bar. Nothing came up. Thinking this must be a mistake, I scanned the book until I found the section Huang was clearly referencing. All the activities were the same, except there was no Anna May Wong. How could that be? Did Huang surmise their fling based solely on their photograph together?

    Perplexed, I hired a research assistant to review and scan the appropriate sections of Dorn’s 900+-page autobiography at Stanford’s Hoover Institution Library. The pages that came back were astonishing. Dorn writes in a frank and chatty manner, including gossipy bits about all the well-known personalities in Beijing’s expat community. He devotes a page to Wong. Dorn calls her a friend, not a lover, but goes on to describe her hold over the male sex: “Attractive and enveloped in the aura of Hollywood, men hovered around her wherever she went.”

    In fact, it’s not his own affair with her that he describes, but those of several other smitten men. “A young Britisher wanted to marry her, but she turned him down because she did not want to bring ‘half-breed’ children into the world,” he noted. “But that busted romance in no way stopped her from a sizzling fling with Robert Faure, a French Embassy attaché . . . . Its searing heat singed the beach tents at Peitaho resort, at Tientsin and way points. But by the end of the summer, l’affaire Faure had petered out to cold ashes.”

    If it hadn’t been for my exhaustive, leave-no-stone-unturned mentality, I might have missed the lone reference that points to what really happened.

    Is it possible that Dorn had an affair with Wong and didn’t mention it? Possible, but not probable. What’s more, this juicy piece of gossip reveals how men worshiped at Wong’s feet. She had them wrapped around her well-manicured finger. That she remained single her entire life was clearly a choice, not an unwanted circumstance thrust upon her, dispelling any lingering assumptions that she’d been doomed to spinsterdom by her race and fame. Wong, after all, was a woman before her time. To continue to judge her by outmoded standards that delineate single women as sad, old spinsters, while their male counterparts remain happy and untethered bachelors, is a grave disservice. It only adds to the aura of tragedy that Wong has been shrouded in for too long.

    Another occasion where my feminine instincts aided me (and just to be clear, these instincts were learned from years of socialization as a woman and not as a result of biology) was in parsing the confusion around Anna May Wong’s involvement, or lack thereof, in MGM’s epic 1937 film about Chinese farmers, The Good Earth. Perhaps the first big budget studio film to portray the Chinese in a sympathetic light, based on the best-selling novel by Pearl S. Buck, The Good Earth seemed to many to be tailor made for Wong. She was the only Chinese American actress of note and she’d been waiting for a role like that of O-lan’s, the lead female character, her entire career.

    In spite of her efforts to lobby MGM for the role, the studiocast white actors to play the principal roles in yellowface. MGM jumped through all sorts of hoops to justify that one. Wong, they explained, could not play O-lan because Wang Lung, the lead male role, had already gone to Paul Muni and allowing two actors of different races to play husband and wife would violate the Hays Code’s ban on miscegenation, even though they would be playing two Chinese characters. In the end, MGM cast Luise Rainer, a recent German emigré, in the lead female role. She later won an Oscar for her performance.

    Now, here’s where things get interesting. As a consolation, MGM asked Wong to audition for the secondary role of Lotus, the tea house girl who seduces Wang Lung and becomes his second wife. Wong later claimed she was offered the role and rejected it, saying, “You’re asking me—with Chinese blood—to do the only unsympathetic role in a picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.” MGM neither confirmed nor denied Wong’s version of events, but casting notes from her audition suggest the studio didn’t favor her for the part. “A little disappointing as to looks,” associate producer Albert Lewin wrote. “Does not seem beautiful enough to make Wang’s infatuation convincing.”

    What she did next was legendary and set all of Hollywood humming. Wong launched her own counter-programming, announced her first trip to China, which she planned to film for newsreels and serialize in the New York Herald Tribune, and rose like a glorious phoenix from the ashes of yet another Hollywood snub. On her first stop en route to Asia, she repeated her story for a reporter at the Honolulu Advertiser. “Anna May Wong, exotic celestial veteran of the silver screen and stage, offered up a Shanghai gesture to Hollywood yesterday,” ran the lede in the front-page article the next day.

    All the papers and gossip columns were abuzz with the notion that Wong had said a very public no to one of the industry’s most powerful studios. But was it true? Had MGM actually offered her the role?

    If it hadn’t been for my exhaustive, leave-no-stone-unturned mentality, I might have missed the lone reference that points to what really happened. “For days now, regardless of the reason, we’uns wondered why ANNA MAY WONG turned down the role of Lotas [sic],” Lloyd Pantages wrote in his weekly Hollywood column. “Well, to help clarify the mystery, it wasn’t the role of Lotas she was offered after all—it was that of COO COO, Lotas’ maid.”

    With this piece of evidence in hand, it finally dawned on me. On the same day that Wong applied for Form 430, the legal document the government required from all Chinese Americans who wished to exit or reenter the country under the Chinese Exclusion Act, she wrote to her friend Fania Marinoff about her audition for The Good Earth.

    “Have made two tests for the ‘Lotus’ part. From all appearances Miss Rainer is definitely set for the part of Olan,” Wong explained. “Practically every one, including my friends, seem to feel that I should take the Lotus part ‘if there is lots of money in it.’ I am still in the same frame of mind in regards to the thing and feel a strong inclination to carry out my original plans of going to China, however we shall see.”

    Notice how Wong never says MGM has offered her the role, only that she’s considering it. She conveys her plans for China as if she is undecided, yet her arrangements to leave the country were already underway. To my mind, this was a woman who knew exactly what she was doing—making sweet, sweet lemonade out of a rotten bunch of lemons. MGM deigned to offer her a supporting role to a supporting role, the lady-in-waiting to the concubine. To take it would have been career suicide. Wong did what any shrewd woman in charge of her own destiny would do. Rather than settle for their insulting consolation prize, she found a way to get even, engineered a brilliant recovery, and took the moral high ground in one fell swoop. And it makes me love her all the more for it.

    Sometimes it takes a woman to think like a woman.

    Spending five years immersed in Anna May Wong’s world, I’ve learned some important lessons about writing biography. The first is that you can never know all there is to know about your subject. It’s an impossible task. Autobiographies, too, are imperfect specimens, colored by their authors’ emotional realities and unreliable narrator tendencies.

    The second lesson is that even when all the facts are in front of you, the biographer must interpret the evidence, breathe life and meaning into it, and ultimately, tell a story—actions that entail subjectivity. A woman biographer is no less flawed than a male one, but the difference in how we tell the story can change dramatically based on our inherent biases. As I write in the preface to my book, there’s no such thing as objectivity, and yet we still try our best to get the story straight. Not Your China Doll is my attempt to advance another way of looking at Anna May Wong’s life, through the eyes of a woman.


    Not Your China Doll: The Wild and Shimmering Life of Anna May Wong by Katie Gee Salisbury is available now via Dutton. 

    Katie Gee Salisbury
    Katie Gee Salisbury
    Katie Gee Salisbury has spoken and written about Anna May Wong on MSNBC, in the New York Times and in Vanity Fair. She also writes the newsletter Half-Caste Woman. She was a 2021 Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship finalist and gave the TED Talk “As American as Chop Suey.” A fifth-generation Chinese American from Southern California, she now lives in Brooklyn. Not Your China Doll is her first book.

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