My daughter gave me a copy of The Generals by Winston Groom. It’s a special book for several reasons.
First, she got my copy autographed by the author. Mr. Groom lives in Point Clear, Alabama, adjacent to Fairhope, Alabama, where my daughter lives. Some say Fairhope was the model for Greenbow, Alabama, the fictional home of Forrest Gump—which leads me to my second reason.
Winston Groom is also the author of the novel Forrest Gump, which we all know was made into an Academy Award-winning movie starring Tom Hanks. Although the script writers took some liberties with Mr. Groom’s book, the story remains a work of art—something that can be enjoyed from many different perspectives. It’s one of my favorites.
Finally, The Generals—to get back to the book at hand—concerns three titans of World War II: George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, and George Marshall. I’ve been a student of military history all of my life, which in part explains my choice of colleges. But Mr. Groom’s book revealed a number of things about the personal lives of these three men that I didn’t know, despite having read a number of books about each of them. To be sure, there is much to learn in The Generals about their military exploits and incredible achievements, but what I found fascinating, though somewhat gossipy, was his discussion of the men behind the uniforms.
General Patton was, of course, the swashbuckling tank commander, with whom I first became enamored when my dad and I saw the movie Patton. During WWII, my dad was part of the 12th Armored Division, which was detailed to General Patton’s famous Third Army for a time. Mr. Groom’s extremely well-written book revealed some personal things about General Patton that went beyond his entanglements with the press, his colorful statements, and the infamous episode when he slapped a young soldier suffering from battle fatigue.
Shortly before graduating from West Point, Patton asked Beatrice Ayer, the daughter of a wealthy Massachusetts businessman, to marry him. In an example of the flamboyant style for which he became known, Patton asked Beatrice’s father for her hand on a Sunday morning in January 1909. He rode up the twenty-six stone steps of the Ayer mansion, riding a large white horse. Still mounted, he approached young Beatrice, who was seated on the terrace, and made the horse bow in front of her. His father-in-law-to-be later wrote to Patton, saying: “All right. You let me worry about making the money, and you worry about getting the glory.” Patton took that instruction to heart.
A few years after graduating from West Point, Patton was assigned to General Pershing, who was busy pursuing Pancho Villa along the Mexican border. At a Christmas dance at Fort Bliss in 1915, Pershing, who had recently lost his wife and children in a fire, met Patton’s twenty-nine-year-old sister, Nita, and took a fancy to the tall blonde. Despite a twenty-seven-year age difference, the two became lovers, and Pershing later asked Nita’s father for her hand in marriage. But then World War I intervened, delaying their engagement. Following the war, the now much-celebrated Pershing ended the relationship. Nonetheless, Patton’s career during WWI certainly wasn’t hurt by the fact that General of Armies John Pershing, the senior U.S. Army commander, had been—and perhaps still was—smitten with his sister.
Mr. Groom tells us that Patton also wrote poetry, composing some of it while in combat. Although he was certainly no Yeats, some of his verse is pretty good, albeit reflective of his warrior ethos:
So let us do real fighting, boring in and gouging, biting,
Let’s take a chance now that we have the ball.
Let’s forget those fine firm bases in the dreary, shell raked spaces,
Let’s shoot the works and win! Yes win it all!
Like General Pershing, Patton took his own detour from the “straight and narrow,” although in his case he was still married. While in his fifties, Patton had an affair with twenty-one-year-old Jean Gordon, the daughter of his wife’s half sister. Years later, Jean showed up again as a Red Cross worker in Paris when Patton was busy fighting battles and conquering territory in western France. He was alerted to her presence by a letter from his wife Beatrice, to which he tersely replied: “We are in the middle of a battle, so I don’t see people. So don’t worry.”
General MacArthur was no less ensnared by affairs of the heart. Surprisingly, one such affair also involved the aging General Pershing. While assigned as Superintendent of West Point in the early 1920s, MacArthur attended a fashionable party in Tuxedo Park, located south of West Point and north of New York City, where he met a Baltimore socialite and multi-millionaire heiress named Louise Cromwell Brooks. She was a divorcee with two children, though more significant than that, she had also caught the attention of General Pershing, who had been seen with her at social affairs in Washington. Nevertheless, she and MacArthur were soon married—much to the chagrin of both MacArthur’s mother, Pinky, who still doted on her son, and, of course, General Pershing, the highest ranking officer in the Army at the time. Not surprisingly, MacArthur soon found himself relieved of duty at West Point a year early and on his way to the Philippines. His marriage to Louise didn’t last; she divorced him in 1929.
At the age of fifty, MacArthur was made Chief of Staff of the Army and moved into Quarters Number 1 at Fort Myer, Virginia, with his possessive mother. Always rather eccentric about his military attire, he began wearing a Japanese kimono in his office and paced around fanning himself with an Oriental fan. And, unbeknownst to his mother, he took a mistress—a Eurasian woman in her twenties named Isabel Cooper. When the Washington Post and columnist Drew Pearson threatened to expose that relationship, MacArthur had to drop a libel suit he had filed against them as a result of their reporting on his treatment of the bonus marchers, a group of WWI veterans who had gathered in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1932 to demand immediate payment of their service certificates. Apparently, it wasn’t scandal that MacArthur feared: he didn’t want his mother to find out he had a mistress!
In 1935, MacArthur became Military Advisor to the Commonwealth Government of the Philippines and a field marshal in the Philippine Army. On his voyage to the Philippines, he met thirty-seven-year-old Jean Faircloth, the granddaughter of a captain in the Confederate Army who had fought against MacArthur’s father at the Battle of Missionary Ridge in the Civil War. They were later married and produced a son, Arthur MacArthur, who is still living, though under an assumed name. By all reports, MacArthur was a devoted father, despite his somewhat advanced age and, of course, his responsibilities during WWII. During his limited spare time, he read to young Arthur from Grimms’ Fairy Tales and other children’s books and trained him in close order drill.
General George C. Marshall, known for his superb organizational and planning abilities, especially during WWII, was much less of a ladies man than either Patton or MacArthur. During his senior year at the Virginia Military Institute, he was named First Captain (the senior cadet) and fell in love with Elizabeth Carter Coles, who lived in the shadow of the entrance to VMI. The day after passing the Army’s entrance exam in 1902, he married her and unfailingly cared for her until she succumbed to the heart ailment that had plagued her all of her life. Following her death he wrote to General Pershing: “Twenty-six years of intimate companionship, since I was a mere boy, leave me lost in my best effort to adjust myself to future prospects in life . . . However, I will find a way.” Luckily he soon found a cure for his broken heart. In 1928, while attending a dinner party in Columbus, Georgia (near his station at Fort Benning), he met Katherine Tupper Brown of Baltimore, a recent widow with three children. The two were married in 1930 and remained so, without scandal or affairs, until the general’s death in 1959.
Besides these glimpses into the private lives of three larger-than-life heroes, Mr. Groom explains the remarkable achievements of these men in their service to our country. But I must say that the personal anecdotes were something I hadn’t encountered before, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. It showed the human side of these great captains. Spend some time with The Generals. It’s well worth it.