David Frum

11.15.12

Top Ten Military Sex Scandals

By popular demand, here's the top ten list as a single post

#10: Tailhook

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Admiral Frank Kelso (L), U.S. Chief of Naval Operations and U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Carl Mundy (R) answer reporters' questions 23 April 1993 on the so-called Tailhook scandal. (JENNIFER LAW/AFP/Getty Images)

At the Las Vegas Hilton in 1991, a convention of naval aviators went even wilder than usual. Dozens of female naval personnel were harassed, groped, and assaulted. The navy high command at first shrugged off the incident, dismissing the women as "topless dancers and hookers." The attempted cover-up was quickly pierced. The Navy harshly cracked down on its former fighter-jock culture, mollifying critics by integrating women into nearly all naval combat operations.

#9: Pamela and Averell Harriman

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Pamela Harriman's whole life was pretty much one continuous sex scandal, but one chapter had special military relevance. Married to Winston Churchill's trouble-prone son Randolph, Pamela moved into Ten Downing Street when Randolph was posted to Egypt in early 1941. There she met and commenced an affair with President Roosevelt's personal envoy, Averell Harriman. Winston Churchill strongly appears to have connived in the affair as a contribution to strengthening the Anglo-American relationship in the difficult days before Pearl Harbor committed America to war.

#8: MacArthur's Eurasian Mistress

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Naval Historical Center; Photo #: USA C-2413 (Color), photograph from the Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives.

If you ever step beyond downtown Washington, you've surely passed the grand old Chastleton apartment building on Sixteenth Street. It was here that Douglas MacArthur stashed the mistress he brought home from the Philippines in 1930, a film actress named Isabel Rosario Cooper. MacArthur, legendarily fearless in battle, did not have the nerve to tell his domineering mother that there could ever be another woman in his life. The story soon leaked, and nearly wrecked MacArthur's career, not least because Isabel was a woman of mixed race. MacArthur finally detailed his aide, Dwight Eisenhower, to pay Isabel $15,000 to go away. She ended a suicide in Los Angeles in 1960.

#7: The Eulenberg Affair

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Maximilian Harden (left), journalist who reported on the homosexual relationship between Philip, Prince of Eulenburg (centre) and Kuno von Moltke (right).

It won't be easy to summarize this lurid sex scandal that drove six German officers to suicide and 20 others to court-martial in the years before 1914. The German emperor Wilhelm II had surrounded himself with a group (detractors called it a "camarilla") that was simultaneously aristocratic, military, and gay. (One of the leading figures in the group, the chief of the military secretariat, dropped dead at an all-male dinner party attended by the kaiser after he danced a ballet dressed in a tutu.)

Blackmail, lawsuits, investigations, and courts-martial against suspected homosexuals became weapons of factional court politics. Some have speculated that the kaiser's own psychic need to reaffirm his masculine identity after the scandal erupted in late 1908 drove him to the more provocative policy that ended in the First World War.

#6: The Strange Career of Georges Boulanger

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Nineteenth century French politics was a dangerously unstable business. Few caused more trouble than Georges Boulanger, a general and war minister who in 1888-89 very nearly seized dictatorial power. Boulanger however was not the stuff of which dictators are made. Vacillating and unintelligent, his actions were all guided by his mistress, Mme Bonnemain. The coup was bungled. Boulanger was convicted of treason and fled into exile. Mme Bonnemain died in 1890; Boulanger returned from exile to blow his brains out atop Mme Bonnemain's Brussels grave. Clemenceau's famous jibe at Boulanger - "He died as he lived, like a second lieutenant" - doesn't translate well into English, a language of people whose second lieutenants do not habitually shoot themselves.

#5: The Civil War Mata Hari

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This image of Rose Greenhow was scanned from the book My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule At Washington, by Rose Greenhow. London: Richard Bentley, 1863.

The Civil War gave us the word "hooker," after the women who followed the camp of the Union general who lost the battle of Chancellorsville. But perhaps the war's most famous sexploits were those of a respectable Washington matron, Rose O'Neal Greenhow, who enticed military secrets from the Union generals she entertained in her Washington DC home. Mrs. Greenhow, the widow of a State department official and the aunt of the wife of Senator Stephen A. Douglas, delivered information that Jefferson Davis credited with winning the Battle of First Bull Run for the South. It's not clear whether Mrs. Greenhow's labors for the South ever proceeded beyond flirtation and flattery.

#4: The Memoirist

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Harriet Wilson was perhaps the most famous courtesan of early 19th century London. She numbered among her clients the future Duke of Wellington, victor of the Battle of Waterloo. Later in life, she approached the duke with a proposition: if he paid up, she'd refrain from publishing her memoirs. He answered, "Publish and be damned." The memoirs remain in print to this day.

#3: Lady Hamilton

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Nothing dispels scandal like a hero's death.

The British admiral Horatio Nelson was killed in the course of winning arguably history's most decisive naval engagement at Trafalgar in 1805.

Suddenly the married Nelson's scandalous affair with the also married Emma Hamilton moved out of the tabloid sheets and into the story books. Emma was played by Vivien Leigh in the 1941 movie, "That Hamilton Woman" - and really what higher accolade can history bestow?

#2: The Assassin

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It's not true about Catherine the Great and the horse, but almost everything else they say about her is, including the fact that she became the ruler of Russia after her lover, Grigory Orlov, assassinated her husband, Czar Peter III. Orlov and other Russian aristocrats were disgusted with Peter III for granting an easy peace to Prussia's Frederick the Great, who had been on the point of total military disaster in the Seven Year War.

#1: Cleopatra's Nose

History's most famous military sex scandal turns out not to be all that sexy. Antony and Cleopatra had twins together, but the relationship seems driven as much by dynastic politics as by the passion imagined by William Shakespeare. Nor was Cleopatra really all that good-looking, as acknowledged by her disappointed contemporary biographers. Which is why we all prefer the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton version of events.